BoSacks: The Future Ain't What It Used to Be
Do you ever wonder if the publishing industry has learned enough in the last five years to be more effective and more profitable in the next five years? Of course, effective is a relative term and very much a moving target. And some publishing houses have prospered, while others decidedly have not. Nevertheless, it's reasonable to ponder where the publishing industry will be in five years. Or to look at that time frame somewhat differently, where will the publishing industry be 10 years after the introduction of the iPad? Will print finally have a resurgence? Will advertising dollars flow back to the printed page? Will magazine newsstand sales finally be going up instead of down? Most rational thinkers will tell you no—recent trends will not reverse and the best we can hope for is some sort of stabilization.
We must admit that we will never achieve the success of our grandfathers in print. Yet that doesn't mean we won't be profitable and perhaps even more profitable than ever before. Not only is this possible, but entirely probable—keeping in mind that such success can only be for those that actually survive the next five years.
If we have learned anything in the last half-decade it is that a five-year business plan isn't worth the paper it's written upon, and that changes we cannot possibly anticipate will vex us as technology continues to outperform itself. Perhaps the common challenge that has confronted and will continue to confront the industry is the emergence of the "evolving stream of content continuity"—the continuous deployment of content without the restraint of a recognizable schedule or any kind of consistent substrate. The concept of always on, always refreshed, and always available, is the schedule that today's readers now expect, and so it is being imposed upon the reluctant traditional magazine media industry.
Increasingly, media has become a tool for on-demand instant gratification of any kind. It can be for entertainment, for education, or for something in-between. Media can act as a babysitter or a mentor at any time and increasingly anywhere on the planet. And what I just described is already active now, today, and much of that is already commonplace. What happens to the technological distribution of information a year from now? What about five years from now? What new providers of information will appear on the scene and be worth billions in a matter of months? If history is an indicator, which it usually is, there will be dozens of new competitors to the reading industry.
To make an accurate forecast for five years from now borders on the impossible, but it is an exercise I thrive on. Paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke, if I forecast anything that seems reasonable, it is most likely not going to happen; but if I forecast the seemingly impossible, that is more likely to become a reality.
First let me present the rational ideas that will come to pass. In 2020 the internet will reach five billion people, and that will be a boon to all media professionals. With that reach, internet speeds will be double what they are today and 5G will be the standard smart phone setting. Video will be super-ultra high definition and common in most homes. All this projects a system of digital ubiquity we are only seeing a small fraction of today. Reading platforms will be dramatically improved by using reflective substrates capable of being read in direct sunlight with minimal power usage, and this will be the norm for almost all mobile devices.
What does that mean for the magazine media industry? Total ubiquity of information with increased competition from players yet unborn. Print circulation will be half of what it is today. Newsstand will have imploded only to be reinvented by entrepreneurs, who now deliver canned foods and will deliver canned magazines. Magazines will finally get over the need to make replica titles and will build vibrant HTML6 platforms for reading valuable content anywhere on any substrate. The magazine media revenue model will shift to a membership program entitling our member readership entry into the wondrous world of our particular niches. Membership fees and event passes will far outweigh the old subscription model. The niche membership programs, which will cost in the range of $60 per year, will be considered the passport to information riches focused on the reader's most cherished and specific interests and all the ancillary products that each niche has the potential to deliver no matter how tangential. In essence, magazine media will sell products and services more in line with the Amazon Prime business plan than the traditional magazine rate-based revenue stream.
Further we must stop thinking of the devices that we all hold every day, all day, as mere phones. Not even the term "smart phone" covers the depth and breadth of the evolving product line. If anything, Star Trek had it right: these devices are communicators and they communicate with everything. Every appliance, product, transportation vehicle, milk container, soda can, TV, and magazine that consumers purchase and engage with will be part of a larger, more extensive media channel of connected products. This internet of things (IOT) will have vast implications for the media business. We must integrate what we do with the IOT or we will be out of the media business as upstart information providers that understand the new world order of connecting things to media will completely take over.
Five years from now, when we look back at 2015 we will be amazed that what seems so obvious wasn't, and that the public's information consumption habits changed so quickly and radically from 2015 to 2020. The next five years for publishers will be filled with greater failures and also greater successes than the last five years. It all rests on the ability to have flexible business plans, tremendous foresight, and the will to give the public exactly what they want, when they want it. Because if you don't, someone else will.
Related story: The Big Ideas Shaping Publishing