There Is No Publishing Industry

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

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?

18 thoughts on “There Is No Publishing Industry

  1. Coryl

    It’s more like there’s a decline in the PRINT industry. Comic books, children’s books, how-to books, dictionaries, encylopedias, textbooks, and books for leisure all revolved around the print industry. Their different functions didn’t necessarily put them in different industries; their medium is what put them all together. I don’t think they will all move into the technological and screen-based media of computers and tablets.

    (Justso you know, I’m commenting from my iPad so I understand the difference between print- and screen-based media.)

    When it comes to reading books, especially fiction or non-fiction for leisure, it’s the tactile aspect which means so much to the reader. Screens on eBook readers and tablets will nevermatch up to the physical aspect of literally turning a page, or feeling the weight of the book in your hand, or even grasping the pages you have or have yet to read. I’m one of those people who can open up a book to a scene I remember, even after reading the book once. You can’t do that with an eReader ora tablet. There is nothing to open, and the movement of your finger dragging to the next screen for the next page can’t be remembered well enough for the reader to remember how many drags it took for them to reach a certain scene ormoment in a book.

    When it comes to dictionaries and encylopedias, I am fully in support kf them moving away from print media. The amount of knowledge and information is too vast and diverse to properly reason using paper.

    I’ve never really seen children’s books as \interactive learning\ because books are books, not games. You can’t learn morals and see social problems in games as well as you can with books. Some kinds of exercises for children’s development works well with apps, like learning their colours or shapes, but the depth which comes with children’s books is difficult to convey with an app. Again, the tactile aspect of reading aforementioned also comes into play here.

    Textbooks cost too much in print these days, especially when taxes get brought into the equation, so I will be glad to see them move to screen media as long as the cost doesn’t move with them. Being a university student in English Literature (who spent nearly 500$ on required texts this semester), the cost is the biggest aspect I take into consideration. Being a Lit student, though, means I’m required to purchase collected works and I find these extremely beneficial for leisurely reading. When I read for leisure, again, the tactile aspect is the most important.

    It will vary for some people because not everyone is as inclined to tactile functions as I am, but I donn’t think it’s healthy, to be quite frank, for the oublishing industries to be so screen based. I already have poor eyesight and looking st screens for too long hurts my eyes because of the light they give off. One of my eyes responds to poorly to light that I can’t see with it in the dark and screens will not help.

    Some things make sense to remain in the print industry while others don’t. I strongly believe that print medium will be around for an incredibly long time, and I would rather not see screen media take over. It already affects us so much with television, which created even more industries (films, for example) and advertising had another area to exploit. I don’t get pop-up ads with a book I borrowed for free from the library, but I do with a free-to-access website with a book on it. I think most of the industries will boil down to how they can make the greatest profit. I for one am less willing to buy an eBook than I am to buy a printed book. I don’t know how much of the population and target audience have my sentiments, but money is the most important thing for any industry, regardless of what it is.

    1. John Cavnar-JohnsonJohn Cavnar-Johnson Post author

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I believe you are in a tiny, tiny minority of readers who care about the tactile aspect of reading. Fortunately, technologies like Print On Demand (POD) will be around to serve readers with strong preferences for print.

      I agree with you that print as a medium is in decline(just look at the magazine and newspaper business), but that’s irrelevant to my point. The physical book as an object was used to deliver all sorts of different products, some of which didn’t have much to do with reading. Games have been delivered via physical books for a long time: crossword puzzle, word search, Mad-Libs, “make your own adventure”, and Sudoku, just to name the ones on my bookshelf. I really do think of the book as the cardboard box of the intellectual world. It is an awesome, but thoroughly mundane thing.

      On a personal note, I have some of the same and some different issues with my eyesight. I have found that the e-Ink screen is the best choice for me. You might want to give one a try.

      1. Coryl

        I and several of my friends may be in the minority who enjoys the tactile aspect, but there may be many other reasons why people prefer actual books, like the smell, or seeing them all arranged on a shelf, or hearing the different sound each page makes as you turn it, or admiring the dust jackets and covers, or even being awed by the time taken into the creation of a single book. My reasoning for preferring actual books isn’t the only one. Books are hardly mundane when you think of them in a different mindset. They used to be handcrafted, individual works of art, and even now, each book is different, even if it’s mass produced.
        There’s a fantasy book trilogy by German author Cornelia Funke which basically talks about the literal and metaphorical magic behind the printed word. I’d recommend it to anyone who feels like books themselves, regardless of their contents, are mundane. It’s called Inkheart (in English) and it is one of my absolute favourites. (Although, how can something be awesome and mundane at the same time? It cannot.)

