At first I was going to name this post, “How publishers can beat the Evil Empire,” but that title requires some explanation.
“The Evil Empire” is my label for the big platforms — Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, mostly. I like each one of those companies for certain things. I love Amazon prime, for example, and I read and publish books on the kindle. But when it comes to my professional life in the publishing industry, they’re evil.
The evil is somewhat subtle and it amounts to this: they’re looking out for the long-term benefit of their platform and not the long-term benefit of the reader.
Yes, I know, that doesn’t sound terribly evil. In fact, it just sounds like good business. But the more you think about it, the more you realize its destructive capacity. (I don’t honestly think they’re evil, of course. But “Destructive Empire” doesn’t conjure up the right images.)
One practical example of the bad influence of the “platform first” approach is the confusion it creates with digital editions of magazines.
If I subscribe to a print magazine, and I also want to have the digital edition on my kindle or iPad, those two subscriptions live in completely different places – all because of the misguided policies of the platforms.
The print subscription is managed at a fulfillment house, which is where it belongs. Fulfillment systems are incredibly complicated things that benefit from decades of experience dealing with all the intricacies of subscriptions and subscription marketing. But the digital edition is managed through Amazon, or Apple or some storefront that thinks a subscription is not all that different from buying a lamp.
This causes innumerable headaches for the publisher and for the subscriber. The subscriber thinks of the whole thing as his subscription to the magazine. He doesn’t care about all the back-end nonsense or Apple’s silly rules. So when he has a customer service complaint, or wants to change his address, who does he call?
The sensible thing is to have all the customer data reside with the fulfillment company, and have the platform access that information through an API. But the platform’s first concern isn’t helping the customer, but acquiring the customer. The Evil Empire wants to convert all the publisher’s customers into their customers.
The problem isn’t limited to subscriptions. The big book publishers also faced problems with the platformers. Amazon and Apple wanted to set the price for ebooks. Why? Because they had data to show that their take of sales at $9.99 would be more than their take of sales at $19.99 — or whatever price the publisher wanted to charge. So in the interests of the platform they intervened in setting prices. Courts had to step in and untangle the mess.
And what about news? We’ve recently heard accusations that Facebook prefers news of a particular ideological persuasion. Whether or not that allegation turns out to be true, there’s no question that sort of bias will happen, for one of two reasons. Either people with an agenda will impose that agenda on the news, or profit-seeking will.
Think about it. If articles that express View A get more clicks (and generate more advertising revenue) than articles that express View B, then View A will be preferred. It doesn’t require a partisan editor to make that happen — just math, and the normal variations in what’s popular.
Today the news may favor one view, and tomorrow it may favor another, but there’s simply no question that there will be bias.
Does that serve the reader? If I’m looking for information on some topic, are they serving me the best information on that topic, or are they serving the links that’re most likely to make then money?
How does this sort of bias serve the publisher or the reader of the out-of-fashion view? Are his articles at a disadvantage because the platform has determined that the other view will generate more ad revenue?
I’m not naive enough to believe there will ever be a level playing field with the news, but dumping all of the news into one or two platforms will distort the viewpoints that readers get to see. I don’t mean to sound too dramatic, but … is that good for the country?
Again, not to be dramatic, but remember what happened to Microsoft’s artificial intelligence app on Twitter? Social media tends towards the lowest common denominator. It turned that Microsoft app into a Nazi in a few hours.
You’ve seen the effect of social media with LinkedIn. What was supposed to be a business networking site has taken the predictable path towards pictures of attractive women showing some skin, cat videos, religious opinions and so on.
It’s simply the way social media works, because “crowd sourcing” is done by crowds.
The bottom line is that the big platforms are not good for anybody — except the big platforms. And for people who want to see pictures of pretty women, argue about the minimum wage or watch silly videos.
Put it all together and then ask yourself: is that where you want your content to live?
But … what else is there to do? Aren’t we stuck? Hasn’t Zuckerberg won the field, and publishers are left hoping to get some scraps from the leftover spoils?
Join the Revolution
Let’s stop here and take the question from the other direction. Let’s imagine a platform that would be good for the reader.
For example, it’s not to the magazine subscriber’s advantage to have a print subscription with Hearst, but a digital subscription with Apple. It’s not to the book reader’s advantage to have some books on Kindle, some on Nook, and some on Google books. And it is not to any reader’s benefit to have all these things – magazines, books, news, newsletters — on separate apps and devices inside competing walled gardens. It’s not to anybody’s advantage for serious content to be surrounded by and twisted by the downward spiral of social media.
The reader doesn’t give a hoot who publishes his favorite magazine, or who owns the platform he’s reading it on. And he certainly doesn’t want his content filtered through some algorithm that’s calculated to maximize ad revenue, or that’s distorted by the dumbing down effect of crowd sourcing.
Most readers are willing to pay to read things they value, but it’s an annoyance to feel as if you’re being forced into the Amazon (or Apple, or Facebook, or Google) ecosphere. The reader is willing to compensate the author and the publisher, and is willing to pay a reasonable convenience fee. But what the Evil Empire has done is to twist the market around so that everything works to the benefit of their platform. That platform is the locus of their attempt at domination of the market and control of all the customers.
The problem publishers face today is that no individual publisher can compete with any of the platforms, so publishers have felt trapped. They don’t want Facebook to control their content, but … Facebook has all the people!
It’s time for turnabout.
No individual publisher can compete with Facebook, but Facebook can’t compete with the entire publishing industry. Except maybe with cat videos and hashtag activism.
So leave that stuff to Facebook, but stop feeding it your expensive, professional material so they can make money off it and steal your customers. Instead, publishers should join together to create a new place where customers can read serious content. It should be a place that puts the reader first, the publisher second, and the platform last.