The impact of new inventions is overestimated in the short-term, and underestimated in the longer term, as the expression goes. And there can be no new idea that has conformed more perfectly to both parts of that maxim than the internet.
Digital affects everything. From food manufacturing, through to clothes production, from entertainment to health – everything we do in our modern lives has been touched by the digital revolution in some significant way.
However this presents a danger in how people respond to digital opportunities. It is a danger that is seen frequently, and is especially common when companies are asked to create a digital strategy. The danger is one of digital sirens, or put less prosaically, the allure of bright shiny things.
Growth rates in digital media are in aggregate far higher than in traditional media – typically 10-15% versus 0-3%. Naturally double-digit figures are bright and shiny for organisations whose shareholders demand growth. Equally naturally, just being in digital is no guarantee of these sorts of growth rates as many book, magazine, television and film organisations have experienced through failed digital investments. Slapping on a layer of shiny digital activities may feel good to inexperienced executives, but to digitally-aware customers it will appear as authentic as a presidential press briefing.
A website with a list of books has little value to author, reader or publisher. It costs money to create and keep looking fresh. But what is the point of spending valuable marketing budget on a website when Google and Amazon remain the first point of call to find and browse titles? Would it not be a more efficient use of money to focus on reaching the audiences where they already?
The best way that I have seen from television and internet media companies is to understand their customers in detail, talk to them and be able to answer simple question: Why do people like who we are?
Hopefully the answer will reveal the nature, values and identity of the publisher as if it were a human being. In a two-way medium like the internet, knowing its character allows it to have conversations with readers that build relationships, loyalty and authenticity.
If this question can be answered then there are strong foundations on which a digital future can be built. If not, and you want to be in the two-way flow, it might be better to sell the business and start again. It will be easier than trying to forces a transformation on employees who are likely to be resistant to change.
In this age where the world struggles to find truth from leaders, intelligence from mainstream media, or values from under-pressure schooling systems, perhaps the role of the publisher in this new digital age is more fundamental to society than just books. Perhaps this is the time for the editors and publishers to step up and take a guiding role in the education and protection of society’s values – however you define them.
The anger aimed at Simon and Schuster for commissioning Milo Yiannopoulos‘s book is, I believe, a reflection of how we see publishers. Old school maybe, but also consistent in their ability to be a sensible moral compass for those willing to take the time to read a book and not get caught up in headlines.
Perhaps the digital future for book publishers is not as digital unicorns conjuring shiny new digital projects, but rather as guardians, arbiters and curators of quality and values – as editorial guides with a deep understanding of the digital revolution who can provide audiences with the filters that are needed in an increasingly filterless world.