Once upon a time, in a galaxy not that far away, publishing was a staid, gentlemanly business. TV networks ruled the media world and the flagship of a company called TIME Inc. was TIME Magazine. Waldenbooks and Barnes and Noble were the archenemies of the independent booksellers, as they battled it out for supremacy. Amazon was a tiny, insignificant start-up. That world has disappeared into the past, vanishing just as thoroughly as the Roman Empire, and it’s not coming back.
And although the whole world is changing, it’s hard to think of an industry harder hit by technological change than “the media”; and within the world of the media, publishing has taken the biggest hit--magazines and newspapers faring the worst. When is the last time you read TIME Magazine? Whatever happened to Newsweek? LIFE Magazine was one of the first to fall, a victim of digital photography, but it only started a trend that’s accelerating. Time Warner is spinning off its publishing divisions, which includes some of the grandest names in the world of magazines.
Newspapers, with the notable exception of The Wall Street Journal, are in a death spiral……declining circulation leading to declining revenue, which leads to staff cutbacks, which leads to less high quality reporting, which leads to declining circulation, repeat……Bookstores seem like quaint (but pleasant) anachronisms, major publishing companies like Houghton Mifflin, Little, Brown and Company, Harcourt, McGraw Hill, and many more—they’ve become imprints, merged, gone bankrupt, or disappeared. From the traditionalist point of view, it’s the worst of times.
But for the consumer it’s the dawn of a golden age. No longer do a few major corporations spoon-feed their viewpoint on the news or learning to a captive audience. Now, anyone can be a writer and a publisher (although of course not everyone can have readers). There are so many news sources on the Internet it’s hard to keep up, but you can read as many different perspectives on the news as you take the time to find. Self-publishing has produced some major bestsellers by unknown authors…..think Fifty Shades of Grey. Do you think that novel would have found an agent and publisher?
For the unscrupulous consumer, piracy is everywhere. There was an article in The Wall Street Journal ("Media Journal: TV Studios Hunt for Video Pirates", Monday, March 4, 2013) about how quickly pirated copies of TV shows hit the Internet. Within minutes after a recent episode of Suits concluded, unauthorized copies were popping up, and within an hour there were nearly 450 sites offering the show free, many already translated into foreign languages.
Downloading illegal copies of hit movies or games isn’t without its risks however, even though the chances of being prosecuted are remote. Riding up a ski lift I heard a college student lamenting his bad luck to a friend. He’d downloaded a game off a bit torrent site, and he’d gotten a lot more loaded to his hard drive than just the game. He’d done his best to clean off the spam software he didn’t want, but now his computer wouldn’t boot. That’s a bad trade, and realistically, why take the risk when there are so many good, legitimate sites offering almost unlimited shows for less than $10 a month? Sites like Netflix, and now Amazon, are game changers. Want to watch the first four seasons of Breaking Bad without any commercial interruptions and a fast forward button for the slow parts? It’s right there on Netflix. Think what that does to the old media model of free TV paid for by advertisers.
So what’s a book publishing company to do? Generally the old guard doesn’t ‘get it’, and reacts by simply trying to take existing content online, oftentimes enhanced into ‘interactive editions’. That’s a good first step, but the problem is that producing interactive editions costs a whole lot more in editorial and development and there is the cost plus risk of running the technical platform, yet consumers expect the ‘books’ to cost less since there is not a physical book. It makes for an unprofitable situation, and it’s also just a stopgap measure.
The explosion of information on the Internet has resulted in a situation where consumers are able to individualize their learning experience. They are no longer passive, sitting there listening to a network anchor tell them what’s important. Now they can read or view whatever they want, and if something catches their fancy, more information is just a Google (or Bing) away. (Too bad for Bing that Google has moved into the to “Kleenex” category. Even if someone is searching on Bing, they’ll still say they are Googling the topic).
What this means for educational publishers in particular is that the trend towards differentiated learning will accelerate. To really be successful the new digital learning systems have to adjust to the student and teacher. Most educational publishers have figured out this first step: If a student is having trouble in a certain area, the program has to concentrate his efforts in that area and perhaps make the questions easier. However, systems have to go beyond that and take advantage of the whole Internet. Think about how the Drudge Report works. It’s one of the most popular news sites on the entire Internet, visited by literally billions of people, and it’s run by a staff of about 4 people. All they do is post links to other stories, and off the reader goes, to news sources around the globe. These new learning systems have to do the same thing—if a student wants to learn more about a topic, let’s say volcanoes, you need a technology that allows him to leave your system and enter the incredible world of the Internet, and then return home, safe and sound. That’s true individualized learning, and so far it’s not been done, but it’s coming. Just make sure those parental controls are foolproof—you never know what will turn up when you Google ‘volcanoes’.