By Sarah Silverman
When I learned that the opening session of Stanford’s 2009 Professional Publishing Course would be taught by a technology forecaster, I was encouraged. It was exciting to hear that Paul Saffo, a Stanford professor with degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, and Stanford, and over two decades of experience predicting technological change would be using his skills to forecast the future of publishing, an industry undergoing a period of upheaval and uncertainty.
I thought Saffo might peer into his crystal ball and let everyone in the room—nearly sixty editors, publishers, web strategists, rights directors, and marketing managers—in on the secret of how we would get through the current digital transition. Would publishers repeat the mistakes of the record industry? What device would emerge as the e-reader of choice in 20 years? Would Amazon put us all out of business?
Disappointingly, if not surprisingly, Saffo did not reveal all. Apparently, not even the best forecasters in the world will tell you what the future looks like. And I suppose it’s better that way. Asking people like Saffo to give away the ending would relinquish publishers from having to truly understand the social trends and currents that could make or break them.
Instead of revealing whether consumers will find tablet-style reading screens indispensable or silly in 2015, or what percentage of industry revenue will come from digital books, or what level of digital rights management will be acceptable to the readers of tomorrow, Saffo focused on some more general observations to guide our thinking about the future.
He addressed one powerful constant that almost everyone agrees is not going away: change. More specifically, he talked about Moore’s Law, which says that technological change occurs exponentially, rather than linearly. The law was discovered by Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, who observed that the number of transistors that could be placed on a chip doubles approximately every two years. In other words, once set in motion, change happens very, very fast in a digital landscape. And if publishers aren’t out there experimenting with content in a variety of platforms, they may be left behind.
Saffo’s point is that there’s no guarantee we will recognize the “next big thing” when it arrives. As someone who dismissed Twitter as pointless in late 2007, I’ve certainly felt the sting of having a technology pass me by. I was sure Twitter would be a flash in the pan, but three years since its creation the service is more popular than ever—Nielsen reported that Twitter’s unique visitors increased 1,382 percent from February 2008 to February 2009. Now that I’ve had to play catch-up—at Stanford, I learned for the first time how to retweet, write a hashtag, and use a URL shortener—I’ve vowed to be an early adopter of more new media platforms, or at least to take them seriously.
Saffo advised publishers to be “heat seekers” of early technologies if they don’t want to miss out on opportunity. He noted that we haven’t yet reached the inflection point of rapid growth with e-readers. Media begets media, and Kindle is just an early step in the progression of digital reading formats. While it would be foolish—and in many cases, unfeasible—to throw money at every digital initiative to come down the pipeline, it’s crucial to acquaint yourself with these platforms so that you’re not starting from a point of technological illiteracy when you do have to make a change.
Although Saffo wasn’t exactly concrete about what this new publishing landscape will look like (and didn’t offer the crystal ball predictions I had hoped for), I remain encouraged. Saffo was decidedly upbeat about the upheaval facing the industry. “The current business models are being disrupted,” he said. “But uncertainty means opportunity—and the chance to create the future of publishing.”
With that, I leave you with three of Paul Saffo’s rules of thumb to guide your thinking about the future:
Saffo’s Rules of Thumb
The web is driving print.
From bloggers getting book deals, to document sharing sites like Scribd, to Wikipedia’s plans publish a print volume, evidence is piling up that web and print are becoming inseparable.
Readers are now writers.
Saffo argues that readers who both consume and create in a central act will drive the new economy. Think about the comment boards that sit on almost every major news site, or Amazon’s coveted customer reviews.
We’re reading and writing more than ever.
News is available in more—and more engaging—formats than ever before. Saffo sees great opportunity for companies that can harness consumers’ eagerness to consume (read) and produce (write) around the clock.
Sarah Silverman is Publicity and Marketing Associate for City Lights Publishers. She attended Stanford’s Professional Publishing Course with the help of the NCBPMA/Carol C. Butterfield Scholarship Grant.