Sunday, November 4, 2007
Bob Sacks: In an Iconoclast By Himself
Bob Sacks: In an Iconoclast By Himself
By John Parsons
The Seybold Report
Volume 7, Number 21 · November 1, 2007
Bob Sacks ("BoSacks" to his readers) is an outspoken columnist and lecturer to the
media and marketing industries. A veteran of many printing and publishing ventures since the 1970s, Sacks has been an advocate for innovation and change, as evidenced by his popular e-newsletter, "Heard on the Web" (www.bosacks.com), and the BoSacks blog.
Sacks straddles the past, present and future. "I've had every position there is to have in our industry," he said. He's been an editor, a publisher, a columnist, a director of manufacturing and distribution and a chief operating officer. He's also been a pressman, sold advertising for print and radio and worked for International Paper, "selling dead trees to major publishers." Sacks is sometimes cast in an adversarial, Jeremiad role, usually opposite the optimism of Prof. Samir Husni ("Mr. Magazine") in the debate over magazines and their fate. Far from being a prophet of doom, however, Sacks views technical innovation as the key to successful publishing - in whatever forms it ultimately takes. He consistently challenges past assumptions and his measured skepticism, combined with his vast expertise in media of all kinds (his first publishing venture used hot type), make him a valuable voice in the publishing industry. We asked Sacks about the future of publishing as we know it.
TSR: On your Web site, one of your lecture topics is something known as "El-Cid."
What is that?
BoSacks: It's all about the future of publishing. El-Cid is a key component to what
I'm trying to project. It means electronically coordinated information distribution.
It's imperative that we no longer consider ourselves as just publishers. We are information distributors. El-Cid is the ability to deliver information anywhere instantly, which is where our business models have to be. The future of publishing is the ability to access any information - all the time, effortlessly and accurately.
TSR: So you're talking about all forms of media, including browsers and readers?
BoSacks: I'm totally indifferent to the platform. Our franchise is information, and we shouldn't be hung up on atoms. That's a good way to distribute it; it's just not the only way.
TSR: Speaking of digital distribution, there are a number of digital edition vendors, the equivalent of a turn-the-page book or magazine on your screen. Do you think people are ready to turn virtual pages instead of paper ones?
BoSacks: I'm uncomfortable with your phrase "ready." We're getting there. It took us 600 years to perfect the magazine, and it works. It's easy to read, usually beautifully designed. How many Web pages can carry that description? Electronic magazines are improving every day and they have something else that no other Web page can emulate: a beginning, middle and an end. That's critical. Once the correct platform is developed for the digital magazine experience, it will readily be adopted.
TSR: What do you think the correct platform needs or what is it missing right now?
BoSacks: Touch-screen e-paper. When you can emulate the magazine experience, fly
your hand across your page and it will flip for you - what the iPhone does today -
that's the correct platform. A sheet of plastic, polymer, e-paper - looks like paper,
feels like paper, smells like paper but it isn't paper. It's a screen that works on reflective technology. Light doesn't shine through it or from it. It uses ambient light, which makes it a pleasant reading experience. It needs to be four colors, it needs to be wifi connected and it needs to be scalable.
TSR: Does size matter?
BoSacks: Yes, for some, but the beauty of publishing platforms of the future is that we don't care. You want it little? I'll deliver it little. You want it medium? I'll do that. You want e-paper? I'll do that. Would you like dead trees? I've got plenty of them, too.
TSR: The old print advocate saying is that they want media they can take to the beach
or read in the bathtub. Is that realistic? Is e-paper going to get there eventually, and how do you think it's going to happen?
BoSacks: I predict in five years we'll have a workable e-paper solution, commercially
affordable. We're predicting under $50 in five years. Comfort level, ease of readability is really important. It's interpreted as wanting paper and books, but that's a learned exercise. What they really want is to get their intellectual fix, the information that they're addicted to. It could be news, it could be about Britney, it could be wooden boat building, whatever your focus or passion is. People want that and that want it in an easy-to-read, portable format. This could be e-paper or something we haven't invented or thought of yet. E-paper seems like the most likely next mechanism of change. There is also nanotechnology, which is not what e-paper is about currently. Nanotechnology might jump ahead of e-paper or follow behind it, but I see e-paper as the next defining moment in information distribution.
TSR: What do you see as the future of printing on dead trees, as you put it?
BoSacks: I see it just like vinyl records. That used to be the way people used to listen to music, and the majority of the public now uses MP3s and MP3 players. There is still a market out there for audiophiles who swear by records and they still make some records. Collectors are out there. My friend Samir Husni is a collector, and I think that's a part of his philosophy. He's a dead-tree hugger. He loves his magazines, and he's a vinyl record collector.
