Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Five publishing-related thoughts on a Friday afternoon

Re-posted here from Medium for my own archives. Feel free to ignore.

I figure that since I broke my resolution yesterday not to blog about publishing, I might as well throw a couple more thoughts out today in an attempt to clear my system completely of useless speculation on publishing. Hopefully this means that I won’t have to do this again for another year or so.

Clay Shirky’s “Fast, Slow, Fast” model of print decline has been on my mind lately. If, as seems likely, the consumption of social media, apps, websites, and the like have slowly been substituting book reading in people’s lives it also seems plausible — looking at industry statistics — that their book buying patterns haven’t caught up. As in, readers are already used to having a to-read pile but haven’t adjusted their purchasing habits to match their slower pace through said pile. If true, then that adjustment, when it hits, would be dramatic enough to match what Clay Shirky describes as print’s second fast decline. Except in this case this would be money leaving the industry, not moving within the industry as it did when ebook first exploded.

Just because the actions of several tech companies might be immoral or misguided, that doesn’t mean the medium that their platforms carry is also immoral. It doesn’t prevent social media and websites from doing amazing things. An analogy: I find many of the actions of large media companies (publishers, TV stations, movie studios) reprehensible but that doesn’t prevent amazing books, TV series, and movies from being made. And, if anything, social media’s network structure creates a stronger disconnect from corporate control than you would see in other media.

The increasing role of digital in the various media industries is commonly presented in publishing rhetoric as a ‘transition’. The ebook format’s percentage of overall sales is used as a proxy to measure the progress of said transition. This is key to the ‘plateau’ idea — that the end result of the transition is a natural equilibrium between ebooks and print and that we are nearing that equilibrium. My problem with this: it’s as if the newspaper industry decided to measure their ‘digital transition’ exclusively by tracking how many print subscribers switch to paywall subscriptions. Putting too much credence to this statistic would blind them to the fact that they are bleeding readers and subscribers to other industries who offer a completely different kind of service — one that nonetheless substitutes for newspaper reading. Focusing too much on the ebook adoption percentage distracts from the possibility that readers might be switching to other media entirely.

It doesn’t matter if readers of social media and the web don’t read anything you write on the web closely — it doesn’t even matter if they finish it— as long as they get what they need from it. As a writer, it’s bloody annoying but it’s also our problem, not the reader’s. That the web and social media lets readers graze information and only dive in for a close read when they really want to (which is hardly ever) is arguably a _feature _from their perspective. They don’t owe us a close reading and we as writers only have value to them as long as our work fulfils a need or desire.

Imagine that you run a company whose core competencies are content creation and engaging graphic design. You have your old platform which seems to be slowly declining — at the very least it isn’t growing. You have new platforms that are designed to complement your production processes but either don’t complement your core competencies (i.e. reflowable ebooks and their substantial design and content limitations) or aren’t selling that well (fixed layout formats). Now imagine that your business is operating in a hyper-competitive environment — other fields are aggressively competing for the time and money of your customers. Which strategy presents the least longterm risk?

  1. Wait for the vendors of your existing new platforms to improve them, giving your competitors time and space to go after your customers. And your vendors may not succeed at delivering the features you need in time for you to put them to good use. (Waiting for vendors of other platforms to change them to complement your business is identical to this strategy. Except, in that circumstance you have exactly zero leverage to persuade the vendor to make the changes you need.)

  2. Send your technical staff off to standards organisations to improve the standards that underlie existing platforms so that they match your core competencies (design, content creation) or to change them so that they complement your production processes. That process takes years and might fail anyway because you have to reach a consensus with other companies from other industries who don’t see the value in your core competencies. And then you need to wait for platform vendors to implement them _anyway, _so this strategy inherits all of the downsides of the first strategy as well.

  3. Build a new platform from scratch on your own (or in collaboration with other companies in similar situations). Which could take years and is extremely likely to fail. Most new software projects fail. Most new systems fail. Building new software platforms is much harder than just making software (which is hard enough).

  4. Use other pre-existing platforms that have more design capabilities and seem to be popular among consumers (i.e. apps and websites). This means adding software development to your core competencies and it means completely transforming your processes and organisational structure, both of which are hard and expensive. It also means looking at new business models.

The answer, in my opinion, is strategy number four. The other three strategies have a high possibility of outright failure and delay any meaningful attempt at expanding your customer base by several years. Strategy number four is the hardest (waiting for vendors and filibustering standards organisations doesn’t take much organisational effort) but it’s also iterative. It can start at extremely small scales and build up from there. Platforms are all or nothing. It can feed back into your existing business at every single level (a core competency in software development is a huge strategic advantage for any modern company). It compartmentalises production risk to individual projects instead of spreading the inherent risk of software development to the entire platform. It lets you enter new market segments and new venues right now, instead of waiting for years or relying on platform vendors whose incentives are misaligned with yours. And, finally, it offers you strong differentiation because most pre-existing web and app companies are crap at content creation and graphic design (although that is changing very quickly).

Anyway, lunch break is over. And, hopefuly, so is my current publishing industry blogging spree. If I’m lucky, I won’t feel the need to blog about the publishing industry for at least a few months — preferably forever.

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