Harder by the day

What to do when all brands are publishers

In November I started to outline how the ideas in my Books in Browsers presentation, “The Opportunity in Abundance”, might be applied to the prevailing publishing supply chain.

It can be an intricate argument to make.  We’re accustomed to evolving the rules of the road in a series of “two-party, one-issue” negotiations.  The established rules, valid not that long ago, worked reasonably well in static or at least stable systems.

Now, supply-chain roles are blending, with customers starting to look like suppliers, partners and even competitors.  We’ve entered an era in which abundance, fueled by lower barriers to entry in a digital era, makes it possible for anyone to take on non-traditional activities.

These changes can feel like a gold rush or a land grab, both of which are zero-sum games.  As Eric Hellman described earlier this month, zero-sum games soon enough begin to look like wars.

That’s not the future I think we need to accept.

We’re at an actionable crossroads.  We can fight to preserve the distribution-centric model that has been in place for much of the last century, or we can examine options to shift to a publishing model that measures our success in supporting customer-valued outcomes.

In “Abundance”, I talked about repositioning publishing as the “engine of the engagement economy”.  In my earlier post, I linked that back to something John Battelle had first posted in 2006, five of what he called “the golden rules of publishing”.  These included:

- Conversation over dictation
- Platform over distribution
- Service over product
- Iteration over perfection, and
- Engagement over consumption

As I noted in November, Battelle adds to the original five with new, uncomfortable sixth: all brands are publishers.

Right now, we’re worried about an abundance of authors, a blending of roles, a evolution of platforms and a host of challenges maintaining the infrastructure in place to support the creation and distribution of physical books.  Our ultimate customers - readers - are worried about none of these things.

Soon enough, all brands will become publishers, and all authors will seek to become brands.  Not all brands, or authors, will be successful, but the ability to market and distribute content efficiently won’t remain the hallmark of successful publishers.  Success will likely start with meeting the explicit and implicit needs of readers, and users.

A closing note: I’ll be exploring other aspects of these ideas in posts that follow.  I’ve also been invited to join an O’Reilly Media “Executive Roundtable” in New York on February 13, at which I’ll present “Abundance” and engage in a discussion that includes Lean Startup author Eric Ries.  The event is invitation only, and you can ask for more information by contacting O’Reilly and completing a brief form.

Posted by Kate Eltham
Jan 31, 2012  at  08:53 PM

Hey Brian, something I’ve been pondering about point #4 - iteration over perfection - is how to make this work in the context of fiction? I can see it demonstrated beautifully with non-fiction, such as Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, for example.

But how to iterate works of fiction? I can think of experiments that have been tried, such as authors who have blogged their novel in progress and then released the whole as a finished work (hopefully after editing). I wonder if you could build a publishing platform with a community of authors prepared to work this way? And I also wonder how many readers would embrace it? The answers might be “yes” and “many”, but for the moment I feel like the expectations of both fiction writers and readers resist an unfinished story.

Is this even what you mean when you say iteration over perfection, or am I horribly misinterpreting it? I devote a lot of brain-space to pondering how fiction publishers could be more rapid, agile, iterative, open etc and its the “iterative” I often get stuck on.


Posted by Brian O'Leary
Feb 01, 2012  at  09:00 AM

I had borrowed the language from John Battelle, who I interpreted as advocating for “trying things” rather than “trying to solve every problem before doing something”.  More recently, O’Reilly has been talking in terms like “fail forward fast”.

Hugh McGuire and I are iterating “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto”, releasing it in stages and revising parts of it based on feedback received.  We even changed the line-up in sections 2 and 3 based on what we learned doing the prior components.

You’re right that this does not directly apply to works of fiction.  Here, we need to think about evolving the form.

New tools or platforms like Smashwords, Byliner and Atavist give writers opportunities to write and sell shorter-form works (something Harlequin has been testing on its own).  Companies like FrancoMedia in Calgary are writing stories across multiple platforms - blogs and Twitter, as well as in books and eBooks.  The story evolves over a period of time.

Fiction authors might also think of fan fiction as a form of iteration.  The original works create a platform, and others take on the roles and evolve the story.  This sometimes gets people riled up, but think of how a branded author like James Patterson works.  He guides the stories that in some cases other people write on his behalf.

These are just ideas, but I hope the convey a sense of what I am thinking about.

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