Holding their attention

Michael Bhaskar
Opinion - Publishing Tuesday, 19th March 2019

New media companies, writes Michael Bhaskar, would kill for the kind of engagement that book publishers command

While times have been upbeat in the book world, with almost universal good results for publishers, the same cannot be said of news media, and in particular digital news media. Whereas a few years ago startup news companies, backed by aggressive venture capital and touting technologically turbo-charged journalism, were riding high, now they are in full-on crisis mode. Large-scale layoffs have occurred at former darlings of the internet economy including the HuffPo, Buzzfeed, Vice and the Pool. For those working in the field, the news has been grim; prospects are shrinking; jobs are going; budgets are being slashed; the promised future is not coming to pass.

Ultimately this is all about the currency that powers the media environment and that, in the digital age, has become the most prized asset of all: attention. Getting, keeping and, crucially, monetising attention are harder than all of these companies had bargained for. Nonetheless, there is a huge lesson and positive message here for publishers

Digital natives
But first some background. The theory behind the new wave of digital journalism companies - from Vox and Quartz to the higher end like Longreads, and more salacious sites from the Mail Online to Gawker and Perez Hilton - was that the fault with traditional media was their lack of understanding of technology. Instead, by being digitally native, and by attempting to become content platforms rather than traditional publications, these sites would be able to ape the profitability and valuations of the tech giants. On one level this wasn't stupid: Facebook and Google have achieved eye-watering stock prices and profit levels from precisely that aforementioned currency these new organisations trade in: people's attention - their eyeballs, in Silicon Valley parlance. While both Facebook and Google invest heavily in R&D and have their roots in computer science, their real value was and still is in advertising. They are above all attention brokers, and they live and die on how much they command global human attention.

It was not therefore unreasonable to suggest that, updated and built for ecosystems reliant on attention, these new media organisations might work - might indeed reinvent the whole business of content. They failed, because their cost base was equivalent to the old world of journalism while their audience was nowhere near the levels of aggregation achieved by the traditional tech platforms.

All of which suggests two things. Firstly, that the market for attention is the critical battleground of any media company today; and secondly, it is a fiercer battle than ever before. Which is where we reach a possibly surprising idea: book publishers are winning the battle for attention, but are not capitalising upon it.

Part of the issue for media companies is that attention is fragmenting. Most of the time when people seem to be engaging with something, they aren't really doing so: we are all only half present, sat behind the two screens of our phones and TVs, or phones and computers, our continuous partial attention scattering to become very partial indeed. Netflix, Facebook or the Guardian may accrue a lot of eyeballs, but how many of these eyeballs are truly focused or engaged? This represents a problem for the media companies: they are not truly adding value, either for their funders (advertisers for the most part, but also subscribers) or their core users. What an opportunity for book publishers.

The opportunity
We already have a considerable amount of this valuable commodity, and we have it in the highest grade quality of all. When people are reading a book, they are, mostly, truly engaged. Reading books is pretty much all-consuming. It happens in the most intimate times and places of people's lives. It's deeply involved, personal, subjective, unfolding over long hours, days, weeks and years. In the so-called attention economy this should represent diamond-like value: unfettered, raw, deep, meaningful human eyeballs.

Probably only video games, cinema and events like concerts have anything like this full absorption of attention. TV and news media would kill for the depth and quality we command. While the raw numbers may not match Facebook or Netflix, the annual human engagement of, say, Penguin Random House is surely competitive. Indeed, if measured by traditional tech metrics the engagement levels for a business like PRH would be absolutely off the charts. And yet PRH has a valuation that is meagre by comparison with those of the new media giants.

This implies a huge opportunity for publishing. We are capturing the single resource that powers the most valuable companies of our time, and we are doing it at a level that would be the envy of, on the face of it, far more "exciting" companies. Yet we have not shouted about this enough, nor perhaps have we figured out how to capitalise on it further.

Other companies are turning the base metal of eyeballs into something extremely valuable. If I had the answer to what we should do, well, I'd be doing it. But in an age when others have tilted for mass attention and failed, we, as an industry, find ourselves in a place others would love to be. Book publishing could be, and should be, and is, at the centre of it.

Michael Bhaskar is co-founder of the publisher Canelo, author of The Content Machine and Curation, and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Publishing. He can be found on Twitter @michaelbhaskar.