The Future of Publishing (II): unbundling and convergence
So the argument of the previous post was that (a) two essential functions of publishing are providing a brand and co-ordinating services, (b) that these required different sets of skills, and so (c) publishing is ripe for unbundling.
This explains why I’m unconvinced by the view that publishing will increasingly become disintermediated. Yes, the providers of brands (brands beyond publishing, that is) – be they organisations or individuals – can decide to leave the publisher out of the equation. But then someone has to take over the co-ordination of services.
If the provider of the brand takes on the function of service co-ordinator, it’s difficult to see what this achieves. In fulfilling a new function, the brand provider has to acquire a new set of skills. In other words, they have to learn how fulfil a task in which they have no comparative advantage.
The alternative is for the provider of the non-publishing brand is to usurp the publishers’ branding function but to leave the co-ordination of services to someone else. This requires the development of the publishing services market, so that brand providers can outsource not only particular services, such as typesetting or distribution, but also their co-ordination.
There is of course already such a market. I mentioned in an earlier post (Publishing: the Greater Cambridge story) that my own region was rich in this area. What interests me is how many players are extending the menu of services that they offer. Companies are becoming less easy to pigeon-hole.
For example, I think of Charlesworth primarily as printers – but in fact they offer a far wider range of services, including copy-editing and sales fulfilment (http://www.charlesworth.com/pub~home~site~corp). Similarly, I think of Gardners as a wholesaler, yet their services in fact extend into areas such as print-on-demand and e-book conversion (http://www.gardners.com). Though I think of CPI as printers, they offer something approaching a complete menu of services (http://cpibooks.com). In other words, the publishing services market is witnessing a good deal of convergence. In the process it is exhibiting a good deal of creativity, largely unsung.
Intuitively, one might think of unbundling and convergence as opposites: one process disentangles services, the other brings them together. Here, however, the two processes complement each other: unbundling enables providers of brands from outside publishing to move into publishing: their demand for co-ordinated publishing services in turn stimulates convergence amongst service providers.
‘Disintermediation’ has become the stock answer to the question ‘How will technical change affect publishing?’ And, along with piracy, it is one of things that publishers fear most. ‘Unbundling (plus convergence)’ is a less neat answer, but perhaps offers the prospect of a less radical, but more creative, future.