“The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” This oft-quoted statement by William Gibson demonstrates both our predicament and our opportunities. Publishing, dare I say, has not quite entered the future yet, and while that makes it an uncertain industry to work in, it also makes it an exciting one. The key is to have an open mind and watch trends across the industry for an indication of what will work and what won’t.
For instance, I’d argue that genre fiction has taken advantage of digital opportunities in a much more impressive and immersive way than, say, nonfiction and scholarly publishing. Digital is clearly part of the future; Columbia Business School Publishing, the imprint I head at Columbia University Press, now earns nearly a third of its yearly revenue from e-book sales. The next step for us is to understand how to harness digital capabilities and turn e-books into miniecosystems for content, collaboration and connection. We experimented with this in our 2013 digital-first publication of The Most Important Thing Illuminated by Howard Marks, a book that built on our best-selling 2011 value-investing title The Most Important Thing by adding annotation from famous and time-tested investors.
The other major opportunity that digital presents is making books more easily available to the global market. One in three people on this planet has a smartphone, and one in 17 has a tablet—a massive potential audience, if publishers can figure out how to reach them. Since English is the lingua franca of business, business books in particular can reach far outside the North American market, and publishers that focus on making their books “nation-agnostic” will be rewarded with those global customers.
My bible for understanding how to prosper in the face of digitally driven changes is Race Against the Machine (2012) by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Highly recommended reading. Their book offers an important lesson for publishers: The authors self-published the book because they couldn’t find a publisher who would commit to producing it as quickly as they wanted. They now have a longer work, slated to publish this spring, which should be at least as successful as their first. When world-renowned authors can self-publish and receive a 70 percent royalty versus 15 percent, and have more control over their product, publishers must move from acting simply as printers to being publishers again—in the old-school sense, by providing editorial development and marketing.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s insights have made me even more optimistic about the possibilities for publishing in an era marked by the widest dissemination of knowledge in mankind's history. And in a world with so much knowledge so readily available, I think publishers—especially business-book publishers—are well-served by the adage that “need to know trumps nice to know.” In acquiring books for my imprint, I’m always looking for projects in business and finance that will move the fields forward and make significant contributions—and I strive to commission unique works that educate, entertain and enlighten.
Myles Thompson has been the publisher of the Columbia Business School Publishing imprint of Columbia University Press since its founding in 2007. From 2000 to 2007 he was the founding publisher of TEXERE, a global publisher in finance and economics, and from 1992 to 2000 he was publisher of the finance and investment program at John Wiley & Sons, Inc.