Publishing Needs to Turn a New Page


By Samuel Greengard

Digital technology is shredding the publishing industry. Newspapers are bleeding red ink, and book and magazine publishers are scrambling to find new ways to connect to readers and earn a profit.

Remarkably, the publishing industry is following in the same muddy footsteps of the music and film industries, which have also gotten shellacked by a new breed of consumers who access content in new and profoundly different ways.

Like many people, I subscribe to a number of magazines and I read books regularly. The problem is that content is typically restricted to a particular format or channel. I buy a print book and I have to buy the e-book separately. I subscribe to a magazine and I have to pay full price for an electronic subscription.

I'm not sure who figured out the current business model, but I can say with certainty that it is really, really stupid--and it undermines potential revenues. What incentive does a consumer have to pay $20 a year for a print magazine and $20 a year for the electronic version of the same publication? I'm willing to guess that almost no one is willing to pay for both.

Someday, some brilliant publishing executive will figure out that it's possible to charge print subscribers another $2 or $ 4 a year for electronic access to a magazine. Book publishers will stumble across the idea that it's possible to add a unique code to a print book that could be used for one-time download of an e-book for a few dollars more. Or, better yet, they'll come up with a way for people to convert their existing libraries to e-books for a reasonable price.

In April, Walmart introduced a disk-to-digital system that converts movies and then stores them in the cloud for $2 to $5, depending on the type of disk and the quality desired. Kudos to Walmart.

The problem with businesses--and we're not talking only about publishers and other content producers--is that executives think in terms of sales channels and porting products over to the digital world using the same business models that worked in the physical world. Let's get one thing straight: Consumers don't think in terms of channels. They simply want convenience and flexibility at a fair price.

The writing is on the wall ... and screen. It's as complicated--or as simple--as businesses want to make it.