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Who’s a Publisher Today?

Updated: Nov 4

As I looked over my consulting engagements for 2019, something interesting struck me. Not one was for an organization that considers itself a publisher.

Of course, most of the people I worked with consider themselves publishers. But the organizations they work for don’t. They were societies, academic libraries, vendors, professional organizations, and a technology firm. They mostly publish books and journals, but that’s an activity, not the reason they exist, as it is for trade or educational publishers.

Lots of publishing happens in organizations that aren’t publishers. Mike Shatzkin has made a persuasive case for how much book publishing is shifting to publishing by corporations. He’s right—but none of my 2019 clients were corporations, either. There’s a whole lot of publishing going on outside of “publishing companies.”

For this column, I’m not talking about documentation and training manuals and the like, though of course that’s publishing too. What’s interesting is that the majority of those 2019 clients publish typical books and journals. In print. For sale.

As publishing technology has gone digital over the past 30 years or so, people have often imagined that the new publishing ecosystem would make books and journal articles obsolete or would change them dramatically. That hasn’t happened. There’s a simple reason for that: the book and the journal article work—both in print and as e-books and online articles.

Yes, journal articles are increasingly supplemented by data and other resources, and some books and articles (but a minuscule percentage!) incorporate media and interactivity. But the article itself, and the plain old text-based book, show no signs of ever going away. The way they’re made and delivered and consumed may have changed, but the intellectual content—what makes an article an article and a book a book—hasn’t.

The mistake prognosticators made was in thinking these forms of delivering content were going to fundamentally change. They haven’t, because they do what they’re designed to do exceedingly well.

What has changed is how publishers understand and structure and deliver their content. The majority of the clients I had in 2019 hired me to help them change from a print-centric way of working to a content-centric way. Even if what they publish at the end of the day includes articles or books, they need to see those as only end products, among many, of new editorial and production workflows.

This is much harder to accomplish than you might guess. The issue is information structure. When you’ve spent your career publishing content that consists of chapters that come one after another, or articles that have the same sections every time, and get printed and packaged between covers, it is devilishly difficult to stop thinking of it that way.

Many of the organizations I worked with in 2019 needed to get their people to start thinking of the content as content, not as books or articles with the usual linear chapter and section structures. I encouraged them to ask themselves: What is this content about? What are all the parts of it about? How do those parts relate to each other, and to other things in my corpus of content? Think information structure, not publication structure.

This enables them to deliver their content in many different ways and enables them to meet the needs of different users. And, for at least a couple of those clients, it has become urgent, because while they still publish books, their customers actually more often consume the content online, where they consume it in a very different way.

There are two areas of publishing where this is becoming the norm: higher education publishing and scholarly publishing. All of the major U.S. higher education publishers now create content designed primarily for online consumption; while they still provide books, a couple of them now only print books on demand. And one of the biggest scholarly publishers in the world, Elsevier, no longer calls itself a publisher; they’re an information analytics company. Yet they still publish books and journals—lots of them.

Are the book and the journal article going away? Of course not! They’re still a good way to convey the content they were designed for—and the best for many kinds of content, such as trade books, for example. Many customers and users want them. They’re just no longer the only way to convey and consume content.

Our options aren’t shrinking, they’re getting richer. Which means that publishers—and organizations that publish—need to think about content in new ways. That enables their content to be delivered in more ways, to more people. Including as books and journal articles.

Bill Kasdorf is principal at Kasdorf & Associates, a consultancy focusing on accessibility, information architecture, and editorial and production workflows. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.


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