        Like I said, there are some things which are less suitable for print, and the games you mentioned certainly fit into the category. I love Sudoku and used to do it all the time in book-form until I had access to it digitally. However, there is a huge difference between a book with logic puzzles and a book with a story. I’m not against eBooks at all, but I am against the idea that they will completely replace printed novels. I don’t see eBooks as the new improvement, like cars were to horse-drawn carriages or telephones were to telegraphs. I see them as an alternative, like an escalator or elevator are to a staircase.

        As much as I’d like to explore the world of digital books, I currently don’t have the funds to splurge on technology trying to make itself look like a book. Maybe in years to come when prices have gone down shall I try it.

        1. Emily Dobson

          I completely agree with Coryl on many fronts. First and foremost, calling books awesome and mundane is a direct contradiction (in the same sentence). Secondly, books are an art form in many aspects. I think the cover is just as important as the interior, so the analogy of a book (being the cover and the pages, not the words contained therein) being a box for a product is inaccurate. If anything, the book is a whole which can be broken into parts: story, pages, cover, etc. The entirety becomes a representation of the work the writer has put into it.

          Additionally, while I am not fond of the practice, some find it useful to write in the covers of books, especially poetry anthologies. It can help people immerse themselves into the underlying context of the story from which the author has derived his/her inspiration. This is not really possible with digital books. You can make notes on the side, but that’s really not the same.

          1. John Cavnar-JohnsonJohn Cavnar-Johnson Post author


            Yes, awesome and mundane are contradictory. That was exactly my point. Just as cardboard boxes are thoroughly mundane, the physical book is mundane. Cardboard boxes are awesome in that they enable the deliver of an amazing variety of goods. Cardboard boxes represent, and would not be possible without a complex system of production and distribution. The physical book you love would not be possible without a complex supporting system.

            The physical book as a container is not an analogy. It is a fact. It is reality. To deny it is to blind yourself to the truth. The story contained in a book is not a part of the book in the same way as the cover. It exists independently of the physical manifestation. This seems so obvious to me that I am at a bit of a loss as to how to explain it. This has nothing to do with digital vs. print. The Odyssey existed before books. Surely you don’t think that the only way for The Odyssey to exist is in print form. I have a print edition of The Odyssey that is a work of art, but it is a separate work of art from the story itself.

            1. Emily Dobson

              I think you’re completely missing our points, or just disregarding them entirely which is not a proper way of getting your point across. I have acknowledged your analogy; yes, in some forms a book is just the packaging. The cover could sell the book, but that would make it packaging instead of a box. Boxes (unless designed to be packaging) do not sell items, they ship items. There is a reason for the book’s cover, a purpose. In the same way that limited edition figurines come in a packaging that collectors would never open (because it would ruin their value), books come with a cover. While the content does not lose its sentimental value when the cover is destroyed or lost, it will lose its monetary value. This makes the book (cover, pages and all) crucial to the whole. The book, then, is not a box for a product.

              If we are to branch off with the idea of sentimental value, it’s almost impossible for someone to become attached to a piece of technology which supports the consumer mentality. Yes, some people will get upset over it breaking or getting lost. Yes, they could have received the technology from their grandmother who just recently died and was very dear to them. But they all move on. A person who truly cares about a book will remember all of those things plus the tactile memory (which muscle memory is perhaps one of the most strongest memories a human can possess, though I realize this is debatable). The book is also unique with each purchase and journey it takes with the person. Yes, technology can become warn and a person may remember how each indent was caused, but a book is irreplaceable as covers become changed, the print is always somewhat different, a stain may be from a mishap with a loved one. The book is not a box; it’s a whole that when stripped away from the story becomes empty, and when the story is stripped away from the box it too lacks something.

              We can keep debating, and you can keep thinking you’re right, but this is not a moral dilemma. You’re not speaking of ‘reality,’ only your opinion. This is why we are trying to show you a different side. There is no true right and wrong in this position, I feel, other than a book is not a box. Everyone will feel differently about books and the print industry, but a book is definitely not a box, or container.

