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May 27, 2011 10:20 pm
Last week was a good one for British retail, the global publishing business and lovers of ink on paper. In a surprise move, a Russian billionaire pounced on the opportunity to snatch up the UK’s last big bookstore business and in the process installed one of the country’s (industry’s) most respected booksellers to run it. At a time when most large-scale book retailers seem confused about what business they’re in, the move by Alexander Mamut to assign James Daunt to the task of turning around Waterstone’s seemed wonderfully grounded in good old common sense.
As an anchor of my neighbourhood’s life and cultural rhythm, Daunt Books doesn’t try to be anything other than an excellent bookstore. The windows are free from plasma screens touting new releases or persuading people to purchase e-editions and are carefully filled with multiple covers of a well-received recent release.
On the floor and behind the till are knowledgeable staff who clearly love what they do, are well informed and enjoy sharing their opinions. Among them are generally polite and well-mannered people who like spending time in a calm environment and know they’re likely to leave with several titles for themselves and perhaps a few for friends and colleagues. And, in the tradition of all good retail, Daunt can often be found behind the cash register or on the sales floor.
It never fails to surprise me how many businesses get so lost in the push to extend their reach and diversify that they lose focus and relevance in the eyes of consumers. It’s even more surprising how many roll over and give up all together rather than limbering up for a good old fight. If ever there was a moment for makers of paper, blenders of ink, stitchers of linen and owners of forests to mount a surprise attack, it’s now.
Yes, I know how many of you enjoy reading this newspaper on your iPad but I know more of you who don’t. And herein lies the opportunity for all those less than motivated people who run businesses that might be deemed old media to get off their assets and start sharpening their quills.
Why should it be only Facebook and Twitter that get namechecked as vehicles where people make statements or do stupid things? Why should all things digital get so much attention? What happened to people just “making a comment”? Do we really care where they SMS-ed it or tweeted it? If companies such as Bic, Pentel, Conqueror, FedEx and Panasonic were all more aggressive they would demand that newsreaders, copy editors and announcers stop plugging Twitter and Facebook or else ensure their brands also get a mention in relation to public statements.
“The politician wrote in Bic blue ink on Conqueror 100 gramme paper that he’s a confirmed family man and the name-calling must stop.” Or “in a telephone conference over Deutsche Telekom landline the footballer explained ...” Anyway, you get the idea.
On a recent visit to Paris I heard some fresh murmurs and figures from global brands about their surprise and disappointment by the low subscription and download numbers for various iPad editions of magazines and newspapers. In a lobby of one hotel a buyer of media commented on the low return on investment and the fact no publisher has come up with a viable business model to make it work. In a café on the other side of the city a marketing director questioned whether the iPad was going to prove to be the downfall of many titles as she’s already seeing monthly frequencies slashed to quarterly while many more are shelving launches all together.
That many publishers are having difficulty making a go of iPad editions is not surprising given launching a special e-edition often involves different usage rights, extra staff and enormous development costs with consumers all the while expecting more while not wanting to pay for it. No matter how hard finance directors try to manage costs at media companies, the possibilities offered by the iPad demand that editors and art directors will want to go far beyond just repasting words and pictures on to a backlit screen. A year into this new media experiment, however, it appears many big brands have been burnt and are demanding publishers come up with more viable hybrid (read traditional) models where there’s revenue from both distribution (the consumer) and advertising.
While all of this is going on, everyone from bookstore owners to Finnish pulp mills should be scheming to win back disillusioned consumers and rethink their own business models. This column has long blamed a general sense of disconnect in the publishing chain for the collapse of many an imprint and bookstore. As people start buying for their vacations old media should be working on its tan, pulling on its best swimwear and preening itself for a summer of hot seduction.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
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