Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
While publishing is typically classified as a creative industry (at least here in the UK), I prefer to think of it as a business that’s focused on the exploitation of intellectual property (IP). I do this because the publishing industry mainly exists to facilitate authors’ creativity and connect that with people who want to buy it. It doesn’t create content so much as the commercial conditions under which that content makes the most money for its rights holders.
Historically, publishers made most of their money from the core business of packaging content into books and selling them, but this is changing as the world goes multi-platform. Publishers like Penguin Random House are increasingly becoming vertically integrated rights businesses. Yes, they make lots of money from publishing the Peter Rabbit books, but the commercial opportunity provided by licensing the IP to make cartoons, toys, stage shows and stationery is even larger.
Yet I would argue that, a few exceptions like Peter Rabbit aside, the publishing industry has enjoyed mixed success in exploiting its IP across the media. And the reason why it hasn’t had more is ironically because of its greatest strength: its focus on books. To a publisher, the book is the end product of the creative process. Once you have a book in your hand, that’s it. The story is finished.
Imagine, though, if publishers thought of the book as the beginning rather than the end. The content many authors create has the potential to live in many different media, and their publishers could be the best means of facilitating that process. Doing so, however, is a matter of thinking in a less book-centric way. Bibliophiles (and I’d count myself as one) aside, consumers don’t care so much about wrappers, like a book; they care more about getting access to content how and where they want it. Think of the car maintenance manual, for example: what was once a huge area of publishing has been disrupted away into almost nothing by instructional videos on YouTube—a threat, but also an opportunity for a savvy publisher.
In a world where IP is fragmented and lives across many different platforms, it’s no longer helpful to think wholly in terms of print books and two-year workflows. Publishers of the future will need to move more quickly and think very seriously about how they manage and license the rights in their possession. It will be a big challenge, but we can see one interesting way forward with all this: of all things, fan fiction.
Yes, fan fiction has quite possibly become the biggest sleeper hit of the digital age. According to some estimates, around a third of all the content posted on Wattpad and Tumblr is created by fans. As a commercial proposition, fan fiction is embryonic, but I think publishers have a lot to learn from its speed and agility. Fan fiction stays close to its audience (indeed, creator and consumer are often indistinguishable), it centers on recognizable brands and it iterates quickly. And most importantly, it’s platform-neutral. The wrapper—whether this is a Tumblr post, Wattpad story or ebook—isn’t the end product; it’s a means of transmission.
In the future I’m envisaging, publishers will need to think much more about content, rather than wrappers, and even more about how they license IP to facilitate content creation. If a blog, a video, a Tumblr post, an app or an ebook uses IP that a publisher owns or licenses, they need to be able to grant, manage and monetize that use. That will mean adopting a system of rights management that is more flexible and far more granular than it is at the moment, where it remains being almost totally focused on books as the end product.
And here, as with so many other fields of publishing, Amazon may have gotten a head start on the rest of the industry. When it first launched Kindle Worlds, Amazon’s licensed fan fiction site, it looked a lot like it was trying to build a more effective and financially savvy version of Wattpad. Looking at it another way, however, it could also be a test version of a rights management framework that connects brand owners directly to content creators, and erects a far more flexible, faster-moving framework around licensing IP.
Jane Tappuni will discuss the issue of IP licensing and children’s brands at a Publishing Technology event at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Mickey Mouse to Minecraft: Licensing Children’s Brands will take place on Wednesday, October 14th, 16:00-17:00, Hot Spot: Digital Innovation (Hall 6.2).
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