  2. Alum Bux

    I couldn’t disagree more with the author’s sentiments, especially in his comment just above.

    Of course, as a digital publisher, he has reason to promote this position, and I’m sure it is the world he sees, and choses to see. Of course many – myself included – are happy to read books (of varying forms) on tablets, eBooks, etc., but people who value, and hold very very dear, books as physical objects are far from “a tiny, tiny minority of readers”.

    Books are not, nor ever were, merely “containers”; they are so much more to so many. Every individual book weighs, smells, feels, different in your hands, and this is something of great importance and value. Books are beautiful things and long may they last.

    I am not denying the usefulness of digital publishing, or its importance. It is certainly here to stay, and I am happy about that. But it worries me when digital publishers try to promote the idea that physical books are no longer of value.

    Please do not try to render physical books obsolete, and don’t underestimate their importance to millions of readers; there are enough people in the world, with enough variety of priorities, that both can co-exist.

    1. John Cavnar-JohnsonJohn Cavnar-Johnson Post author

      Thank you for your comment. Just as a point of clarification, I would like to say that I am not a digital publisher. I build tools for digital publishers. I did not say that people who value books as physical objects are a tiny, tiny majority. Caring about books as physical objects is very different from caring about the tactile aspect of reading. Certainly many people, including me, have fond emotional attachments to books. My attachments are to the wonderful stories rather than the physical manifestation of those stories.

      I do not understand the fetishization of the physical form of the book. A book is nothing more than paper and sometimes a bit of cloth and cardboard. Would you buy a book without words or pictures? What value does a book have without the the story or information or ideas? These are honest questions. Physical books are still the best medium for many types of books. This will not always be true. I do not mean to denigrate physical books when I say that they are containers. There are many containers that are beautiful works of art. But containers are not the same as the thing they contain. To me, mistaking the container for the contained is just a mistake.

  3. Coryl

    There is a difference between a book fetish and a book appreciation. If the container means so little, why do people strive so hard to make their blogs look a certain way? Why not just have the text? Why do people care about the looks of their cars or their houses or themselves? I think you miss the aesthetic quality of a book. I don’t think it’s a mistake to appreciate the look of a book, and I hardly think that one can choose to appreciate either the contained or the container.
    I really, really think it would be wise of you to read Inkheart. One of the characters has an obsession with what you think to be a mistake: the container of the stories.

    Everyone is different. You appreciate the stories and not the actual books. Not everyone is like that, however. You may be the first I’ve encountered who feels this way.

    And to answer your questions:
    Would you buy a book without words or pictures?
    Yes. They’re called notebooks and sketchbooks and you put the words and pictures in yourself. I have quite a few empty notebooks and sketchbooks I have yet to use and I just admire in the meantime. Even then, what value do the handwritten words and hand-drawn images have?
    What value does a book have without the story or information or ideas?
    It depends what you mean by \value\. Monetary value? Sentimental value? Moral value? Those are too subjective, and monetary value equates to the defined value of the physical products (paper, leather, ink, etc.) determined by the industry which produced it.

    I apologise if I’m coming off as hostile in my comments. I’m just incredibly passionate about this topic.

    1. John Cavnar-JohnsonJohn Cavnar-Johnson Post author

      I do not think you are being hostile at all. I enjoy discussing these issues. I do not believe that containers are unimportant, but I do question the values of people who place excessive emphasis on appearances. Digital books have aesthetic qualities just as physical books do. You do not think they will ever match up, and perhaps for you that is true. I will say that I stand behind my analysis in the article and leave it at that.

  4. John Cavnar-JohnsonJohn Cavnar-Johnson Post author


    I think we agree on a lot more than you think we do. Here’s where we disagree. You say \it’s almost impossible for someone to become attached to a piece of technology which supports the consumer mentality\. And yet a book is a technology which supports the consumer mentality and you have a deep emotional attachment to the book as a technology. I’m not sure why you don’t see that.

    One more point of clarification. When I talk about the \value of a book\, I’m talking about its usefulness for its intended purpose. I have a hardback book on my desk right now. It’s Fritz Leiber’s \Ill Met in Lankhmar\. If you take away the words that are printed in the book, you have taken away 100% of its value to me. I don’t receive any pleasure from turning pages when there are no words to read. Do you?

