Remember when I told you about PrintOut – an awesome event, sort of like a meet-up, dedicated to independent magazine publishers in UK? Back then it was all about getting to know the print right at the source: amazing people talking about print products, being in love with the paper, enjoying turning beautiful designed pages and having their bookshelf filled with their favorite magazines. To be honest the way I saw these guys is more or less like underground fellows trying to re-surface almost a lost art, hence my deep appreciation for their work.
Since here at Webcrumbz we’re working with publishers and we’re trying to learn as much as possible about what they’re going through, I was beginning to wonder about the shift in the publishing environment, from print to digital: What were the drivers? Did all the actors survive the shift? Has the shift reached the final destination? But above all, I was eager to learn about the history of publishing and see if there’s any fundamental pattern that could emerge, thus offering a glimpse of the future of publishing.
Suddenly, it was as if somebody out there heard my questions and shared my wonder. I came across www.baekdal.com – an endless source of inspiration regarding new media in general, with tons of intriguing articles/analysis about the publishing world. On top of that, Thomas Baekdal, obviously the guy behind the marvel, just published a new book called The Shift – From Print to Digital…and Beyond. As you can imagine, I bought it on the spot, read it and now I’m prepared to share some of the key learnings.
How it all started
It was a rather romantic period 40,000 years ago when the only way for the human kind to communicate was to physically meet each other.
This was a very personal time, but it was also impractical: you could only communicate with one group at a time and you had to be there. We needed to come up with a way to communicate asynchronously.
As you can imagine, the first form of publishing was cave paintings which represented at the time a huge shift from the previous form of communication. Thomas identifies the two actors that dominated the scene: creators (story tellers) and readers – people who could come and visit the caves where all the painting was exhibited.
For 10,000 years this way of communicating between people represented a new level of freedom and flexibility we had never experienced before. With the introduction of stone tablets, not only the creators were able to keep the story up-to-date but readers were able to receive what the creators were producing. Thomas then identifies the 3rd actor making his appearance into the scene: the chiselers. He also observed that 90% of the time was now spent on manufacturing the stone tablets and only 10% on the story itself.
From this point on, it got really complicated and while the “more convenient” trend continued the papyrus was introduced and from here, books were the next step. Obviously the Gutenberg Press was invented and creators were now able to create as many copies of their story as they wanted.
While all of this also made the life of a reader simple and more convenient there was a new macro-trend forming in their minds: they wanted to get content from many creators all at once. Couriers saw this gigantic opportunity and instead of moving content from A to B, they could provide a service bringing content from multiple sources into one single package that the reader could enjoy. With one stroke, the couriers suddenly held all the cards. The couriers had become publishers.
Thomas continues to write in his book how the publishing industry was quickly reaching the market saturation point, in the first part of the 1900s and how the creators sort of came back and bit couriers in the rear. It all has to do with the invention of the Web.
How everything went digital
Thomas says that The Web is very much like the good old days of the cave paintings: creators can do whatever they like, without interference from anyone or anything. And people have to visit their “caves” or what today we call a website.
I think it’s important to understand that the web is not the next evolution of print but actually the solution to the same problem we had 35,000 years ago: connecting story tellers directly with their readers. And because the Internet was based on complete freedom and flexibility, readers quickly realized that as well. If the creators could publish whatever they wanted, why couldn’t the readers do the same?
Thus the readers became creators, but since the personal factor was so involved when readers presented their stories and the web designed by creators didn’t fit well in the picture, they’ve invented the Social Web.
Thomas says that, from human perspective, the social web solves the problem pre-dating the cave paintings: before the cave paintings, we had face-to-face interaction between people. The creators then invented cave painting to make their lives more convenient. The social web is a continuation of the face-to-face meeting – the step “before” the cave paintings.
Or to put it in another way, the social web is the readers’ solution to the original problem. The creators solved it by creating the web. The readers solved it by creating the social web. Although technically it is the same thing, conceptually they do not really mix.
That being said, Thomas explains that what we’re seeing today is not really an evolution of publishing it is not the next step for print or the next step for writing. The shift is not “a next step”. It is really a second solution to the original problem we had back in the (very) old days.
Mobile is not about mobiles
Thomas twitted a while ago: “Mobile is a verb. It is not a thing or a device. It is an action and a feeling to do whatever, whenever and wherever.”
And this makes it a good statement since you don’t actually need to be an engineer to think that even a printed magazine has always been mobile. In the beginning of the digital world the only way to consume content was to read it on a desktop computer which was like having a print magazine you could only read in a single room.
In his book, Thomas continues: the future of mobile is not only about being free in terms of mobility, but also in terms of physicality. Mobile is not a question of what device people use the most. It is a question of freedom to not have to worry about it. Mobile is not a device. It is not an app. Mobile is freedom from devices and apps.
Just as a confirmation of how readers are consuming content, in its press release about breaking the 1 million mark (November, 2011), Financial Times released an interesting infographic showing how their readers are consuming their content: smartphone and tablet readership spikes in the morning, then drops as readers use their desktops to keep up with the news during the day, then tablet use rises in the evening as users commute and arrive home.
And there’s still so much knowledge Thomas shared in his book and on some places it almost felt like I’m reading about our platform and how we’re doing things at Webcrumbz. I’m going to end this blog-post here by telling you that I’m happy not only because I found www.baekdal.com but also because some of our beliefs and assumptions when envisioning our platform were confirmed in his book. I was actually joking with the team that we should hand out his book every time we have a meeting with a publisher and tell them that’s our “Help” manual .