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Publishers, don't pave that cow path

Lonely Planet's Gus Balbontin on agility in the digital age.

As new publishing processes and platforms hit the market at increasing rates, publishers face bewildering choices. Where should they invest their time and money? What are the best technologies?

Gus Balbontin (@gusbalbontin), global innovation manager at Lonely Planet and a speaker at TOC 2011, has a different take on adaptation. In the following interview, he explains why agility and a willingness to try everything are the keys to digital success.

Lonely Planet has been transforming into a multi-channel content producer for a couple of years now. What hasn’t worked during that transition?

TOC 2011Gus Balbontin: One issue we had was that we focused first on what we were doing. We needed to get the product right and it needed to look like this, and it needed to fulfill the customer in this way.

What we realized was that the market and the industry are shifting so quickly that trying to focus on the product too much will get you into the “death wobbles,” as we call them in Australia. In traditional publishing we tend to “concrete the cow path” — if the cow is going from the paddock to the waterhole this way, let’s concrete it so the cow goes faster. Then the cow decides there’s actually another way that’s quicker, and you realize that you’ve concreted the cow path for no reason whatsoever. Our instinct in publishing is to say: “What is your new pathway? I’ll concrete that one.”

The lesson is that you don’t want to concrete your cow paths. It is all about how you do things. You need to remain incredibly flexible. You need to intuitively understand your industry and your customer. Focusing on how you do things rather than focusing on exactly what it is that you’re doing is something we learned over the last few years.

What’s been your biggest success thus far?

GB: The biggest success has been focusing on the absolute essence of Lonely Planet, which is our content. Customers are starting not to see the borders between an app, an ebook, and a book. They want to have the same experience across all of these things; not the same features, but definitely the same experience. Have we nailed it yet? Of course not. We’re still on the journey.

What emerging technologies should publishers pay attention to?

GB: You have to poke your finger at everything that is coming out to actually understand it. It goes back again to how you do things. If you are nimble, you should be able to test everything quickly and cheaply. That’s where Lonely Planet is now. We can quickly throw together a prototype, figure out how we’re going to do it, and then test the market. That’s where you need to be.

One of the things I always think about is the convergence of all of these technologies. An app is a great little product you can do; an ebook is a great product you can do; a book is a great product you can do; and a game is a great product you can do. But when you bring all of those platforms together, you provide a much richer product experience.

What would “Harry Potter” look like if you provided an experience that went far beyond the book itself or far beyond the movie? Something that was actually in between those two, plus the game, plus another thing. At the moment, they do put the game out, and they put out the movie, and they put out the book. But it’s still not seamless enough for the customer. You can put out a product in each one of those channels, but you cannot seamlessly read the book on a plane, and as you walk off the plane, grab your phone and continue your experience there.

I look at how Apple focuses on the experience more than the channel. So, if you’re sitting at home, and you’ve got your Mac open in your kitchen, and you’ve got an Apple TV sitting underneath your telly, all of a sudden, an extra device — the TV — has become a valuable part of the experience. Apple didn’t publish a product for the TV, a product for your laptop, etc. They just gave you an experience with three or four different channels that allow you to enjoy your content in a different way.

Publishing across platforms will be discussed at the 2011 Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, Feb. 14-16. Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

How should the structure of publishing organizations change to accomodate the digital shift?

GB: Most companies, as they evolve, say: “There’s a new channel. We’ll create a new part of the company.” So, all of a sudden, you’ve got your print business, and then you’ve got this digital business, or a dot-com business, and then a mobile business. That’s one of the key things that needs to change.

Also, you need to stop the book metaphor from permeating an organization. You need to erase it if you can and try to become horizontal rather than vertical in the way you operate. It is incredibly tricky to break those barriers.

The essence of what the print people have known for 500 years is still the same in the digital world: you still have to publish great content. Yes, the tone may change a little. Yes, the experience might be slightly different. But at the end of the day, the people creating the content are humans. The people consuming it are also humans. The same humans that consume print consume digital. It’s not different.

Stephen Fry recently released his autobiography across multiple platforms. Is that the new publishing model?

GB: That’s the first step toward experiencing each one of the channels that are valuable to us today. That’s fine, but it still doesn’t provide a cohesive product or experience to the consumer. There is still a very clear fragmentation between the ebook, the book, and the app. We’re all struggling with that.

The next step is going to be much more cohesive. In the future, you’ll actually pump out content in one way, and that content will be consumed in 12 different ways, but it’s the same experience across all of those. Publishers won’t have to prepare content each time for each of the platforms.

What will publishing look like in 10-20 years?

GB: For me, it’s going to be about the customers. We have to fulfill needs rather than just push content out that we think is right. It’s going to be a seamless world where customers pick a combo of information and platform.

In terms of technology, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m hoping that eventually we’ll be able to play with our brains a little bit and implant all of those different bits of information that we want, so I can take Spanish into my brain and go to Spain and enjoy it in a much richer way because I can actually speak Spanish. How cool would that be?

In terms of the next 10 or 20 years, the essence of what publishers are doing won’t change at all. This is what should make publishers feel comfortable about the future. The reason why you’re there and the problems that you can solve for customers won’t change. That’s what you need to keep focusing on.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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