Five Foundational Facts for the Future of Publishing

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This month, we’re sharing a weekly four-part series called “The State of the Publishing Industry.” Every week, our CEO and Founder Matt MacInnis discusses where publishing trends today, what it will look like in the future, and how the smart companies will survive and thrive. (Hint: it won’t involve paper or even “eBooks”.) This week, Matt focuses on the underlying constraints that will shape publishers’ products and businesses.

In my first post in this series, I discussed the need for the publishing industry to develop compelling product models. The ones that survive will fast become content-centric software companies, and this transition will be shaped by underlying shifts in key technologies. Products and businesses that embrace these constraints will be the most sustainable, and they’re the topic of the second post in the series.

Change Comes from the Outside In

Big shifts in technology bring about nearly every industry transformation, but those shifts inevitably come from outside the industry itself. For example, look at the global taxi industry. Once thought to be unassailable, this protected industry is facing vigorous competition enabled by always-online mobile devices powered by Uber and others. Neither taxi companies nor their powerful licensing commissions could control the overnight ubiquity of these technologies, yet they’re now forced to evolve within those very constraints. They are, in a sense, “victims” of technology shifts.

Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen most media businesses fundamentally reshaped in a similar way. Much of consumer trade publishing has shifted to e-readers, all of which are made possible by new or improved technologies like E Ink, 3G data service, and better batteries. But industry insiders rarely pause to consider that trade publishing is, at best, 20% of the total publishing market. Other segments like professional reference, magazines, textbooks, and illustrated nonfiction represent the bulk of revenue. With few exceptions, most of the US publishing market has not yet made a decisive and sustainable transition to digital product models.

It’s easy to understand why. Most published content is a complex mix of media, and each product has a unique goal: to help you prepare for a test, to entertain you, or to help you learn a new skill, to name just a few. When the delivery of music transitioned from the the CD to the MP3 or movies from the DVD to Netflix, the content itself stayed the same. Even eBooks have been, to date, just the text files used to print books. But when you take any other form of printed content, the translation from paper to screen cannot be done automatically. Blindly applying the printed form to the digital screen creates a disappointing user experience.

To build a better user experience within a new set of technology constraints, we have to know what those constraints are.

Five Safe Assumptions for Product Development

What is publishing adapting to? What are the all-important constraints of content-centric products? As these changes reach every corner of the industry, here are five assertions that publishers can safely bet their businesses on today.

1. Everyone will publish in HTML.

Certain computing languages become so broadly adopted that they last decades; HTML, arguably still a young and evolving standard, is one such language. PDF, a proprietary and fixed-layout standard, will go the way of the dodo, as did Flash. EPUB, an awkward standard that adds certain features to HTML while losing other ones, will likely fade in relevance as HTML itself absorbs these capabilities over time. Publishers must resist the temptation to use (or worse, invent their own) proprietary formats.

In the end, HTML will adapt and evolve to meet the needs of virtually any content-centric use case. It’s safe to say that investments in robust, standards-based HTML technology and workflows today will pay ample dividends over time. Investments in other technologies in the meantime will serve only as expensive distractions from discovering sustainable product models.

2. Structured content will win.

Machines are terrible at natural language processing and, barring any advances that lead to true computer comprehension, will continue to be terrible. Therefore, if we want computers to make smart decisions about content organization and display, we must provide them with machine-readable structure and metadata. We have to “tell” the computer what the words mean. The concept of structure is quite simple: the content has perfect consistency; the paragraphs are explicitly paragraphs; each topic is broken into a section.

While the technology is hard, it’s much harder to get the humans to actually build content this way. It adds a layer of complexity to the creation and management of content, and it may not matter for things like novels. But when magazines are structured by articles and organized by topic, instead of glommed into “issues,” and when medical reference content is tagged and organized by disease or patient type, computers can better find and display what’s interesting, what’s relevant or what’s important to the user. It’s already happening in many specialties, but imagine how it would open new models for, say, entertainment.

Publishers that invest in the know-how and technology to construct content with structure will benefit most quickly from the winning product models of tomorrow. It can be as simple as storing and grouping content in topic-relevant chunks, or as advanced as tagging evergreen content with rich metadata.

3. Everything will be in the cloud.

Software will live in the network, perpetually accessible from PCs, tablets, mobile phones, eyewear, watches and other network-connected devices in the evolving “Internet of Things”. In many cases, it also means that publishers will come to rely on the software services of other companies and their own “clouds” in a delicate but intricate commingling of many technologies.

As a corollary to the dominance of HTML, this includes the gradual decline in the relevance of mobile apps. It won’t be immediate, but the performance of mobile content display over the web will soon approximate that of apps, obviating the need for closed systems like the App Store. Publishers that invest in open web technologies based on responsive HTML will be free of the tax of proprietary systems while establishing a more direct relationship with their customers. Apps matter, but the trend is bearish. Everything will, in the end, live in the cloud.

4. Content will be dynamic.

While obvious, this shift profoundly undermines the business model of traditional publishing. The industry’s traditional financial model assumes a fixed cost of production followed by a period of time when those costs can be recouped on the product. New product models will, by contrast, demand an ongoing investment in the same product, and that’s why the industry is quickly shifting to a subscription-based model rather than a perpetual license model as with books. The former supports ongoing investment that tracks with its value; the latter mirrors the one-and-done model of print-based product development.

The change is important in even more subtle ways, however. Content on your iPhone, when downloaded, must “phone home” in search of updates. Content must be viewable offline but nonetheless be updatable. Customers won’t forward a “file” to someone attached to an email; they’ll send a URL. Winning product models will embrace the never-ending dynamism that the HTML-centric, structured, cloud-powered world enables.

5. Real-time, user-focused data will shift product development.

Publishing will be utterly transformed by the rich data afforded by each of the technologies I’ve discussed above. Consider the example of the advertising industry. Practically overnight, online advertising fundamentally changed how businesses market themselves and their products, and it all had to do with access to real time data that could be fed back into the product. As the Mad Men gave way to the Math Men and women, those who learned to adapt from the data thrived, and those who failed to heed the inconvenient truths they saw in the data died.

Publishing is one of the last holdouts against the big data revolution, but that’s changing. Data presents an opportunity to serve readers and learners with far more effective products than books could ever be. What if we knew just how much people used our books, down to the second? What if we could see that, within a week of a new course being used, 83% of users got question 4 in topic 6 wrong? How would we change that the product to improve comprehension? The possibilities are endless, but they demand radically different product development methodologies.

Thriving in the Unknown

We can’t predict everything. For example, the mobile device landscape remains highly fragmented–just this week, Amazon entered the smartphone market, adding yet another platform to the ever-expanding mix of consumer devices. It was difficult to foresee the iPad, and it is hard to know what will further shift our landscape five years from now. Focusing on what you know–and optimizing around those known knowns–is the safest way to take risk in product development. The five assertions above are among the safest technology guardrails.

The risk of forced change notwithstanding, publishers can study the follies and successes of other industries in plotting a course for success. They’re certainly not the first to experience these forces. In the third article in this series, I’ll look at some relevant examples from the recent past in adjacent industries and then extract a few lessons that publishers can take to heart now. As Edmund Burke once said, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. With the right perspective, many publishing companies are poised to make history instead.

Ready to get thinking about creating content within these five constraints? We just released a free how-to eBook, “5 Mission-Critical Questions for Digital Content Creation.” With learnings gathered from years of working with some of the world’s leading publishers, this guide contains five questions you should ask before starting just about any digital content project to ensure success without wasting time and money. Get it here.