    On the other hand, if I take those words and put them in a paperback book, they will have just as much value to me. Likewise, I have those words in the form of a digital book and, if anything, they have greater utility to me because I can read them whenever I want, but that is just my personal preference. The real point of this is that the stories contained in \Ill Met in Lankhmar\ have intrinsic value. They are the reason I purchased the physical book.

    Let me give you another example. Apple puts a great deal of research into developing the cardboard boxes that they use to ship their iPhones, iPods, and iPads. Their packaging is famous for being part of the user experience of purchasing an Apple product. Their packaging is an important component of their overall strategy and a real competitive advantage. But they aren’t selling boxes. They are selling devices. Nobody would pay $500 for an iPad box without the iPad. It’s a great box and it can be quite useful, but you don’t buy the box. You buy the iPad. People do sometimes pay $500 for an iPad without the box.

    You and Coryl love the experience of reading a physical book. That’s cool. The physical packaging of the story are important to you. But the packaging is not the product. I have now exhausted my ability to explain something that seems blindingly obvious to me, but is somehow upsetting to you and others. I mean no slight to you or others who prefer physical books. I’m trying to help publishers understand their business from a different perspective.

    Look again at the epigraph I used to start this conversation. There is no doubt that my mental model of the book as a container for stories, ideas, and information is wrong. Every model represents a simplification of reality. Perhaps my model isn’t even useful to you in describing your experience in reading. That’s ok because that’s not my purpose. I believe my model is useful in understanding what’s happening in publishing today.

    1. Emily Dobson

      I realize where we agree and disagree, I just don’t see the usefulness in pointing in out. By technology, though, I meant more specifically things like apps and eReaders. A book is, of course, an ‘outdated’ form of technology that supports the consumer mentality to a degree. I do get this, but it’s not necessary to the point I’m trying to make. It’s consumerism, but a different type. People collect books like they collect Dr. Who figurines (for example), and the packaging can be very important. People do not collect every generation of iPhone and keep it on display. They discard the boxes and move on.

      I understand the points you think I don’t understand. It’s a bit offensive to assume that I am not aware of the actual value of a book when I’m debating from the perspective of a book as an art form. This is something that is ‘so blindingly obvious’ (if I may use your words) to me, but seemingly not to you. I get that the publishing industry needs to think in different variants now. There are some people who would prefer electronic books. However, the industry also needs to focus on the physical book itself, because it is just as alluring to those who are going to read books.

      I thoroughly understand your analogy, I just think it’s flawed in the sense that if we are to look at the book as a container, then it is more like packaging for a collectible than a box for shipping/transportation. This is a minor change, really, but one that stresses the importance of both the physical book and the direction an eReader/app should take in order to draw in readers.

      I think your article should have addressed several sides to the issue at hand, instead of focusing on one aspect of the industry that has changed. I see the industry as having branched off instead of progressing towards a different medium, and I believe that this is assumed by a great deal of people.

      As an addition: I do enjoy turning empty pages. As a writer, I thoroughly enjoy empty pages of a writing book. It means the pages have potential.

      1. Elka

        I love printed books especially those pretty ones with beautiful covers, they look so well on my shelves, but book without words has the same value as a notebook. Stories are the essential that make a book, any book, the book, without them the book is just a notebook, and everything else composing the print book, the covers, the fonts, etc. are just a bonus. IMO

  5. Claude Nougat

    What an excellent post, John, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I just tweeted it and Google+’d it, because I am convinced this is a very useful analytical way to approach the question of exactly what change the digital revolution is bringing us. And it’s very useful to make the distinction between the packaging and the product!

    I see that many who have commented here are viscerally attached to the printed book. So am I. But only for certain types of books. For example, I like non-fiction (I’m an economist – Columbia U. graduate) and I simply cannot study an argument without turning back now and then a few pages, writing in the margin, sticking post-it notes etc etc That’s something one can’t do with ebooks. Yes, I know, you can highlight and type in notes and then they all go in some file in the back. But that’s clunky. And it overlooks the fact that a physical book stays in your memory much more easily: you sort of remember that there’s a passage somewhere in the middle of the book that struck you and you can just flip the pages and find it again. Flipping pages on an ebook is just not the same.

    This said, ebooks come in an immensely advantageous packaging: super light, you carry it with you everywhere. This is especially useful when you travel, when you wait at the dentist’s for your appointment, when you stand in line in the bank or post office. For me, that simple fact has literally changed my life and I read twice as much as before simply because there are no longer any \empty\ moments in my life, lost while I was waiting.

