Another week, another ex-publisher announcing the death of publishers. This time around it’s Matt Shatz, erstwhile Vice President of Digital for Random House in the US, now Head of Strategic Content Relations for Nokia … whatever that means. Shatz’s argument is simple: the role of publishing as a middle man between authors and retailers is diminishing with the advent of digital, to the point where their power, and therefore their business, cannot be sustained.
This argument stems from the idea that as markets become digitised, they become more efficient. Or at the very least, they lose a lot of dead weight. And I don’t disagree with that point – it is essentially what needs to happen for the book publishing industry to survive. It’s arguably what happened (and is still happening) in the music industry, and it is happening right now in the film industry. Middle men who are reliant on doing things the way they’ve always been done can end up left behind when things change quickly. Well, duh.
Shatz thinks publishers could retain their position, but it’s unlikely. He says that in order to do so, publishers would have to capitalise on new ways of reaching potential audiences, in order to convince authors that they still have more reach than anyone else. What they need, he says, is to gather and use metadata more effectively.
To do that, they’d have to leverage their uniquely deep knowledge of books to master metadata that in the search-driven online world replaces the book cover as the critical discovery vehicle for books. So, for example, if a user searches for a book by mood, location, writing style or author awards, the publisher would provide information that optimizes a book’s reach.
For those who don’t know what metadata is, in this context it just means all of the information associated with a digital product. So with a music file like an MP3, the metadata is the title, album, track number, lyrics, artwork and any other information that is stored with the music itself. Shatz argues that capturing and using this metadata effectively is something that retailers like Amazon and Apple can do far more effectively than publishers – and that this information will be the key to unlocking the future of book publishing.
Their access to what people are actually reading will create a robust set of data that their army of analysts can use effectively. For example, a user who reads Jonathan Franzen’s new tome Freedom all the way through twice is a more likely a buyer for his next book than someone who received the book as a gift and never opened it. In the past nobody knew the difference between the two. In the future, leading retailers will.