TSR: How long do you think there are going to be printed publications on paper?
BoSacks: I could foresee there are a couple of generations left. The number of titles is clearly going up, but the number of printed pages is clearly going down. Magazine circulation is going down. Printed products will be around for quite some time, but I think the right question is, how long will printed products be the dominant source of information distribution? The answer is, not that long.
TSR: A couple of generations?
BoSacks: It doesn't matter. The inevitable conclusion is that digital media will be the dominant way that we distribute and monetize our franchise, and printing will be less dominant as we move forward - not disappear, but be less dominant.
TSR: What about the business of publishing bothers you the most? What's your pet
peeve about magazine publishers?
BoSacks: It's the distribution model, which once worked and once worked well but is
archaic. Today, for newsstands, we print 10 copies and sell three. This is not a successful formula to compete with the digital world. I want to distribute 10 copies to the 7-Eleven and sell 10. I don't want to have the infrastructure to go back and pick up seven out of the 10 and take it back and shred it. It's inefficient. Compound that with the circulation side, where Samir and I are in agreement. We basically tell our newsstand readers that they're stupid. Here, you just spent $6.95 for this magazine on the newsstand, but we'll give you 12 issues for $4 if you subscribe. What is going on there? That is a model that only exists in this country. In Europe, newsstand and subscriptions are the same price, as it ought to be.
TSR: What is it about the magazine world that gratifies you the most?
BoSacks: I love being in the thick of it. This has to be one of the most exciting times in the history of information distribution. My first magazine was typeset in hot lead, pretty much what Gutenberg did and we've done for 600 years. Now, in one lifetime we're making these technological evolutionary jumps. It's exciting. I love being around and involved in this part of publishing history. In my lectures, I say, "What Gutenberg did was democratize knowledge." I think this digital process is doing the same thing, democratizing knowledge all over again, empowering and teaching people, giving them access to information that they never had before. The libraries of the world are now available to damn near everybody. Admittedly, you have to have an Internet connection, but the barriers to that connection are fewer and fewer. I love that about what we can do.
TSR: Don't we have a ways to go with finding all that information? It seems to be
pretty well buried.
BoSacks: You're absolutely right. But I'm not sure that anything has really changed.
Before the Internet, let's say 10 or 15 years ago, there were literally millions of books: hard, dead-tree books. How did people find them? They went to a bookstore and asked for recommendations. You need experienced professionals. In those days it was
the bookstore manager, and now you have Web sites and editors of Web sites who
can make recommendations to get you the information you want. Search engines also
are only going to get better. I'm not daunted by the amount of information out there. I think it will continually improve the filtration process, and this may be fee- based, because everything has to revolve around revenue. How do we monetize our information? That's what we do. We own information. We distribute words. How do we place enough value on those words to monetize it?
TSR: So it'll be democratized for those who can afford it?
BoSacks: It's democratized now without the structure. It takes a certain skill set to really find what you want. Anybody can get on Google, put in the name "Bob," and they'll probably get 2 million hits. You want to find Bob Sacks, you have to have the skill set to say, "I want Bob Sacks," and you'll only get 1,000 responses. Of course, if you do put in my name, it will be top of the list. That's just my ego talking.
So it's out there, but as we move forward, I think the question is, what's the next business model going to be? One path may be the cable TV model. People will pay and publishers will sign them up for programs. You can get the basic package, which might include your local newspaper and a magazine of your choice for $6 a month. Then you get the silver package, the gold package, all the way to the platinum package - everything that's been ever printed - for $79 a month. You refine your research, you refine your sources, much like the 500 channels we have now, and combine that with the value of editors. Editors can help you sort and deliver the information that's relevant. I do that for the industry. For my newsletter, I'm the editor, the sorter, the filter. Based on 37 years in the business, I decide what's important to know and I pretty much have a successful handle on what's worth knowing. That's a human intervention.
TSR: What's your long-term prognosis for publishers of information and their business?
BoSacks: The most important thing that publishers need to know is that their franchise is nothing more or nothing less than words and ideas. They don't own paper companies. Publishers don't own computer companies. They sell words. If they put the words in the proper order, those words have value. So they shouldn't care about the distribution path; all they should care about is monetizing their franchise, their franchise's words, and words aren't going to go away. We've been at this a long time. To go way back in history, we used to do cave paintings. That's how we communicated and took out-of-brain memory and shared it. Then we scratched on bones or wooden sticks and passed them on from generation to generation 25,000 years ago. Those were the first books. Then we get into parchment, then Gutenberg, now we're into electronic transmission. We're doing the same thing we've done for 25,000 years. We're reading words. The platform doesn't matter.