Changes Brewing: Publishing History Repeats Itself

Imagine that today is several years after 1439 and Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type has revolutionized the production and dissemination of texts and illustrations. You’re a business consultant and monasteries worldwide are demanding that you find the “missing” business model that will allow their monks to stay in business handwriting books.

Would you tell them that the world of media has permanently changed? That a business model which permits them to continue doing what they had done will never be found because continuing to do what they’ve done no longer makes sense? That they will no longer control what content is produced and how much that content costs to purchase? That they’ll have to adapt?

You could tell them all that, but their likely reaction nonetheless will be to continue denying that the world has changed. They’ll try to continue handwriting books. The only adaptations they’ll make will probably be fancier paper or brighter colored or more ornate illustrations, none of which will change their fate at all. Their exquisite skills won’t matter anymore because there are more quick and efficient ways to produce and disseminate information.

So things are today with newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters who clamor for the “missing” business model that will allow them to stay in business doing what they’ve always done. It will never be found because continuing to do what they’ve done no longer makes sense. There are more quick and efficient ways to produce and disseminate information.

Publishers of those newspapers and magazines and the executives at those broadcast stations and networks no longer control all content that is produced. What they produce is no longer scarce now that its delivery is no longer limited by the range of distribution trucks or transmitter range. And because it’s no longer scarce, those publishers and executives no longer set whatever price they like for their content.

They might clamor about turning back the clock and returning to old models of production and business. Or, as Steven Brill recently said: “We just have to return to one of the oldest principles of that business model — that those who consume journalism pay something for it.”

Cloistered for years deep inside newsrooms or behind the walls of media conglomerates, most were woefully slow to notice technological changes and adamant that their roles in producing books were piously irreplaceable. Thus, some of them now demand special protections, such as waivers from anti-trust laws, so they can collude in order to survive.

After Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, it was certainly possible for monasteries to purchase printing presses and continue to produce books. However, the challenge was more complex than just that. The monks would have had to change their workflow radically.

It could no longer be one monk producing one book. Instead, all monks would have to work in new and integrated ways if they were going to continue producing books, ways in which they’ve never before been organized. That, not the printing press itself, was the real problem. They didn’t want to change their ways.

Many monasteries subsequently stopped producing books. They were too late to adapt and unable to reorganize and compete.

Many turned to other ways to earn revenue. If today you visit a well-stocked supermarket beer aisle, you’ll see dozens of Belgian, Czech, or German beer brands dating from monasteries then (Franziskaner from the Franciscan monks, Kapuziner from the Capuchins, Chimay from the Trappists, etc.) Next time you’re in that aisle, buy some and drink to history repeating itself.

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