Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Morning Brief: Thoughts on channels, platforms and loss

In this business, digital publishing, you can't know everything. This simple fact usually makes me depressed. As the publisher of TNM it also leads to much embarrassment. Then I sit back, smile, and realize that for three years I've been putting one over on my readers – and they have allowed me to do so. The basic premise of TNM, after all, is that this is a site all about digital publishing, whereas the real goal of this site has always been about me learning, staying up-to-date on digital publishing. My posts then are simply about taking my readers along for the ride.

What I do know is publishing from the publisher's perspective, having been one since the age of nine. As a publisher I know that this basic fact: it is better to be the owner of the distribution channel than it is to be a publisher (or broadcaster). At the top of the pecking order in our business is Amazon, Apple and Google. They are not only at the top of the pyramid because they are a retailer but because they own the pipeline itself. If you want to publish something into the Newsstand you go through Apple... People in this business quickly see that it is not enough to own the content, one has to get content to the customer – but on top of that is the fact that you have to get the content through the retailer in the format the retailer demands.

But if you can not own the channel, maybe you can own the platform. This is little truth that many businesses involved in publishing have learned through the years. It's not surprising, therefore, to find so many publishers now involved in developing or sell their own publishing platforms. This middle man position, some publishers find, holds more promise for profits than actually being the publisher.

In the e-book industry there has been much talk about the loss of Tools of Change conference. As someone only on the very edges of the book publishing industry it is interesting to read people's reactions to Tim O'Reilly's decision.

"This doesn’t mean that O’Reilly is no longer committed to pushing forward the reinvention of the publishing industry," O'Reilly wrote last week. "But we’re shifting the focus of our publishing tools group from hosting the conversation about publishing technology to bringing our own tools to market."

This brazenly "business reason" to shut down a popular conference received plenty of raspberries from those who believed that the decision was a betrayal of the stated mission of TOC, to create a community.

"But once you’ve helped make a community, you have an obligation to nurture and sustain it," wrote Brian O'Leary on the Magellan Media website. "If you decide you want to do something else with your resources, you still have to provide for its care and feeding. You don’t shut everything down without making an attempt to at least provide for its welfare."

It's a beautiful thought, but it is wrong. It's wrong because like any argument it doesn't stand up to the simply response of "why?" – as in "why is it the responsibility of the creator of a community to maintain it?" That O'Reilly would act in a manner some might find offensive is no argument. Like a publisher's decision to shut down a once popular title, the decision is all about what the publisher feels is in their best interest, not in what is in the best interest of the community created by its launch.

I think what is going on in e-books is a lot like what is happening in digital magazines. The two worlds do not intersect as much as you might think. Only a very small percentage of magazine or newspaper publishers have launched e-book lines (or print lines, for that matter).

For many small magazine publishers the excitement of digital magazines is in the thought that they can become self-publishers, in charge of their own fate, no longer tied to a major media company, tied to large printers, etc. But soon small publishers find that they are at the mercy of the channel owners and the platform owners. Third party vendors offer cheap and easy solutions that often prove not very cheap (though most are truly easy). Worse, the trade off is the loss of their brand, the poor service many offer, the less than satisfying end product.

Both magazine and book small publishers dream of a publishing solution that can allow them to create the publications they desire, then allow them to distribute that product to their readers, across all the platforms, in all the channels.

But it benefits both the channel owners and the platform owners that this isn't easy. No sustainable service business can be created where the customer can do something on their own. The system is the way it is because it benefits someone.

Publishing right now is a lot like a segment of the coffee business. Do you own a Keurig coffee maker? Keurig makes the machine, but they also own the platform, those K-Cups. If you are a coffee company (think publisher) and you want to sell coffee today you can continue to put your coffee in bags. To sell those bags of coffee you have to be distributed into grocery stores like always. But suddenly you find that your sales are decreasing because less people are buying those bags of coffee, now they want K-Cups. But to sell K-Cups you have to license the solution from Keurig (think Apple or Google).

Publishers (and self-publishers) are on the bottom of the food chain right now. It is why some of the big boys started up Next Issue.  But that is a closed channel, too. You won't find any of the new tablet magazine being launched into the Apple Newsstand there, so they represent a very tiny segment of the market now, and it will only get smaller over time. Every time Next Issue adds a few new titles hundreds have been launched through other channels.

We can all decry our fate, but it won't change the situation. The solution is to not allow one's self to become disenfranchised, to step back, give up, and settle. That is how a community turns into a ghetto.