The One Thing Publishers Can’t Afford to Overlook

Over the course of this series on the future of publishing, we’ve looked at the product-market fit issue facing publishers, a handful of fundamental truths about what the future holds, and the concrete steps publishers can take internally to address present and future challenges. In this fourth and last post, we’ll discuss the most practical single thing publishers must do in order to thrive: partner.

Every company has the “one thing” that makes it unique in the world. It’s the company’s source of competitive advantage. A company’s “one thing” isn’t chosen by the management team. In fact, it’s often not acknowledged explicitly. It’s typically recognized only after some degree of maturity is achieved in the business, and that “one thing” is often immutable for the life of a company. In fact, successful companies build the entire business around their “one thing,” so if the market need for that unique ability goes away, so does the business.

Take Apple as an example. They make software, they sell music, and they provide service and support. But these all rely on Apple’s “one thing”: designing and building consumer hardware devices. The operating systems, applications, music store, and retail stores–all of which are quite successful–are built to drive sales of Apple’s hardware to consumers. It explains why they don’t make PC or Android versions of their applications. It’s not hubris, it just wouldn’t align with Apple’s “one thing.”

You can run this thought experiment for many great companies. Microsoft is all about building complex software platforms, which is deceptively hard. Their hardware strategy drives software sales, the inverse of Apple’s model. Samsung is uniquely talented at assimilating and scaling new technologies. So they make refrigerators, televisions and smart watches. Wal-Mart has a unique and powerful bricks-and-mortar supply chain, so online selling hasn’t been an important part of their business.

In the same way, every publisher has its own “one thing.” Elsevier does a remarkable job of sourcing medical experts to serve the medical community; Random House does a remarkable job of cultivating fiction authors and distributing their stories. These skills may not be the true “one thing” of each of these publishers (only they really know what theirs is), but they differentiate these companies within their industry. It would be remarkably difficult (and foolhardy) for one to attempt to adopt the uniqueness of the other.

Thankfully, the world still needs the unique capabilities most publishers have. Medical professionals still need expert knowledge, and readers still crave well-crafted stories. The publishers that focus on their “one thing”, their true north, are the ones forging exciting next-generation products that will delight their customers. Publishers know how to build content, and they know the idiosyncrasies of their specific market segments. The winners will leverage those skills to consider new product models, but they won’t attempt to be something they’re not.

This means that publishers that successfully transition to digital products will partner with companies that have complementary skills. Startups are risky partners, but when you’re braving new product territory, startups are also the ripest source of innovative technology. If you don’t play, you lose.

At Inkling, our “one thing” is our unique ability to help organizations build beautiful, structured content at scale. It’s a narrow, focused “one thing” with broad implications. That’s why we work well with publishers: the nuanced difficulties of building enterprise software makes our company entirely complementary–and incredibly valuable–to these companies. For a large publisher to develop this ability in-house would take more focus, capital and time than they can afford. So they partner with us.

Of course, I’ve experienced the alternative firsthand. Some publishers try to build their own technology infrastructure, and they’re trying to boil the ocean. First, they must deal with the complexity of revamping their content processes. But they must also, in parallel, figure out scalable software systems for building that content. They must figure out how to deliver the content. They must find winning end-user product models. And they must rearrange their go-to-market strategy around the new products. Wow! It’s altogether too much for a single company to handle.

Meanwhile, companies like Learnosity, Knewton, Scribd and Inkling hone their focused technologies. Learnosity helps you build assessments. Knewton helps you manage learner identities. Scribd helps you monetize your backlist titles in new ways. Inkling helps you build the content that lives in your applications. There are a dozen other examples, and it’s difficult to imagine any single publishing company being excellent in all of these areas at once. And yet that’s precisely what they must do to compete.

Each publisher has its “one thing,” inevitably centered around an ability to source great content and deliver it to customers in a way that helps them achieve something. No two publishers are the same. I have yet to meet a publisher with a compelling core competency in software, however, and that’s OK. To partner right, publishers must seek the companies whose “one thing” is complementary to their own, and focus on speed to market, not on owning the technology. If you own technology that’s three years behind the technology your competition sourced from a partner, you’ve lost.

If you partner and win–and it’s a much easier way to win–you’ve got options. As with any industry in transition, publishers need flexibility… and all the options they can get.

In this series, I’ve given my firsthand perspective on a segment of the publishing industry: where it stands, the technology trends that will drive product innovation, and key ways that publishers will survive. Adapt to technology changes, and don’t resist them. Focus on product innovation, not financial optimization. And partner with innovative young companies, despite the risks involved. Thoughts on my posts and the future of publishing? Share them in the comments!