March 2011


Mike Shatzkin, very trusted source on how new media is affecting old publishing, just alerted us to one zinger of a headline: full-time novelist Barry Eisler has turned down a $500,000 contract from a traditional publisher in order to self-publish. It now makes transparent economic sense for (some) writers to develop their own publishing capacity (see the lengthy but crucial conversation between Eisler and noted self-publishing author Joe Konrath here). As most of us have already known, this development also makes clear that those who produce content (ideas and stories), not those who polish the delivery mechanism, own the true value.

This is all the more true for thought-leading businesses – now is the time to develop your own publishing capacity. The business model of publishing as a separate industry just doesn’t make economic sense for large businesses who have already developed their own niche market through their services and their web presence. The more directly accessible your content is to your tribe, the more they will buy it. (Smaller and/or less known individuals and businesses still benefit greatly from traditional publishing’s reach and expertise because they don’t have it themselves. But with even small effort applied to leveraging new media, this will change sooner than we think.) Very soon there won’t be a large divide between blog posts and books – it will just be one flowing continuum, where people will click on their choice of media – digital or print – to read your content of varying lengths. Those who have their own media arm are well on the way – adding book publishing capacity will only get easier and easier. Why not own that capacity yourself?

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The recent virtual communication advances have enabled so many threshold moments, but one very important one is the transformation of publishing from industry to capacity. Because it just doesn’t take as much machinery and capital and labor to produce and disseminate content, publishing is now much like accounting, or marketing, or IT, or graphic design – a streamlined capacity that still requires expertise, but in a lithe and loose way – so that publishing experts will need to connect to another industry besides “publishing.” Even though this will require some scary reshuffling, I think this is tremendously exciting, because business needs publishing much more than it realizes to meet the goal primary to most businesses today: establishing trust. And the new publishing technologies available today have the capacity to further trust far more than mass media publishing ever could.

A few nights ago, I finally watched Guns, Germs, and Steel, a National Geographic docmentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Jared Diamond. I was already familiar with the specific content of his proposal, which had disseminated far and wide in the last 15 years or so since the book had been written – that the people groups who controlled guns, germs, and steel went on to rule the world. But I didn’t realize that this documentary was also really about return on investment, and how efficiency begets innovation which begets further efficiency. People groups living in geographies where they could spend less energy on survival (food was more nutritious and/or more easily stored and prepared, for example) had more time and energy to spend on developing innovative technologies, such as agriculture, steel, medicines, and so on. A greater return on investment from energy spent on survival, continually invested, yields compounding interest.

A straightforward concept, and one I couldn’t help but apply to what’s happening in the publishing industry. With the communication technologies now available, we get a much better ROI on energy spent producing and disseminating content, which means publishing can now be a mobile capacity for an industry rather than a whole industry itself. It just doesn’t require that much mechanical effort anymore. This leaves us all more energy not only to invest in the quality of our ideas (i.e., have time to think & talk about our ideas to yield greater insight), but also in what the ancient Greeks called rhetoric. Both are vital for businesses who value establishing trust with their customers.

The study of rhetoric flourished before the printing press – when communication was mostly oral and immediate. Today rhetoric usually implies empty words, a connotation probably likely even in ancient times, as rhetoric has nothing to do with the truth of the content, but how well it’s expressed. Assuming that we have something truly valuable to express to our audience (why else would you go to all this effort?), the classic rhetorical triangle provides for much richer impact than much of what passes for even transformative communication today, which is usually just the quickening pulse of insight. The three vital aspects of communication, according to classical rhetorical studies, consist of logos (logical expression), pathos (connection with your audience), and ethos (the communicator’s character).

So although more energy can be invested in the quality of composition (and it likely should), the words you use are only one third of the equation of effective communication. What communication technologies have done is return the possibilities of both pathos and ethos to written communication – qualities previously only possible with oral communication. With print media, a huge, impenetrable layer of machinery stood between the audience’s ability to discern an author’s ethos (character), as well as the author’s capacity for true pathos (connection with his audience), effectively removing both from the rhetorical equation. The remaining leg of logos limped along for a while, but the author’s inability to connect directly with her audience inevitably led to a split between those who produced content and those who consumed it – and the dehumanization of both.

Here’s my layperson’s view, of two communication vehicles: marketing and publishing. Twentieth-century marketing experts tended to view “the public” en masse as pavlovian consumers, whose base desires could be easily molded by the right message and thus exploited to profit the business – which in turn dehumanized the marketers as they viewed people as merely means to monetary profit. (Viewing people as less than human always dehumanizes – the public only would have been dehumanized insofar as they held a similar view of themselves or the marketers, which may have also been true.) In publishing, the same split between producers and consumers of content created a literary elite, quick to differentiate from and demean the mass public, as if writers are always smarter than readers.

Now that anyone can produce content as well as consume it, that false division has been obliterated – for the better. I admit I have a lot of patience for the flurry of social media today – writers and readers, businesses and customers, have been blindly dependent on each other and had never even met. (Customers discovered businesses were not a bunch of nameless men in suits, but real people with likes and dislikes, some of whom actually loved what they did for a living.) Now we can talk to each other anytime and anyplace – of course we’re a little manic right now. That will settle. But when it does, the capacity for constant connection will remain – and we’ll discover who each other really is. And whether we really want to maintain the relationship.

Which is why businesses desperately need the capacity of publishing – not the mass print, hobbling leg of logos alone, but people who know how important pathos and ethos are to rich, transformative, relationship-building communication that will yield yet another layer of compounding return on investment – best embodied currently in the concept of co-creation. Books and blogs and studies and conversations are popping up everywhere about how crowds are smarter than even the smartest individuals – and these social communication technologies are enabling like-minded crowds to find each other and talk about common passions and ideas that are bigger than anyone’s ego or career or reputation.

Developing your business’s publishing capacity – really, your business’s rhetorical capacity – will be how your business will establish authentic trust with your customers – if your business really is trustworthy and honestly cares about worthwhile, valuable pursuits (more than just a profit, and more than just chasing customer whims). Social communication tools don’t create ethos or pathos – they just reveal what’s already there. Just like rhetoric doesn’t create valuable insight. So this is the time for a deep examination of our value propositions – do we really produce something good for real people? Or are we still doing business in the mass media age? Can we express that value proposition in terms of a concept or pursuit larger than ourselves or even our customers? If your business is centered around creating value beyond the financial, and you’re able to communicate that value and leverage like-minded collaborators in that pursuit, you were made for this moment.