PBC 2012: Excellence and Innovation Take Center Stage
The 2012 Publishing Business Conference & Expo brought together more than 1,300 industry experts and solutions providers for three days of education, idea sharing and opportunity at the New York Marriott Marquis. This year’s conference theme, “Cashing in on Cross Media Content,” highlighted emerging opportunities for magazine and book publishers. It also aptly described the optimism among speakers and attendees at this signature event for publishing professionals.
With more than 30 panel sessions, covering everything from advanced metrics for boosting revenue to implementing multichannel production strategies, attendees encountered plenty of ways to be informed, enlightened and inspired. The tone was set by a slate of powerful keynote speakers on Monday morning.
A Challenge to Innovate
Monday morning’s welcome address from Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel galvanized a packed Astor ballroom. Tyrangiel, at the helm of Businessweek since 2009, told the assembled publishing executives their job was to take nothing for granted. “Each day you have to fight for your right to exist. It is not a given anymore. Every new platform is an opportunity to define yourself to a new audience, to an audience that doesn’t yet know you or hasn’t even heard of you. It’s also an opportunity to redefine yourself to an audience that does.”
Tyrangiel said that reviving a moribund periodical was obviously made easier by the resources of parent company Bloomberg, but that the changes made to the magazine are “not profligate—they’re about value.” The idea was to create a product that readers felt was more than worth the money. “We wanted readers to feel like they were ripping us off,” he said.
Key to this effort, he said, was creating a magazine that is comprehensive, seductive and surprising. The first goal was achieved by making use of Bloomberg’s worldwide stable of reporters. The second, by introducing more narrative journalism and photography. The third, via top-notch design. It all added up to a product overhaul good enough to constitute a true reinvention of an 82-year-old magazine. “Be aware that there’s a big difference between reviving a brand and overhauling a product,” he said. “It’s the difference between a tail and a dog. Make something great and broadcast your belief in its greatness.”
“Market research never reinvented anything,” he said, “so be the reader. If you can’t put out something that interests you, don’t be surprised when it fails.”
Prescriptions For Success
Marcus Leaver, outgoing president of Sterling Publishing, offered attendees what he called “common sense prescriptions” that he has found to be most important and relevant to his business.
Leaver’s first bit of advice dovetailed nicely with Tyrangiel’s message of focusing on quality. Book publishers, he said, should create “beautiful objects.”
“When I talk about beautiful objects, I’m talking about the fact that quality will be the most important predictor of our success,” he said. “In a new world order where consumers will have every conceivable option at their fingertips, quality—real quality—matters more than ever. It doesn’t matter what the book is about. What matters is that it is really good at what it is supposed to do and that it looks amazing.”
“If you focus on quality you will end up publishing fewer books,” Leaver added, “so make each book really damn good.”
Related to this is the idea that no book should be published without a clear idea of its appeal and purpose. As the market continues to segment, Leaver said, publishers must identify a specific market they are looking to target. Borrowing English terms for housemaids and flamboyant celebrities, Leaver identified books as either “skivvies”—serving a utilitarian purpose—or “luvvies”—an artistic object with inspirational appeal. “Books that are neither are toast,” he said. “They are mid-list and have no clear purpose.”
Align your sales and marketing efforts along these same lines, Leaver said, through targeted efforts utilizing SEO, mobile search marketing, social media and customer demographics, rather than mass publicity efforts. Smart targeting, along with an emphasis on discoverability (by going where audiences are and marketing to them directly) and multi-platform campaigns, are the key to cutting through the noise and reaching an audience.
Make sure your authors are on board with these efforts, Leaver said, by encouraging them to utilize social media to connect with fans in a meaningful way. Encourage all authors to see themselves as engaging in brand marketing, rather than book-by-book, taking a long view of accumulating sales in an era where titles do not need to be on the shelf of your local brick-and-mortar to sell. Fully 60 percent of Sterling’s revenue comes from the backlist, Leaver said.
“Our biggest challenge will not be ebooks,” he said. “Our biggest challenge will be in putting all of the above together so publishers can continue to be necessary.”
Aggregation: Friend or Foe?
For the morning’s third keynote event, New York Times media columnist David Carr engaged in conversation with Josh Quittner, editorial director at news and social media aggregator Flipboard.
A sophisticated aggregation app, Flipboard creates a “natural, paginated interstitial” mimicking the print magazine experience to make content more appealing, Quittner said. The company shares some of the revenue from featured advertising with publisher partners.
Carr confessed his love for Flipboard but compared the newfangled platform to a well-dressed young male offering to be his wingman at a bar—what is he really after with the partnership? “I’m thinking to myself, friend? Enemy? Frenemy?” he said to chuckles from the crowd. “Should we love you or fear you?”
“I would not have gone to Flipboard if I did not believe it was part of the solution for publishers,” replied Quittner, who left Time Inc. for the venture-backed startup last year. Flipboard and other apps like it, he said, can help publishers capitalize on the great opportunity afforded by digital media.
Carr compared Flipboard to Twitter, which he called “a human-enabled RSS,” because the curation role passes out of the hands of editors to be taken over by social media contacts. With its “cover story” feature, Flipboard takes this a step further, curating the curators by sorting through all of a user’s connections to pull out the most interesting content.
None of this, Quittner says, diminishes the content creator’s role, because distribution and the development of the technology behind it has never been central to publishing’s mission.
Quittner pointed out that up to 50 percent of the costs incurred by newspapers and magazines go to distribution, a challenge to which Carr added the difficulty of obtaining new readers. Quittner said Flipboard can help overcome both these hurdles. “The New York Times should … be everywhere, and do deals with the Flipboards of the world, and Pulse and Zite and Facebook and Tumblr and everybody else. Because where once you controlled distribution, now you don’t anymore. But that turns out to be a relatively easily solvable problem if you open up your content, if you atomize it, if you let it go anywhere [readers go] to find relevant articles and you have great advertising against it.”
Asked about Flipboard’s business model, Quittner said that the plan is to be profitable through ad sales. “If you guys sell ads, we’ll do OK,” he said. “We eat after you do.”
Quittner argued that partnerships between content producers and platform providers are the surest way to ensure the health of publishing going forward.
“The reality is, it’s happening,” he said of the move to digital. “And the question is, what are you going to do to survive, and what are you going to do to thrive? The thing that I love about Flipboard’s model is, we don’t survive unless you survive.” PE