George Berkowski's FutureBook Conference podium warmer

Image - iStockphoto: Peshkova
Image – iStockphoto: Peshkova

The Bookseller’s The FutureBook 2014 Conference programme on 14th November promises to have the widest scope and most inquisitive bent yet, in terms of signalling digital directions ahead.

Keynote commentary will come from not only from author and entrepreneur George Berkowski, but also from WGSN’s Carla Buzasi, and — in conversation with Philip Jones — Penguin Random House’s Tom Weldon. 

Hurry to secure your seat, as sales will be closed on Tuesday, 11 November.

One problem is that I don’t know what publishing is anymore. Publishing is Twitter, publishing is blogging, publishing is magazines and books. To me, this is just different formats to digest two things—information and entertainment—in different ways.

George Berkowski
George Berkowski

And that’s one of the least provocative comments made by The FutureBook Conferencekeynote speaker George Berkowski in his Q&A with our Bookseller colleague Tom Tivnan. 

We want to look at the nature of some of the things Berkowski brings to the table as the conference nears. His comments may signal some of the best questions now for the smartest decision-makers ahead.

When everybody can publish. Everybody.

Even a comment that sounds as off-handed as “I don’t know what publishing is anymore” has more weight than some might give it. From “blog-your-book” efforts in some writing programmes to the book-making efforts of major manufacturers as part of marketing schemes, publishing simply is no longer restricted to the publishers. And factor in the social-media contexts in which Berkowski rightly identifies publishing, as well, to get a vast, demanding range of possible venues and volumes of publishing: the opportunity is to leverage them with profitable effectiveness while avoiding the potential pitfalls of spreading messages and staffs’ efforts too thin.

This is what Berkowski is getting at when he tells Tivnan:

I would argue that big publishers should have a mastery of those formats, and it should be done as a portfolio: a big chunk of information that is digested through different channels. The fact that book publishers don’t do things like magazines or run blog networks astounds me, because to me it’s very similar and it’s converging—and quickly.

  • Can you bring to us an example of a setting in which a publishing entity is working well with that “portfolio” approach Berkowski describes?
  • Is there an arena in which you see a coherent dissemination of message across multiple channels with the right tailoring to each platform’s nature and potential?

Do we understand when and how to ‘cannibalise’ the business?

Berkowski, a serial entrepreneur, has created ventures in manned spaceflight, online dating, transportation, and apps. His tech-based viewpoint is easily aligned with the digitally-driven dilemmas publishing faces now.

One thing a lot of tech companies are doing, and have accepted, is that they have to cannibalise their own businesses in a sort of an ongoing, predictable way. And there is a science to that…Publishers should be actively embracing every channel and hiring people who can help them model how this cannibalisation works. Cannibalisation is inevitable, so accept it, and build it into your practice. Build stuff and fail, then figure it out and learn from failure.

To some degree, Berkowski could be referring to the sort of shared-wealth concepts of the Open Web, which come to the conference next week in commentary from Mozilla’s Jennie Rose Halperin and others. In other instances, free and deeply discounted marketing approaches to sales and product positioning can come into play as what a traditional publishing model might, indeed, call “cannibalisation” of existing and even future assets.

  • Can you see efforts in what we might call “fruitful cannibalisation” in publishing today?
  • What goes into a “science’ of directing such efforts prudently and profitably? Is HarperCollins in the US cannibalising its inventory when it pilots with BitLit in Vancouver to test bundling free ebook copies of print books customers have bought? Are subscription services — Oyster, Scribd, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited — cannibalising the catalogs to pander to an “all  you can read” impetus born in film and television but unsuited for publishing?

How productive is the Battle of Seattle?

Whingeing that you have competitors everywhere and fighting them by using legal and other primitive means only serves to piss off users, authors and distributors, and is really not a sustainable strategy.

Not much guessing needed on where this one might go:

  • How productive is it for publishing interests to look for legal means to battle retail developments they didn’t foresee?
  • Is publishing giving up precious production and marketing energy in fighting with Amazon and other tech-enabled forces in such battles?
  • Is Berkowski right that users are pissed off (as authors and distributors clearly are) with these publisher-retailer skirmishes? How aware and reactive to them are the users, the consumers — the readers?

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

The FutureBook: George Berkowski’s FutureBook Conference podium warmer

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