Friday, July 21, 2006

Publishing: The Four Kinds Revisited

I've had the opportunity over the last couple of weeks to trade emails with the CEO of a boutique publisher. This discussion has helped me sharpen my view of the technical publishing market in general, and of boutique publishers specifically. (As always, you can go back and see my original post on classifications here.)

During the course of our conversation, he challenged me about my definition of his company as a boutique publisher. After reading his comments I had to refine my thinking a bit. I came up with a more structured approach to my division of publishers. If you were to draw a graph measuring where a publisher fell along two axes (Community and Production), the resulting four quadrants would each hold one of my classes ('Big-Box', 'Mom & Pop', 'Boutique', and 'Farmers Market').

A discussion with another friend raised some questions about what these axes mean, and how they fit together. Here are my explanations (complete with over-simplifications and over-generalizations — it's a two-fer-one sale):

  • The Community axis:
    • Provider: These publishers don't see themselves as members of the community, but as a vendor that caters to the community's needs. At it's best this creates a strong drive for customer satisfaction — at its worst, it breeds a "father knows best" attitude that turns off the community. Providers can do some wonderful things like sponsoring conferences and user groups, providing infrastructure, and the like. The benefits only come when the community is seen as a viable market though.
    • Partner: As members of the community, these publishers see themselves as participants in the ongoing conversation that shapes the community. Being a partner limits the size of the publisher as they can only be engaged in a small set of communities before they're spread too thin to be effective. Partners give back to the community not based on the marketing bottom line, but based on their relationship.
  • The Production Focus axis:
    • Commodity: Publishers with a Commodity Production focus look will look at books, authors, editors, and buyers as part of an established process. They push for their process to create the 'best' books. When it works, you end up with books of consistent quality being produced in a timely and predictable fashion. Then the process doesn't work, it's like Procruste's bed.
    • Craftsman: Following the Craftsman Production focus means that the publisher is focusing on getting each book right according to the needs of the book itself. Books tend to be produced more slowly, and to be more unique. At it's best, you get masterpieces like Tufte's work. At it's worst, you get the published equivalent of a Jr Highschool Shop project.

How does it work then? Let's look at a "Mom & Pop" publisher. They're in the Commodity Production and Community Partner quadrant. I'd expect that this kind of publisher would be talking to community members to find out what books to work on and to look for writers, not working with graphic designers to figure out the best or most cutting edge look for their books. I'd expect them to be looking at the bottom line, and publishing books that enough of the community wants to be profitable. With the concern about community comes contribution to that community, but it is measured against its impact on sales and profit.

How does this model affect my thoughts on publishing? It lets me see how a publisher might slide from one classification to another. I can use it to see where I think a publisher sits, and how they might want to interact with there community (or communities) if they want to stay there. If a publisher want to change the way they do business, this model can help identify what changes to make to get them moving in the right direction.

What do you think, am I full of hot air? Can you use this model to place your favorite publisher? How well do they fit?

This post is part of a collection of articles about Publishing, Growing Markets, and Books.

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