Updated: May 10, 2020
After I spent two days at Publishing Expo, here’s some stuff I get the impression the industry is now thinking. If you produce quality, interesting material, there’s a good chance people will buy it. If it’s original, genuine and authoritative, there’s an even better chance. It’s a good idea to get people to do what they are good at. Which also means investing in staff. Technology offers more opportunity to big business than it does to small business. But big business which doesn’t retain the agility of the small will suffer.
Some of that may seem little more than a stating of the bleedin’ obvious. And that in itself illustrates just how much, often self-imposed, confusion the industry has been stumbling around in for years. My very strong impression is that we’ve finally got over our fascination with medium and put message at the centre. The thought has occurred to me that I think this because it is something I have been banging on about for ages. And it’s also occurred to me that the publishing trade always likes to say it’s got it right, even when it quite obviously hasn’t. But I really do think there’s been a fundamental shift and that that shift is positive.
Thinking back over two days of fairly intense seminars, two of which I chaired, and networking, these are the snippets which are pushing themselves to the front of my brain.
• The Media Briefing‘s Neil Thackray asking why we ever thought that “spitting out a magazine on an iPad” was a good idea. The fact that he chose the day Apple launched iPad 2 to wan us not to “be seduced by the iPad’s beauty and wonder” was not lost. He advised finding out what apps and mobile devices could do and using these new options to build on successful brands.
• Consultant Dominic Jacquesson of Ink on dead trees asking why anyone ever thought it was a wise move to replicate a declining print product on a digital platform.
• Jeremy Leslie of Magculture wondering why so few people asked ‘why’ when developing digital strategies, lamenting the flat uniformity of much web publishing and challenging the notion that social media was ‘eating into’ traditional media time by using the example of his teenaged son who could “run his life on Facebook and watch TV at the same time”.
• The head of the PPA and the CEO’s of several major publishing companies arguing that it was important to hire staff, develop skills and not pretend everyone could do everything.
• The fact that print still generates most revenue and provides the resources to develop digital.
• Frequent exhortations to recognise the power and value of brand heritage, trust, authority and quality content.
• The fact that we may very soon be thinking fondly of WH Smith.
There’s so much more, and I’ll almost inevitably return to this subject once I have time to think more, and time to put those thoughts in order once I’ve reduced the mountain of work I’ve got to get through in the next few days. Work, incidentally, that fully utilises and stretches the skills I spent developing in over 20 years as a staff journalist but which I now get the chance to deploy on a far more interesting, stimulating and – in some cases – successful range of products than I ever have. Which is another observation to add to those above, I guess.
But what’s this about WH Smith? Back in the day when I used to work in print magazines for consumers, the growing power of WH Smith was a bit of a bugbear. We were, after all, magazine creatives, and we didn’t like being told what we should produce, how we should present it or how we should sell it. But if you wanted to sell a magazine, you almost always needed to be in WH Smith. So they charged a lot of money and came up with lots of hoops that publishers had to jump through if they wanted to be stocked. Small mags were driven out of business, diversity suffered, and WH Smith generally became hated but tolerated by the trade. Although we couldn’t admit it because we had to be nice to them otherwise they would stop taking our mags.
For WH Smith today, read Apple. Or Kindle. Or Google. But mostly Apple, because they produce more of the things which our customers read our stuff on than anyone else. Not only were there many discussions about Apple’s App Store rules and the 30% they take for the privilege of selling our products, but there were plenty of firms exhibiting who sought to exploit this gap between producer and seller by inserting themselves as a fourth party alongside that more familiar third party.
Let me explain. If you want people to read your ebook, digital mag or whatever, you need to make sure they can read it on a device that exists. That mostly means iPhones and iPads. But it also means Amazon’s Kindle, and Android smartphones. To get your product on there, you need to comply with the device makers’ conditions, and give them a slice of your profit. If you are a very big company, it is easier to absorb this as a necessary cost of doing business. If you are smaller it is not. But what everyone wants is the cheapest, most efficient way of getting their product onto the the devices out there. So a new layer of business is emerging which says, ‘give us your product and we will make sure it gets onto those devices as quickly and efficiently as possible. For a fee.’
