The future of publishing is about connections

The world of publishing is in a state of flux. Publishers need to connect with their existing communities - and build new ones.
The future of publishing is about connections

I’ve worked in academic and professional media for over 25 years, most recently as President and CEO of John Wiley and Sons. My career has given me some insight into the challenges that the publishing industry is facing.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the industry has been turned on its head in the last 30 years. The digital evolution - or even revolution - has wrought undreamt of changes on the ways we do business.

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Before digital, the fundamental models publishing had hardly changed for over 300 years. Yet, now, whether you look at scientific, educational, or consumer publishing, digital technologies have enabled a direct connection and relationship between the reader and the publisher.

The questions remain, can publishers make the most of this opportunity? And how?

The shifting role of publishers

We’re now in a world where consumers of content can interact directly with each other and share information and data in new and powerful ways. A world where authors can self-publish, crowdfund/crowdsource and market directly to readers.

Digital has also changed attitudes to what is open and closed, especially in academic publishing. That in turn raises questions about business models and who funds readership. You don’t have to look far in the scholarly communications and publishing worlds at the moment to come across myriad articles about Plan S and its potential implications.

What does this mean for publishers? Essentially this: that they risk losing their fundamental reason for existing, unless they can create new value for authors and consumers.

Traditional business models, ones that have served the industry well, are coming under question. They may not even survive. Disruptors are rewriting the publishing rules.  Yet publishers have the core capabilities in content, technology and audience understanding to thrive.

Who owns the customer now?

Consumer ownership has also dramatically shifted. The places customers go to find, read and buy content has completely changed.

Our landscape has come to be dominated by tech giants - Facebook, Google and Amazon. Or in academic publishing Scopus and newer disruptive and copyright ‘ambivalent’ entrants. These are the first ports of call in a search for content.

As a result, much value has migrated from content to advertising, software, hardware and systems. There is a multi-billion dollar world of value surrounding content, but less and less of that is flowing to publishers. Just think about where you find news and what’s happened to the health of newspapers.  

Of course there  there is still is value in ‘traditional’ content, in books and journals, but Amazon in particular has a stranglehold on the book market and is getting stronger all the time.

Outside of its own imprints, Amazon controls almost 50% of all book sales across the US and 83% of all e-book sales.  The power of discounted pricing and fast delivery has created huge customer value for Amazon, based on publishing content, with little of that value flowing to publishers and creators.

The future is intelligent, connected publishing

When I read Harvard Professor Bharat Anand’s 2016 book, The Content Trap, I immediately recognised how relevant his theories were for our industry. This quote sums them up very nicely:

“Content businesses everywhere tend to define themselves by their content. This is the trap. The power of content is increasingly overwhelmed by the power of user connections, of which network effects are perhaps the most potent form.”

Publishers need to find ways to harness what they already do well - content, trusted brands - and turn it into something more connected.

That’s where communities can be transformative. There are many examples of communities being used effectively already - from The Guardian’s groundbreaking use of the strength of their brand community to create a new funding model, to Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club, to Springer Nature’s communities of practice.

The key thing about any community is that it should feel like a go-to destination for expertise, learning, sharing and discussion on a particular topic (or topics). Communities create, share, expand and develop content. The value lies both in that content and in the meaningful connections made around it. Content becomes social, dynamic and lives in real time.

For the community members, it provides a space to discuss subjects they’re interested in, learn from experts and easily find the information they’re looking for in one place.

This is not necessarily about big numbers, but about niche communities that have direct brand relevance. They should generate meaningful conversations and insightful data.

Take business news publisher Quartz as an example. They recently announced a new membership which is built around a mixture of content and community features. This includes weekly, in-depth reports on hot-button business ideas, the ability for members to suggest questions for Q&As, and regular conference calls between members and Quartz journalists.

This community function also acts as a source of data and ideas for generating more stories that their audience want to read.

Ultimately, I believe the future of digital media will be driven by the powerful integration of networks and high value content. And that’s what I call intelligent, connected publishing.

Mark Allin is a Zapnito advisor and a major contributor to our new whitepaper on intelligent, connected publishing. It guides publishers through today’s shifting landscape and provides practical examples of how companies are already putting community connections to good use. You can download it here.