The Emergent Landscape, or, The Continuous Permanent Reinvention of Publishing

[Crossposted from the official Frankfurt Book Fair blog.]

As readers of the Book Fair blog have by now ascertained, my beat certainly encompasses matters digital. And now we’re done with the Fair, the fog is beginning to lift and allowing certain features of the landscape to become more distinct.

All Will Change, Change Utterly (Again and Again)

First a warning, an admonition, really – a core organizing principle of our landscape is that it is now “emergent.” (In philosophy, systems theory and science, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.) Or, in relatively simple terms, each action by hardware companies, software companies, media companies, artists, writers, publishers, and retailers affects the landscape.

The falling of barriers to entry has increased the number of these actors operating on the landscape, and their degree of interdependence has grown. So not only will things continue to change, the rate of change itself is likely to increase. We are not just in transition from one state or model to another state or model, we’re in transition to a state of permanent accelerated transition where the model is continuous rapid reinvention.

Publishing will never be stable again.

(Skeptics, remember: if Moore’s Law – which asserts that processing power will double every eighteen months – continues to hold up, and it has held up for 35 years, then 25 years from now the iPhone will fit inside a blood cell.)

Getting with the Reality-Based Program

So, with that caution in mind, let’s look at what the panels and conversations and announcements of the first half of the Fair suggest. My co-blogger Alex summarized a superb conversation Wednesday amongst a pretty much perfectly representative sample of companies facing the digital challenges: Victoria Barnsley (CEO, HarperCollins UK), Richard Charkin (Executive Director of Bloombury Publishing), Andrew Savikas (VP of Digital, O’Reilly Media), and Ronald Schild (MD of MVB Marketing). It was clear from the comments that for all the discussion in the industry of pricing in terms of “should,” ie. what should we charge for digital content, prices are going to be set by consumers, plain and simple.

To allay your skepticism, I should say that this was the trade publisher CEO, Victoria Barnsley, who was saying that. I chatted with Charkin after the event and he emphasized that regardless of where one stands on the law and philosophy of copyright, the business models have to reflect the reality that even if individual shouldn’t hack, copy, pirate, they can, and some will, so the models need to be predicated on that reality, not a fantasy in which some combination of automated takedown notices and digital rights management manages to eliminate illegal copying from the planet.

What this means is that we (publishers, authors, agents) are going to need to make decisions based on the world that is (people will make unauthorized copies, people will undercut your price), rather than the world we will wish for. Until recently, it was not clear that the publishing industry accepted this, but these statements by Richard Charkin, Victoria Barnsley and other industry decision-makers are powerful indicators that this approach has solidifed to the point of consensus.

There is no such thing as an eBook

This is not in fact to say there is no such thing as an eBook but to say that the digital transformation facing the industry is not one is which files downloaded to a reading device are replacing print books, but that digital information and entertainment will not be single files but will be apps, files, websites, streams… Over the course of the Fair various players offered phrases such as “a digital manifestation of what was a book” and “long-form narrative delivered digitally” and “story-telling” and “immersive text-only experiences” and it is clear that the reason for such a profusion of vague terms is not obtuseness but a recognition that we’re not replacing one static-priced unit (pBook) with another static-priced unit (eBook), but finding that our single massive unidirectional pBook supply chain is now just one component of a tremendously variegated set of producer-consumer relationships and each producer is therefore going to need to offer the consumer a range of pricing models: subscription, rental, per unit download, advertising, serialization, fewer or more guarantees of ownership (as opposed to personal license) rights. And other yet to be named or thought up!

The World is Your Oyster

There are a billion web-enabled cell phones. Lexcycle’s Stanza reading app has been downloaded 2.5 million times in 75 of the 80 countries in which the iPhone is now available. There will be 20 Android-based smartphones by the end of this year. This is not an American thing, or an Asian thing, this is worldwide. For example, the country-by-country breakdown shows that while the U.S. is the largest market for O’Reilly’s Snow Leopard OS Missing Manual app at 35%, Italy was second at 23%. China’s Shanda has 4 million people signed up to buy and read novels on their mobiles.

Not only, it turns out, are the readers of the world looking to buy our content if we can deliver it to them digitally, but the world’s leading hardware companies are looking to help us. Along with Sony, iRex, TXTR, and other dedicated reading device manufacturers exhibiting, presenting, and working the floor, two Apple executives were traversing the halls of the Fair to let publishers know all the opportunities that await them on that platform. (Let it be said: that platform, right now, is the iPhone. Not any other rumored device. Apple has not been in private discussions about a larger device and reports that they have are a hoax. But Apple does believe in the opportunity for the publishing industry’s content, contrary to the occasional snarky comment from Jobs.) Apple is working to improve the Books section of the App store to make it more browsable, and they are trying to help publishers find the right developers to work with.

The Takeaway

This year’s Fair has made clear that:

  1. This is happening now, the future is already here.
  2. Everyone can benefit, no-one is exempt.
  3. The transformation is irrevocable, continuous, multivalent, and potentially asymmetric.

Much of the change will not be apparent in the tradition consumer print supply chain for a while, especially in countries with a protected marketplace and/or fixed consumer prices. Take advantage of that breathing space and do not take its longevity for granted””fixed prices are not fixed sales. Instead, use the cushion that that social compact has afforded you to continue the process of advancing the cause of literature in whatever format or experience your country’s reader might desire.