The magazine and newspaper businesses are further down the digital path than are we book publishers. (Of course, just because there is such a path doesn’t mean that all businesses are going to have to progress all the way along it. Different businesses will doubtless have different outcomes.) Talking New Media tells us Lessons can be learned from ‘the old days’ of print publishing in the magazine business. (Link via Publishing Executive Insight.) Well maybe. The main lesson seems to be that management are all ignoramuses. I’ll bet that nobody working in any business hasn’t said (or at least thought) this at one time or another. And of course, until they have the blind luck to hit on the perfect strategy, all managers will tend to look like they are flailing about in the dark — as of course they are. Mr Hebbard reveals that the way forward is to follow the money. It doesn’t matter if it’s an e-book or a p-book, the important thing is to separate readers from their cash.
I guess that may count as a lesson learned, but it’s not really a media-specific idea. We can’t help thinking that other types of media should have lessons for us. We all know about the music business — prematurely written off by the commentariat, and the gaming business, which just because it sells strongly is held up as a model to us. From time to time we’ve tried to learn from newspapers and get advertising for the blank pages at the back of our books. It always seems to collapse into adverts for other similar books from our own backlist. Must just be the wrong lesson. In fact books have less in common with newspapers, music videos, and digital games than they do with many non-media products. Few people need another handbag; few people need another book — you can always read one you’ve owned for years, borrow a copy from a friend, or go on the waiting list at the library. But handbags and books get sold. The Economist recently did a piece on the piano business, and it struck me as having more in common with book publishing than do many of the industries we are often compared with. I’d not be altogether amazed if the future of the book business were not rather similar to the course of the piano business. For years Steinway have dominated the industry — almost all concert grands are Steinways. Bösendorfer, an Austrian manufacturer was recently taken over by Yamaha, who pretty much own the lower-price end of the market. In 1980 an Italian company was founded by Paolo Fazioli dedicated to making the best possible pianos. Fazioli pianos sell in the range of $200,000, rather more than Steinway’s, whose cheapest piano will cost you a mere $63,000. Mr Fazioli’s pianos have to be preordered; they are custom made for every buyer, and you have to wait about six months to get one. “Fazioli pianos have a clear, bell-like presence and an even line of sound” says Stephen Carter of Juilliard School which owns 275 Steinway pianos, more than anyone else in the world. They have one Fazioli and have two more on order The Economist tells us. Now books are different of course, but like pianos they’ll always be in demand, and people will be willing to pay a premium to get a good one.
Among all the doom and gloom about magazines we can see signs of change. What’s happening to them is an unexpected growth of specialized titles appealing to smaller audiences than the older business was accustomed to. It’s harder to make money selling fewer copies of course, but just because it’s no longer easy, it doesn’t mean it’s a disaster.
Sure books are a media format, but only part of our business is a mass media business. Even if trade publishing were to be drowned out by other entertainment media and disappear, books will still be published, and dare I suggest printed.