There Is No Publishing Industry
All models are wrong, some models are useful - statistician George Box
The mental model we share of this thing we call the publishing industry is no longer useful. Most of us think of the publishing industry’s product as “books”. That’s like thinking that Amazon sells two products, bits and cardboard boxes. Amazon ships stuff in cardboard boxes. It’s what’s inside the box that you are buying. Likewise, it’s the information contained in the bits that you are buying when you buy a digital product from Amazon.
Physical books were never really the publishing industry’s product. It was always the stories, ideas, and information contained in the books. Now that there are competing digital containers for almost everything that has traditionally been delivered via physical books, it is imperative that we take a hard look at the different industries which were hidden from view by our once-useful model of the publishing industry. Because these industries are moving to the digital world at vastly different rates and to very different digital containers: ebooks, apps, and the web. In my terminology, an app is a digital container that promotes user interaction with content rather than linear reading; an ebook is a self-contained reading unit mostly without external links; and the defining feature of the web is external linking. To understand the future of publishing, we have to let go of the idea of “the publishing industry” and look at its products based on the needs they fulfill.
The first industry to begin disappearing from the print world was the database packaging industry. Directories, encyclopedias, and dictionaries are well on their way to extinction in the print world. The mass-market products in this industry have moved almost entirely to the web. A few of the higher-end products have moved to specialized apps. Because this industry was always peripheral to the main business, many folks in publishing didn’t fully comprehend the implications of this change: some products that were previously only available as physical books had a natural affinity to a different form and business model.
It became impossible to ignore the disruptive changes when the narrative industry began to migrate away from print. The narrative industry produces stories delivered as written words. This encompasses more than just fiction, including a wide swath of non-fiction as well. Any book that is intended to be read for enjoyment from start to finish and is primarily non-graphical is a product of the narrative industry. The narrative industry is moving inexorably away from print to ebooks.
Lagging behind the narrative industry in the digital transition is the learning industry, i.e. textbooks, how-to books, and other books that we buy to teach ourselves rather than to entertain ourselves. The products of this industry are ill-suited to ebooks and benefit enormously from the interactivity that is achieved by self-contained apps or the web. The key for the learning industry is being able to deliver incrementally whether that’s through the lean publishing approach or self-updating content. That tips the balance towards subscription models and competition with online training such as that offered by companies like Pluralsight. Tracking the transition to digital in the learning industry will be a lot harder than with the narrative industry. Revenue and “eyeballs” will diffuse into areas that aren’t even considered part of the publishing industry.
Finally, we have the illustration industry, the folks who talk with pictures. Until very recently, there was no device that was an adequate substitute for a kid’s book, a comic book, or a coffee table book. With the advent of the “Retina” level displays, that is starting to change. We are at the very beginning of the digital transition for the illustration industry. Lower resolution, text denser segments, like comic books and some graphic novels, will move to the ebook space. We are already seeing much of what would have been children’s books move to apps. The really high-end illustrated books will remain print products for a long time to come for a variety of technical reasons.
Undoubtedly, my four industry model is as wrong as the single industry model that we’re all used to. I developed it because I believe it is far more useful. The digital transition is the most important issue facing the publishing industry. It overshadows and transforms everything else. Viewing the publishing world as four different industries both illuminates some confusing issues and raises a set of important questions.
Seemingly contradictory news becomes easy to understand within my model. Each of the four industries is taking a different path in the digital transition and there is much that isn’t captured by the tiresome “ebook vs. print” debate. Once you wrap your head around the four industries, you start to ask a different kind of question. Should you be treating your learning industry assets the same way you treat your narrative industry assets? Should I have different workflows for these different industries? Should my company specialize in one of these industries or do we have the right skills and capabilities to compete in all of them?