RocketSpace and Pearson Publishing put together a panel discussion in San Francisco this week on "The Future of Publishing". They assembled an esteemed group of progressive publishers attempting to tease-out the future of our dear publishing industry. The passion of the panelists was as evident as their exasperation as they discussed the present state of publishing, the near future, and the sort-of-not-too-distant future. Here's the concise version of the evening.

Each panelist in attendance seemed to acknowledge the scattered, unclear direction of the digital publishing world with open eyes and an honest effort to understand and adapt.  Each of them had a motivation to deliver quality content and to allow the creator and distributor of that content to gain deserved compensation. Each appeared to be as excited about the potential of digital publishing, while also (more or less) in the dark about what that means.

The Legacy: Storytelling

To first understand the issue that a publisher faces, it becomes relevant to gain an insight into the passion that (most likely) drove them to this pursuit.

Storytelling is the heart of humanity; it's the most basic, important, emotional tenet of being human, and as Eileen Gittins of Blurb proclaimed, it may be the most important thing defining us as human. The origins of storytelling are ancient, and came to maturity with the written word.

As Matt MacInnis of Inkling (who had many insightful thoughts as a panelist) said, "The Book will not die." Book is capitalized here because I believe he refers to it as a philosophy, not a vessel.

Matt commented that if stories are the heart of humanity, the Book is its single most important creation. It is the reason information was able to travel and we are able to compound upon our innovations. One cannot even imagine the impact that this concept would have on the brain; it is a before-and-after event in our history. 

We are at another such event.

We have reached the pinnacle of the printed word and we are entering a time when words shift through the ether (er, cloud). They take on life, and become organic. A printed book can no longer keep pace with a digital world; not only because it cannot be interactive, but because it cannot grow.

For the same reason we do not carry around stone tablets or scrolls, we no longer see the use in carrying around a book. We are no longer limited to the concept of a "page," although most published works are sorted and consumed that way because we haven't adapted to that new way of thinking quite yet. Our legacy and learned behavior is inhibiting our progress.

Moving Forward: Making Money From Content

Publishers attempt to embrace this idea with a variety of efforts like building eBooks, allowing social interaction with the work and comments from readers as part of the experience and delivering immediately relevant content constantly.

Aside from seeking ways to engage with readers, publishers seem to be fighting -- just like we are -- to keep pace with the world as it changes around us. That might be the reason they have trouble creating a business model that extends more than a few years into the future. It may also be the reason a new device or portal for content comes to the market every couple of months.

Experimentation is prolific and necessary. 

This proliferation of new content forms creates as many problems as opportunities. It offers the author a venue for self-publication, but creates a technical barrier at the same time. Not only does the creator need to run his content through multiple platforms, he will also inevitably neglect one or two and leave somebody out. 

That leads me to the common question coming out of the crowd of mostly writers: How does one achieve effective monetization of their content?

The short answer is "having desirable content." The long answer is uncertain.

Rob Grimshaw of FT.com made the excellent point that content is, or should be, where the money is. Whatever the vessel of delivery, the content is what the reader is purchasing.

That means charging the same amount for an online subscription as a daily newspaper. It means that cost structure wouldn't matter and the consumer won't care, because they're consuming it whatever way they prefer at the same price. This is a great model, but it falls short of seeing the future (not that it claims to).

In The End

Content is still King, and the scattered funnels by which it reaches us are doing their best to maintain a winning profit margin. We're doing our best to engage the future of publishing by engaging our readers, but we all need to step outside the box a bit before the future becomes the present.