Friday, March 19, 2010

The end of publishing?

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For a good blog about self-publishing (which is mentioned here), read

Nowadays there's a lot to do about the future of publishing. In the past 10 years in Europe commercial printers have been struggling to keep their businesses alive. It seems now it's the publishers who feel they are entering the economical battlefields.
Though in general most publishers are doing fine if you look at their balance sheets and financial results, nowadays discussions are going on between them about what their role will be in the future. Everyone in the sector is worrying about what impact the digitalisation and globalisation will have on their business. What will be the role of the publisher in the future?

For myself I think that the main principle which is often forgotten by publishers, is that INFORMATION is not the same as KNOWLEDGE.
My point is that for publishers, value must be added in the transformation of information to knowledge.
According to me, publishers who forget this difference will make themselves obsolete on the long run.

Some observations:

1) Upscale and downscale. Globalisation and localisation.
More and more mergers are taking place. The bigger the resulting groups, the more life space and market there will be for smaller players in the field. But at the same time more and more smaller publishers with niche markets will start new and small-scaled initiatives. Struggle to survive will be common to everybody in the field, just like it is for every other business. This evolution towards downscaled niche-markets is inevitable because it's also very much supported by the technological evolution.

2) Democratisation of publishing.
Like professional typesetting was brought to the individual desktop around 1990, publishing itself is brought within the reach of every individual. Printing on demand and digitalisation are just offering this: a cheap accessible way of producing a book.
Various initiatives already make clever use of these "new" techniques. "Publish Yourself" is the new adagio. And there's not much that existing publishers can do against it.

3) The disappearance of added value.
Before some time typesetting and producing content ready for print was kind of an art. It required tacit knowledge how to present the content of a book in the most reader-appealing way, keeping into account the author's desires. Value was also added in terms of correct use of language and content-related corrections, adding value to the knowledge that was presented by the authors.
Nowadays publishers are talking about all the technological possibilities and conceived future evolutions on the basis of the information they process and distribute. They are not busy with knowledge any more, their attention has shifted from knowledge to the more easy-to-measure "information".
However, because of the democratisation of production and distribution of information, this will not and cannot be the role of the publisher. A publisher - if he wants to survive - will need to define himself as more than an information-processor and distributor.
Authors cry for knowledgeable publishers who understand and valuate their knowledge.
Readers are nowadays internet-aware. If they want to access information only, then they surely don't want to pay a publisher coming in between them and the source of information.

4) It looks like everyone in this sector is trying to find a new theoretical model which enables them to predict and secure future developments. They think this is needed as they feel they have to take decisions for the long term. Unfortunately the vast majority of these efforts is in vain. The paradigms are shifting and the economical world is undergoing major changes in terms of power and wealth distribution. One can try to understand what is happening, but trying to grasp the future can not deliver more than some ease for emotional restlessness. It's only giving a false sense of security.
What I feel is that at this moment there's no new business-model in place or even developing for old-fashioned publishers who don't want to "miss the train of globalisation and digitalisation". Publishers tend to limit their role to the buying-and-selling of information and are overwhelmed by the technological changes which take place in those processes.
But this is just out of their range of activities as these evolutions are not in the field of "knowledge". They are merely limited to how information is produced and distributed. The added value of the publisher should however be in adding value to author's knowledge.

5) The role of the established general publisher is slowly becoming void. To cut costs they start to save on editorial and redactional efforts. Doing this, they force themselves to a mere role of production, distribution and marketing. But precisely these processes are becoming so cheap and within reach of every individual now, that there hardly can be a role for the publisher any more.

The main question publishers should always ask themselves is: how can I improve the knowledge presented by the author.

The end of publishing?
There's a very bright future for small, niche publishers.