Are Publishers Perishing or Flourishing
on the Web?


By Mary J. Cronin, Ph.D.
Professor of Management
Boston College
Strategic adviser of Mainspring Communications USA

Edition for portuguese EXPRESSO/Copyright Expresso/XXI translation
Translation published 27 July 1997 suplement XXI
Edition on line Copyright Janela na Web

Um exclusivo

Psst! Want to become a rich, internationally famous publisher?
Try this simple, five-step formula:

a) Set up a web site
b) Add some compelling content
c) Market your content with a clever online promotion, attracting millions of visitors
d) Sell lots of advertising, or subscriptions, or pay-per-views, based on all the traffic you have generated
e) Repeat at will, until you run out of content or have enough money

The reality is a lot more complicated, of course, but variations of the first four steps have tempted print publishers, media moguls, entrepreneurs, established authors, and a vast army of miscellaneous individuals to set up shop on the Web. Even if their success rate has been spotty, even if the vast majority of content is far from compelling, the sheer volume of information residing on web servers around the world and finding its way daily to tens of millions of desktops calls into question the established order of print distribution.

Does the proliferation of on-line products from scholarly scientific journals to trendy e-zines, from interactive books to personal newspapers, presage the end of publishing as we know it? Or does the Web offer the best hope for revitalizing the convoluted, expensive, and glaringly inefficient infrastructure that characterizes print publishing today? Dig a little deeper into the issues that surround Web publishing and the complexities gather faster than new site announcements. Sorting out the hype requires rethinking three fundamental issues: how do publishers traditionally add value to authors and information, how has the Web as publishing platform transformed these functions, and what business models match best with the opportunities of this new environment.

When Print Was the Point

Long before the Web, ever since the invention of movable type drove the scribes out of business, publishers have worked to define the value that they add to the creative process. By now they have developed a fairly convincing case for certain core functions, including:

Editorial selection As the Internet demonstrates daily, all ideas are not created equal and most do not merit preservation in published form. Print publishers serve as gatekeepers, by rejecting many more proposals than they accept

Quality control Publishers also take responsibility for a consistent level of quality in the material that appears under their imprint. Editorial revisions, review by outside experts, standards for manuscript preparation, and final design format distinguish publications of value from transient, questionable materials.

Packaging The decision to produce a book, a journal, or a newspaper in print format has clear implications for the publication and distribution channel and also reflects editorial judgment. Packaging is an important factor in the shelf life and the reception of print content.

Branding, Marketing and Maintaining Readership A Wall Street Journal article triggers a different response than one in The National Enquirer and some publishing brands are so strong that they can add immediate value to any content.

Pricing, Distribution, and Protection of Intellectual Property In exchange for the lion’s share of revenues, publishers manage the processes that turn creative and intellectual content from individual contributors into a business.

These functions have persisted in some form for centuries of publishing. What really changes when the process moves from its familiar print setting and ventures onto the Web?

Web Words

It turns out that some core functions don’t change much at all. Sorting out the keepers from the losers, editorial review, and ensuring consistently high standards represent a significant cost of doing business for traditional publishers. This function is even more essential, and at least as costly, in the digital world. Quality is expensive and while the Web can streamline some of the editorial functions it cannot substitute for intellectual judgment. A strong brand identity is also a valuable on-line asset, as users search for assurances of high water marks amidst the digital deluge.

Packaging, pricing, and distribution decisions, however, are up for grabs on the Web. Once all content becomes digital the distinction between books, journals, and other formats tends to blur. So do the established pricing models. Will readers subscribe to a whole magazine online when they only want to read one article? How much will they pay for part of a book? Some of the assumptions that are shaping new products on the Web are that time-sensitive information, delivered immediately, can command a premium price and that users will pay for personalized publishing options.

Getting Down to Business

A key question for publishers is whether Web distribution will cannibalize or supplement their traditional revenue sources. The experience of Wall Street Journal and Time, Inc. publications online points to the latter, but it is too early to draw conclusions. There is no doubt, however, that publishing on the Web demands a different set of business and revenue assumptions and that we are still searching for proof of profitability. You can expect some fortunes to be lost pursuing the perfect Internet publishing model before too many new millionaires are made.