8 questions for Mike Shatzkin [Interview]
You’ve been working in publishing for almost 50 years, is this the most exciting time to be involved in the industry?
Yes, it is the most exciting. But it is also the most scary. The established order is in imminent danger of being overturned and that is never a painless process. In some ways, I think it was more fun in the 80s and 90s when the combination of new investment capital and the application of scale and technology to the print supply chain was making expansion the order of the day. New stores were opening all the time, chain and independent, and everybody — authors, agents, publishers, and booksellers — were as likely to thrive with any new venture as they have ever been. These times are much more challenging and therefore more exciting, but not necessarily more enjoyable for most people in the industry.
Kobo are making deals worldwide, launching a new tablet to rival the Kindle Fire, and pushing the idea of ‘social reading’. Do you think they have a chance of success?
I think Kobo has a great “chance of success” if success is defined as profitable growth in the years to come, not as dethroning Amazon as the market leader in book sales or ebook sales. Kobo has a real focus on ebooks globally; as disciplined as Amazon is, they have other fish to fry. The only truly global ebook plays at scale are Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Google. Kobo’s three competitors here all have much broader agendas. But the world ebook market should grow large enough to support four players and I expect Kobo to be one of them.
What do you aim to achieve with Publishers Launch conferences?
My partner Michael Cader and I participate in the global digital change conversation on a daily basis, he through his Publishers Lunch newsletter and Publishers Marketplace community and I through my consulting practice at Idea Logical. We are exposed to new propositions and new ideas all the time, and we’re privileged to be included in the thinking and development by the established players we’ve known throughout our decades in the industry. Because we see the conversation as global and ongoing, we wanted to have a vehicle to conduct the discussion that way, rather than as just a once-a-year event at Digital Book World, as exciting and broad-based as that effort — a continuing partnership between us and F+W Media — is.
We think we’re off to a good start. We did a conference in London at which we did things like highlight the sales opportunity UK and Irish publishers have in America, for example. We have addressed global issues for an international audience at BEA and at Frankfurt. At Frankfurt, publishers from English-speaking countries were distinctly in the minority among attendees. Different audiences dictate different programs and we both enjoy the challenge and opportunity to think things through from many angles.
In 10 years time, what will be the biggest change in the way publishing houses operate?
In 10 years, I don’t think there will be much of a print book business in the developed world, and probably not anywhere. Publishers will have to find other ways to reach their markets, and that means they will have to be “audience-driven”, which I call “vertical”. That suggests that the biggest, broadest, most general houses will be the most challenged. They will have to become “multi-niche” rather than “general”, which may be a nuanced distinction today but I think it will be well understood ten years from now.
With the launch of the Kindle Fire, and the back-end services supporting it, have Amazon performed a ‘slam dunk’? Can anyone challenge them now?
We’ll see exactly what Kindle Fire is when we get it. It sounds similar to the Nook Color and to the new Kobo device just announced as well. Amazon has proven themselves incredibly adept at delivering the superior ecosystem experience, but I wouldn’t say they’ve proven yet that they make the best devices. However, I haven’t seen a Fire yet, so who knows?
Do you feel that publishers are sufficiently innovative, or are we being dictated to by the tech industry?
It takes a very different skill set to be innovative in tech than it does to curate and market content. There are very few humans on the planet who personally can do both. (I certainly can’t!) So I think, in the long run, publishers must be about understanding audience and developing content for them and they have to get their tech support from people that do that.
In the transitional times we’re in, it is possible that publishers can achieve an advantage with superior tech competence. Certainly, having a digital workflow make more profitable publishing easier to do, although that might be a bad example, because putting one is more about organizational discipline than it is about tech capabilities.
I think the tech guys usually hit a wall when they start to cope with actual content and then they find they need publishers to participate. It was at a stage when Microsoft was enlisting publishers to get behind CD-Roms two decades ago that I first got into the digital change business and ran my first conferences. I’m not sure that’s really changed since then.
Which of your achievements in publishing are you most proud of?
I’m afraid I don’t have too many achievements I can call my own, unless you call seeing the future more clearly than many an achievement and that would certainly be a debatable one. I am proud of the fact that I helped a client conceive a specialty book distribution business over 12 years ago that puts books into specialty stores using vendor-managed inventory, a concept first championed for books by my father in the 1950s. I figured out the opportunity and helped conceive the system, but the people at West Broadway Book Distribution are the ones who really created the “achievement”, a company that efficiently stocks non-book retailers with books appropriate to their audience with great efficiency.
Would you trade it all in for a career in baseball?
I have been lucky enough to divert my publishing career to my baseball interest a bit. I’ve written three books on baseball — Baseball Explained for the UK market and The Baseball Fan’s Guide to Spring Training in the US in the 1980s, and then the encyclopedia The Ballplayers in 1990. The Ballplayers turned into a web site called BaseballLibrary.com, which still has a pulse, but a faint one; we have done no additions to the content in 10 years. I call it the quintessential Internet 1.0 web site.
I think it would have been fun to have had a career in baseball, but it surely wouldn’t have been as a player. I think I would have been a great play-by-play announcer and I probably could have enjoyed that as much as I’ve enjoyed my life in publishing. Maybe I could have even dabbled in publishing if I’d done that the way I’ve dabbled in baseball from this seat.