What strikes me about technology is that it is always hailed as revolutionising the economy so that the individual is empowered, when it fact what happens is that big business always finds a way to use it better. Now, I’ve nothing necessarily against this. After all, we all make a living by convincing people that it is better to let us use our expertise than for them to bungle around. I just find it interesting that technology has, to some extent, removed us further from that nirvana in which the content creators get 100% of the profit they create.
All of that takes me back to the first Publishing Expo I attended, when I was on a panel of industry bigwigs – I was very much the poor relation – discussing the old ‘are subs dead?’ chestnut. I argued that the function remained but its application would probably be different. One of the other panellists was Roy Greenslade, who famously argued that subs were extinct. (Much discussion ensued, and checking back I notice that The Guardian’s moderator has deleted several of my comments from the thread following Roy’s first attempt to argue that he wasn’t arguing what he argued. As I’ve always been careful not to indulge in flaming on the web – too man people become ogres when put behind a keyboard – I’m a little mystified, although I notice I do admit to a sense of humour failure. None of us are perfect.)
I think I annoyed Roy by taking him up on his comment at Publishing Expo 2009 that when the print dispute happened, journalists thought “we were the masters now”. I asked how many times it had to be shown we weren’t before he got it. A bit blunt, perhaps, but we were talking about people’s jobs and the quality of the trade. I didn’t get the chance to discuss it further because after the session Roy stalked off. Three years on, these points seem uncontroversial. Skills and specialisms count and there is a realisation in the trade that a quality message was neglected due to obsession with medium.
I don’t make the point as an ‘I told you so’. None of us could see how things would turn out and I certainly haven’t called everything right. But it seems to me that, three years on from that debate, the industry has completed a long journey to return to basic principles. I started work as a stone sub (ask your Dad) and I remember the DTP revolution. We embraced DTP and used it to extend the quality and reach of what we did, building on our experience. At that time it was graphic designers who banged their heads against their desks as people who discovered how to kern a headline by clicking a button in Pagemaker thought that made them designers, but the trade largely opted to develop rather than reinvent.
The digital revolution seemed, in some quarters, to induce a collective madness. Everything changed, the old had to go, it was all different. Or so we seemed willing to believe. What Publishing Expo 2011 seemed to signal was a recognition that, while much has changed, much has merely developed and some things stay the same. And the bottom line is that if you produce something that is good enough to engage people you’ve got a pretty good chance of succeeding. This was rocket science only for many people in the industry. To an outsider, it I suspect it would have been bleedin’ obvious.
• A final note. UBM buying Publishing Expo should have given the event a boost. It was certainly big, well-attended and benefited from setting with two other major marketing and affiliate ad events. But the location, at Earls Court 2, caused problems. The most obvious was the lack of wifi access on site. That’s right. The ‘leading event for the publishing industry’ with no wifi. I managed to winkle out the information that there was access at some of the on-site cafes. Including the internet cafe. But the staff there couldn’t remember the password. So it was just a cafe.
When I eventually managed to get a password from the, very helpful, site office – no one could remember the name of the network. They did at least give me a cable to plug into the site broadband and file one story, but the lack of access was a bugbear for many. Apparently there are “problems” with wifi systems crashing at the venue. And the cost of setting something up was considered too high. I’ve been to plenty of events which have managed to provide internet access for large numbers of visitors and this is something that needs sorting out before next year.
The seminars were not filmed by the organisers and there are no plans to put any information from the sessions on line. Surely a missed business opportunity. And while we were constantly stopped so our badges could be scanned as we moved around, there don’t seem to be any plans to collect and analyse customer data in order to build upon the market. Any analysis of my movements will reveal constant toing and froing trying to find wifi.
In general, I am not a big fan of the venue. The train link via West Brompton is awful – one hour after I left on day one I was still at Clapham Junction. It is a huge aircraft hanger with no natural light and too much background noise disrupting the seminar sessions which are not enclosed. Next year, those sessions need to be bigger – many were locked out, which makes the decision not to make the sessions available online even dafter – and 40 minutes did not give enough time to take proper discussion.
If that sounds like a major moan, I should say that it was a very useful two days of networking and gathering information at an event which has consistently delivered since I first started attending in 2009. I’m looking forward to next year, especially if UBM get to grips with the 21st century.