Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Back to Basics: The Lean, Mean Publishing Machine?

Everything comes in cycles, they say, and lately, it looks like a lot of publishing companies are focusing on simplifying their business strategies, eliminating the “extra” business lines, and focusing on the core products and services that really represent the strengths of their brands.



In a post titled, “The Publisher of the Future,” Digital Book World highlights Mike Shatzkin’s take on the evolving business models of today’s publishing companies. The trend is that many companies are shying away from the general trade model and depending less on the role of the traditional bookstore. Wiley is one such company that has been evolving its strategy to compete in today’s challenging landscape, which can be seen in its decision to sell Frommer’s to Google and instead invest in building up its professional and educational offerings. Similarly, Hyperion, the Disney-owned publishing company, is selling off most of its backlist to better focus on strictly TV-related publications.

In reflection of these developments, Shatzkin predicts that publishers will:

…be shedding overheads so they can expand or shrink their offerings more readily to respond to opportunities and circumstances. They will be less dependant on the trade bookstore and book review trade networks. And Hyperion’s decision says something more about the future that Wiley’s doesn’t: book publishing will increasingly be an activity operating in tandem with or in service of other objectives of the owning organization.

Sounds familiar, eh? Going back to basics is an interesting trend, particularly when we’ve become so used seeing the tech giants expand, expand, and expand some more. (Remember when Google was just a search engine? Remember when Amazon only sold books, nothing else, and certainly didn’t try to publish them?)

But these tech giants, as Shatzkin points out in his post, have set the tone for publishers today in a lot of ways, by linking the business of publishing to other service/product models. (Speaking of which, it looks like Google is launching an ebook line to tie into an augmented reality game.) Publishers need to find ways to adapt to changing customer demands and increasingly competitive circumstances. It seems like we’re seeing a little bit of, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Coming back to Google, book publishers aren’t the only ones who are simplifying their business models, or at least changing their priorities. Even Google has been refocusing its resources, as we’ve just seen with the rather unpopular and inconvenient announcement that it will be retiring Google Reader, its RSS service, to focus on other things more directly in line with its business objectives.

And to take a step outside of book publishing for a moment, magazine publishers are making similar moves. Time Warner, for example, announced that it would be spinning off 21 magazines into separate companies. As quoted in this PaidContent post, CEO Jeff Bewkes stated the following in the company’s news release:

After a thorough review of options, we believe that a separation will better position both Time Warner and Time Inc. A complete spin-off of Time Inc. provides strategic clarity for Time Warner Inc., enabling us to focus entirely on our television networks and film and TV production businesses, and improves our growth profile.

It’s a strange time to be in publishing, for sure. While it is great to see companies redefining themselves to better adapt to changing market conditions, announcements like these don’t necessarily bode well for employment rates in the industry. And honestly, what’s scarier to me is that while other well-known companies are downsizing, redefining, and streamlining, Amazon continues to spread its wings and dip into markets well beyond their original business model.

For instance, Amazon just recently announced its new imprint, “Little A,” which will be a literary imprint of novels, memoirs, and short story collections. Although Amazon already has a number of imprints to its name, part of me wonders if this one will have a bigger impact than most, particularly since it looks like its focusing on making a debut splash with well-known names like James Franco. (Side note: I still don’t know how James Franco has managed to do absolutely everything. Between Justin Bieber parodies,  acting on Broadway, and starring in countless TV and films, how the heck has he found time to be an author? Anyway…)

I’m not surprised that a lot of publishers are refocusing their energies, and I think it’s a smart move: To maintain the status quo would certainly be a quick death. But at the same time, it does feel like the odds aren’t exactly in the publishers’ favor.

What do you think? Are you surprised by any of these developments? Do you think Amazon’s new imprint will make a splash? Or will we see similar downsizing efforts on Amazon’s part in the near future? (One can dream, right?)


This entry was posted on March 19, 2013 by in Business, Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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