25 March 2008

The three faces of publishing

When civilians talk about publishing, they almost always mean the world of book signings and movie rights. I'm a stranger in that world, although I've spent much of my career in publishing. As I told Jim McCormack's graduate class at Emerson College last year, publishing isn't one business, it's at least 3 very different businesses:
  • The entertainment business, where you find Harry Potter and Henry Miller. Highly vulnerable to recession and to competition from other entertainment options (Internet, television, movies, etc.)
  • The information business, where you find textbooks, academic journals, reference books, and the like. Spending is less discretionary (you can read a Harry Potter book, watch a Harry Potter movie, or do neither. But you can't pass Calculus without your Calculus text, whether you get it in print or on your laptop.)
  • The inspiration business, where you find religion and the softer varieties of self-help. (If you think inspiration is too trivial to deserve its own category, consider that in 2006, religious publishing revenues grew 5.6%, versus 3.2% growth for US book publishing as a whole.)
If you look at publishing this way, some segments are more viable than others, but all of them are defined by ideas and audiences, not delivery systems. This is probably what Time and Warner (and Harcourt and General Cinema) had in mind when they merged, but they couldn't make it work, because their principal revenue streams were tied to delivery systems, not content.

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