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Three questions for…Lou Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld Media is bringing the concept of "publisher as platform" to life

1. You recently wrote an article talking about how Rosenfeld Media is “now more than a publishing company.” You talk about adding consulting and training services to your portfolio. How would you respond to skeptics who might say that’s fine for your business, but a typical trade publisher doesn’t have the content or expertise that lends itself to this diversification?

Publishers without content or expertise? I hope they manage to enjoy the view of the approaching iceberg while fumbling for their life jackets.

Every publisher has content, and content is essentially a captured, polished form of authors’ expertise. So we already have access to content and its source expertise. And we already have audiences. I’m simply suggesting that we connect those dots in a more effective way. How? By asking ourselves a simple question: which formats are the best for matching our expertise with our audiences? Maybe books, but maybe also classes, consulting, or all of the above.

These are pretty straightforward ideas, really, and nothing new: publisher as platform, format agnosticism, and growing the content ecosystem. Yet publishers still see themselves as being in the book business, despite the crush of new formats, and despite the fact that books can upsell to all sorts of other expertise-based products and services. I think that’s a dangerous course.

And all this ecosystem nonsense ultimately leads to better content. Your author’s expertise is tested and improved when they consult, when they present, and when they teach, just as it is when they write. Whatever the end product, it will be better if it’s been forged through a variety of content formats. Why wouldn’t publishers want to support this–especially when it opens up new revenue streams?

2. These services you’re adding are outside the scope of a typical publisher’s staff. Have you been able to re-train and extend your staff’s capabilities or did the consulting and training operations require new staff with new skills?

Staff? Training? We have two full-time staff (including myself), plus a bunch of free-lancers. If our model is successful, sure, we’ll have to grow–perhaps to the astounding size of 15 full-timers. And I’m confident we can continue to find partners or freelancers to help with the specifics of each format–be it consulting, online learning, and other formats–as we need them.

We need to stay small because infrastructure kills. As in any mature industry, many publishers have become too large and too invested in legacy thinking, practices, and formats–like the book–to adapt. So our goal is to maintain just enough infrastructure so we can stay nimble–straddling between the extremes of traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Also, our vertical is relatively small; while that chokes our ability to grow, it does help us keep close tabs on what’s important: our audience, and the kinds of content they need. So perhaps we’ll never be an especially lucrative business, but we’ll do good work and will do so sustainably.

3. If you’re successful, five years from now, what percentage of Rosenfeld Media’s overall sales would you anticipate will come from books (both print and e)?

Because we’ve already diversified to offering public workshops, our breakdown last year was approximately 65% books and 35% workshops. In five years, I’d expect it to be 35% in-house training, 25% consulting, 25% books, and 15% public workshops.

But that’s not really the only way to look at it. The books, for example, might generate 25% of our revenue, but given that they reach tens of thousands of customers, they offer a fantastic means for widely promoting our other, higher-end services, not to mention our overall brand. So if you look at the books through the lens of an ecosystem, they can offer value that goes far beyond their sales.

One last thought: we’ve been talking here about publishers and publishing. Those terms are now meaningless remnants from another century. Why do we continue to use them? I’ll bet dollars to donuts that any company involved with creating books would do well to ban the words “publish,” “publisher,” and “publishing” from their internal meetings. I can guarantee their discussions–and their ultimate business strategies–will be far better for it.

Lou Rosenfeld is founder and publisher of Rosenfeld Media.

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