    But the lightness comes with a price. This fact that you can read just anywhere impacts/determines the kind of thing you are going to read. You’re not going to read an in-depth argument in economics, you need peace and quiet for that, you need to be in your study away from everyone else. So what will you read? Fun, light reads of course! Depending on your tastes, romance, thrillers, paranormal, historicals, biographies, memoirs etc

    For anyone with doubts about what I’m talking about, just take a look at the Kindle bestselling list: with very few exceptions (about a dozen non-fiction books) all best sellers are in genre literature, and on top of the list you get romance and mysteries. So if you’re like me as a reader (I don’t go for genre lit), you’re likely to take a subscription to a newspaper to fill all those empty moments of waiting that I was mentioning above. That’s what I’ve done (I get the International Herald Tribune on my Kindle every morning).

    And you know what? That’s an additional advantage of the ebook’s super light packaging: it flies instantaneously to you through the ether! It reaches you in any corner of the planet, even in places where there’s no newspaper stall selling papers!

    1. John Cavnar-JohnsonJohn Cavnar-Johnson Post author


      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree about the type of books that don’t yet work as ebooks. You describe the “learning industry” books quite well. I believe that the issues you describe will be solved eventually, but not by the current incarnation of the ebook. I am fascinated by the “remembering by physical position” factor. Is this a learned behavior that my children will never miss? Should our ebooks imitate this with a skeuomorphism? Replace it with more semantic search or geolocation (remember by where you read it)?

      I will be explaining the predominance of genre ebooks in my next post here.

  6. Mani AJ

    Let me compliment an excellent article with equipoised exchanges from a passionate lot. But allow me too to throw a tiny spanner into the works …

    My perspective is that of a print book distributor ie one who sells /markets, imports, warehouses & delivers to various retailers. In our business the very existence of e-books undermines the entire organisational structure – where the \infiltration’ of ebooks has seen the demise of many major booksellers and neighbourhood bookshops. And now with global online booksellers (the likes of Amazon, Book Depository etc) feature both new & used books via their online portals at a fraction of the selling price. Brick & mortar bookshops, with distributors in tow, are feeling the heat … and succumbing.

    In that respect, to persuade a view that books as mere containers is a hard-sell – its intrinsic value is quite difficult to explain. Book covers / dust jackets are just as important as the content – though not overtly but significant enough to make a first impression to persuade a buyer … and to tilt over a browser to a purchaser. Many first-time authors do benefit from a fabulous cover as well as a fantastic story.

    Price – the other significant factor in the whole dilemma between print book & e-book, besides content – is also poised for a dramtic makeover. That is, print books are going premium – they now warrant a higher price than ever, due to limited or smaller print-runs & rising operational costs; e-books, on the other hand, are under pressure to be priced much lower ie due to significantly lower costs in production, logistics and sales costs. So, its doesn’t matter if its a paperback, a hardcover, board book or any other form of printed paper \container\, its simply gonna cost a lot more than ever before. The economics of the print production industry simply doesn’t add up to reasonable profits anymore … the dynamics have been altered forever.

    Consumers will undoubtedly benefit … Large publishing companies will gleefully re-positioned themselves to better serve the new-found ebook reader market. It’s the smaller publishers, boutique bookshops & print book lovers and their lot, who will be bearing the brunt of higher costs … while the e-book reader will probably enjoy the benefits, and I’m guessing … with a smirk.

    In this climate, the attitudes toward the print book is largely a romantic sort of a thing … where the heart rules more than the head. Nostalgic, warm & fuzzy feelings at the sight of a print book will shatter when you turn over and look at the price tag ;}

    1. John Cavnar-JohnsonJohn Cavnar-Johnson Post author

      Thank you for a clear-eyed response from a difficult perspective. As a print book distributor, you face a challenging and uncertain future. My point is NOT that the physical aspects of books add no value. It just needs to be recognized that the core product is not contained in the physical aspects. If you took a physical book and randomly rearranged the words when it was printed, the book would have no value.

      You are exactly right about the sticker shock that is coming. Print books will become luxury items and will become more sophisticated products. They will be status symbols. After all, people still buy Rolex watches even though a cheap digital watch tells time just as well.



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