What Publishers Can Learn From The Godfather

I watched The Godfather parts 1 and 2 last week, and realized how many layers I had missed when viewing them growing up. The movies had me considering how institutions are built, and how they are destroyed. And of course, this had me considering the current climate in the publishing and media worlds.

I’ll simplify the movies as a juxtaposition between two people:

  1. Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) built and ran an empire by balancing harsh tactics with community balance. He understood that for his family to succeed, that he had to leave room for other families to succeed. He knew when to be strike and when to compromise. For instance, he didn’t seek revenge of the death of his eldest son in order to avoid an all out war.
  2. His son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) destroyed that same empire by trying to control without sharing. Again and again, Michael’s tactics are of someone who requires others to align to what he wants, or face dire consequences. This, regardless of their loyalty, their standing in the community, their bloodline or any other ramifications. Michael is quick to start an all out war between the families. This, of course, is one of many decisions that leads to his downfall.

As media companies struggle to find revenue growth and relevance in the digital world, I can’t help but thinking that there are lessons from The Godfather. Lessons that the music industry failed to recognize.

Again and again, record labels passed on opportunities, but attacked those who pursued them. They limited the ways consumers could engage with music, even as the world around them changed. As a surprising last-ditch effort, they sued fans. Not big time bootleggers, but individual fans. Instead of learning from these behaviors, they attacked the very people they needed most, the lifeblood of the music industry.

And today, the music business sits alone in the boathouse, reflecting on what could have been, had they only acted differently.

Media exists within an ecosystem, where the needs of many must be considered. That upstarts have a place in this world, and that if one institution chooses to fight them, then we all lose.

Book publishers are busy trying to figure out digital books, experimenting with digital-rights-management, trans-media, e-readers and the like. My fear is that this will become a winner-take-all scenario like the VHS and Beta battle a few decades back. (And that’s a shame, because Beta was such a better product, even though they lost the war.)

One interesting example, as usual, is Apple. They created entire economies around their products that encouraged new companies and new products to come into being. Their App Store is indicative of this – it is a new form of marketplace. Apple even designs their gadgets with tons of room for third-parties to develop accessories for them, such as iPhone cases. It’s as if Apple deliberately designs products that are easily scratched or shattered, and offers incredibly poor cases of their own, specifically so that third parties can offer “solutions” and inventive cases and accessories.

This doesn’t make Apple some kind of hippy, communal company. They are well known for their closed and controlling tactics.

I have no interest in trying to figure out who is Don Vito and who is Michael in the media world, and I don’t mean to make too much of The Godfather metaphor. It’s just a movie, and one based on a world where crime and murder is a common practice. 🙁

But, I do think it makes sense for media companies to better understand the interests, goals and behaviors of those in their entire ecosystem.