The future of publishing (I): disintermediation vs unbundling
The advent of print-on-demand and digital reading has brought much discussion on the question whether we need publishers any more.
At the start of my career I don’t believe I ever heard the word ‘disintermediation’. Now I hear it a lot. It’s one of those polysyllabic words that makes you feel profound whenever you utter it. But how important is the process it refers to?
To answer this question we have to consider another, namely what do publishers do? Commentators are sometimes so keen to get to the ‘disintermediation’ conclusion – which does, after all, sound radical and exciting – that they rather skate over this rather pedestrian question. We need to be more rigorous than that.
For many years the industry’s standard answer to the question of what it does has been, ‘We provide content’. I’ve always thought that answer unhelpful. For one thing, it isn’t necessarily true. It all depends on what one means by ‘provide’. A little thought suggests that ‘We help to provide content’ would be a more accurate (though unfortunately less impressive) answer.
A second problem is that ‘content’ on its own usually isn’t much good to anyone – it has to be given a form of some sort. ‘Content’ only becomes content when there is a container. So really we’d have to say ‘We help to provide content and give it a form’, which isn’t a great elevator speech. So let’s stop saying that we ‘provide content’: it’s a very boring thing to say.
In fact, publishers do many things. For example, they provide capital, bear risk, and register work and archive it. But from the point of view of the industry’s future, I think two functions are essential:
(1) They co-ordinate services – for example, they co-ordinate copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading, indexing, design, printing, binding, e-book conversion, warehousing, marketing, sales, and distribution.
(2) They provide a brand. Some of those brands are recognised by consumers. For example, Mills & Boon, Haynes car manuals, and Penguin. True, most publishing brands aren’t well recognised amongst the public. (For example, how many people reading the Booker Prize winner can tell you who published it?) Brands do however mean something within the supply chain. Brands such as, say, Atlantic or Constable & Robinson do mean something to businesses such as retailers, wholesalers, and library suppliers.
What I notice most about these two functions is how different they are from each other. Providing a brand is a very different kind of thing from co-ordinating services. They involve different sets of skills. So the obvious question is, why should the same company seek to do both?
The lack of a necessary connection between the two means that the industry is ripe for unbundling – the process that the next post will examine in more detail.