The Publishing Revolution Revisited
By Bob Sacks
Published: February 26, 2013
BoSacks Speaks Out: I have a publishing epiphany to relate to you that comes from a man who died in 1799. But before I tell you of his wisdom, I will tell you a little personal history which explains how I retrieved this 18th century wisdom.
For those long time readers and for the friends who know me well, I can be considered an American Revolution “nut.” I have loved reading about and attempting to understand that amazing part of our history. It is no accident that from my new home in Charlottesville, Virginia, I can see the home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, from my balcony.
This weekend Carol and I spent the last few days in Colonial Williamsburg, VA. Colonial Williamsburg, for those that do not know, was the revolutionary capitol of Virginia. It is a wondrous place and clearly one of the hot spots that started the birth of America. It is a place that continues to amaze me. For the record I have been coming here regularly since I was 7 years old. There are 88 original buildings from the mid-1700s and many more faithfully reconstructed in the old style. Nothing in the reconstructed buildings was created using modern tools or methods. The siding, the roofing, the bricks, the doors, the locks, everything is done by Williamsburg craftsman exactly the same way they were done hundreds of years ago. All references of the 19th, 20th and 21st century have been removed. Not only are the buildings accurate, but the spaces and gardens between the buildings are as they were in the 1780s.
Yesterday we had the pleasure of attending a “Breakfast with the Presidents.” At this breakfast were actors portraying Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison. Their acting skills and knowledge of their historical characters were beyond admirable, and I believe that they almost believed that they were the luminaries themselves. They are that good at what they do. I guess that is what good acting is supposed to construct, an air believability where none should exist.
I bring all this up because of something that “George Washington” said that took me away from the 1790s and right into the current publishing world. He said, we are not at liberty to be inactive participants in our future. The great man didn’t mean to conjure up anything to do with publishing, but there it was on a plate before me, and I grabbed it.
If you can just step back for a moment and look, not as an active member but rather as a voyeur, you will see that we, too, are not at liberty to be inactive participants in our industry and its future. There are some publishers who are timidly seeking an easy way through the technologic turmoil, and there are those that are active participants in the future.
What makes this timely for me is the news last week about Time Inc. negotiating to sell off some of their large titles. I see this move as “being a very active participant in our future.” Time Inc. has always been a smart company that has seen and acted on the future before any other publisher. There are numerous actions that they have taken years before the rest of the industry followed. And there is a forward thinking angle that many have missed in the guess work of their current action.
I have to say none of this is surprising to me at all. My logic is that the celebrity titles have had a twenty year positive and profitable ride. But in today’s market all celebrity titles, even People Magazine, is on the slide.
People Magazine still gets a billion plus in revenue, but it's hundreds of millions of dollars less than just a few years ago. As much as it is still huge, the handwriting is on the wall for this genre.
I, too, would sell it now if I owned it. Just like the stock market, you can't/shouldn’t marry a stock, and we must all keep in mind that all magazines and niches don’t last forever. If you are able, the time to sell is as high as is possible. Additionally Laura Lang, the new CEO of Time, has no historic skin in the People Magazine game, and didn't grow up with it as her business baby. This is a clear, cold, business calculation, and I agree totally with her thinking. I believe at the end of the day you will find this logic not only make good sense, but fulfills George Washington’s clairvoyant publishing advice that we are not at liberty to be inactive participants in our future.