Publishers should stop muddling along and start transforming the sector

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By Wouter Poot

Books have always been part of summer holiday packing lists. But today’s packing lists also include iPads and laptops so we can play video games and watch our favourite Netflix series or YouTube content. It’s all about leisure activities and books and magazines are just one of the options. This means publishers are now competing with a much wider group of companies in the Entertainment & Media sector.

As a result of this drastically changing environment publishers see their sales figures and advertising revenues fall and bestsellers are not bringing in enough to compensate for the losses. This has been going on for years and surely they will survive a few years longer. But to make sure books in all its shapes and forms will still be on the holiday packing lists of future travellers, publishers need to step out of their comfort zone. 

Now is the time for publishers to join forces, reassess customer needs, and change business plans, so they can start facing the new competitors. They must actively fight for their position in the wider Entertainment & Media market. Part of the strategy is to invest in product innovation. Publishers will have to tailor their products and services to the changing needs and habits of their customers. To achieve this they should have an open mind and keep off the beaten tracks.

Focussing on today’s consumers we see that their attention span has become shorter and that they are only willing to spend a limited amount of time on reading. This is why publishers should rethink the traditional format of books. To remain attractive to future readers, books need to be more accessible and concise. Of course this touches on a sore spot of culture-loving publishers and editors, but if they want to survive in the changing market it’s inevitable that they change their business model and focus on what consumers really want. Besides, if they manage to increase their sales, they will be able to fund the publishing of traditional literary works.

In today’s market the switch to digital is inevitable. Educational book publishers are leading the way, since they already made this switch to meet the needs and expectations of the younger generations. Following from the digitisation trend it’s an option for publishers to create a platform where all different content types are available. The music industry can serve as an example here. Apple Music, Spotify and Google Play Music offer virtually all available music on one platform in a way that is easily accessible and convenient for consumers.

Changing the business model is not only about digitisation and making print more efficient and profitable, but also includes changing the traditional way of working. For instance, the way publishing contracts are negotiated and the habit of paying substantial book advances. In fact, rethinking the relationship between author and publisher is really necessary.

The world is changing fast and so are the needs and expectations of consumers. I truly believe the publishing sector can transform itself in order to get ready for the future. But the future is starting now and publishers should act rather sooner than later. My advice would be: stop navel-gazing and look beyond the boundaries of the traditional publishing sector!  

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Wouter Poot
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