Publisher: a new role in data herding

To weather industry disruption, publishers essentially need to become leaders of big data and data intelligence companies.

In a recent interview at PBS’ Media Shift, Jason Ashlock, founder and president of Movable Type Management, addressed the changing roles of publishers and argued that they’re not innovating fast enough. Ashlock argues that we’re in the age of the author and direct audience engagement and that publishers need to become conduits for this engagement and curators of communities in addition to curators of quality books.

In a similar vein, Forbes writer Suw Charman-Anderson recently argued that publishers need to become retailers. As retailers, publishers put themselves in a position to collect customer data, which in turn puts them in a better position to offer customers unique additional value and experiences. O’Reilly’s Joe Wikert is a big proponent of the direct sales channel.

To weather the disruption in the industry, publishers do need to become strong multi-media companies as Ashlock suggests and retailers as Charman-Anderson suggests, but more than that — more to the root of that — publishers essentially need to become leaders of big data and data intelligence companies in order to capitalize on the benefits of these business models. They need to learn how to sift through and analyze data to extract meaning, quite a different business than traditional publishers are used to and not an easy task. As Adam Frank argues at NPR, making use of big data and data intelligence requires specialists who understand the intricacies and nuances of data, who know how to “separate the chaff from the real, useful insights.”

And it’s not just gathered data that will require expertise — publishers also need to know how to properly organize and construct data they produce. In a presentation (PDF) at Book in Browsers, Laura Dawson pointed out that as books increasingly become digital entities, publishers are going to need to better understand the web and know how to prepare books for search engine feeds:

“Why us? Why the book industry? Because the search engine industry doesn’t really care what results they display. Books are no more important to a search engine than anything else — it’s all data. If we want to make the search engine work for us, we have to engage it. We have to understand how it searches, what’s most effective on it. Just as the industry worked very hard in the 1990s to understand superstores and how they displayed books and what co-op could get us, so must we understand the new storefront — search.”

If this is starting to sound like a completely different business, it is. Perhaps the answer as to how to navigate this tumultuous and rapidly changing landscape lies in strategies like MacMillian is employing and other industries are mulling about, including even the open data industry: starting (or acquiring) in-house startups to create the business you’re going to need to become.

And publishers need to start doing something now. Amazon’s latest earnings report made it very clear: “Wall Street is on board with an Amazon business strategy that doesn’t require it to actually make profits as long as it increases sales volumes.

Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen laid out the over-arching obstacle in a recent conversation with Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton (Hat tip to Mathew Ingram). He’s talking about struggling news organizations’ business models here, but his point can serve as an apt warning for book publishing as well:

“I think we didn’t quite understand, and still don’t really understand, how quickly things fall off the cliff. I think the reason why this happens is that, even as the disruption is getting more and more steam in the marketplace, the core business persists, and really quite profitable for a very long time. Then, when the disruption gets good enough to address the needs of your customers, very quickly, all of a sudden, you go off the cliff. …. But I think we would all say that it’s frustrating that, even though managers who realize that disruption is occurring — even though they know it’s happening — they don’t do it, because the data becomes clear after the game is over. They really have to act on the basis of theory, which I think a lot of people find hard to do.”

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