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Bo Sacks's Publishing Perspective as Technology Disrupts the Future

Published on February 24, 2012

Head of Precision Media Bo Sacks shares his perspective on the evolving publishing industry with Dr. Joe Webb.

Interviewer:  Hi, I’m Dr. Joe Webb of the WhatTheyThink Economics and Research Center and I’m here with Bob Sacks, affectionately known in the publishing industry as Bo Sacks and the head of Precision Media.

Bo Sacks:  Good morning, Joe.

Interviewer:  Good to see you again, sir.  We’ve never been on stage together, so this is maybe as close as we get.

Bo Sacks:  I feel the electricity already.

Interviewer:  Now, you’ve been in the publishing industry an extremely long time and seen it from all different sides of the business, as an entrepreneur, in the newspaper side, also in production, some of our largest circulation magazines.  So, your perspective on what’s going on in the publishing industry, in this new world of digital communications, I think can be very interesting because you’ve seen it from the ground level and also from that top level.  And it just seems like total confusion is going on.  They’re having trouble monetizing what they used to do and putting it in a digital world.  So maybe you have some eyes for us—

Bo Sacks:  I would phrase that slightly different.  The entrepreneurs of the publishing industry aren’t quite having that problem.  It’s the big corporate seats who either forgot that they were entrepreneurs or never were entrepreneurs, aren’t flexible enough to adapt to this new environment.  People like myselves and others who grew up in the jungle, fighting for every dollar, are adaptable, and I see it all the time, on the web, there are people making it on the web.  But it’s not the big giants, they’ve lost their edge in their entrepreneurial spirit, which is why they’re trying to change seats right now, but they’re just shifting one corporate head for another and they need to reach deep and get an entrepreneur there who understands this new environment that we’re in.

Interviewer:  Is it easier to start from scratch? 

Bo Sacks:  I think it is.  Legacies is a problem.  The bonus of a legacy is you have branding.  Branding is great.  Branding means trust.  The problem with that is, it’s a big battleship and it’s awfully hard to turn.  When you spend 35 years learning how to make money on, with ink on paper and then you try to make that adjustment, that adjustment is not what you know best.  Your covetous to Mom cooks best, I know how to make money with ink on paper, I am at best not sure how to make money on the web.

Interviewer:  But is the branding something that’s as worthwhile as it used to be in the era of search engines and other ways of getting information?  You were showing me flip book before, where you can identify certain things by preference and the material will come to you as opposed to you going to seek the material.  Does branding and mastheads really work in the same way?

Bo Sacks:  I can answer that, but that’s a little difficult.  I think branding will be critical as we move forward, because there’s so much information available from so many millions of sources, how can we identify which is a reliable source.  We do that and we have done that historically with branding.  That being said, Flipboard and Twitter can be a horrible experience, Twitter can be about painting your wall green or using onions with your tomatoes at dinner, or it can be about extremely relevant things about the industry.

When you look at Twitter people and Twitter followers, sometimes there’s hundreds of thousands of people following an individual.  There’s no value in that, I see none whatsoever.  I have cut my list down to 100 of what I think are the best agents in the business.  In the printing business, in the publishing business, in the marketing business, I follow 100 of the best people.  And I do that by experience, by reading what it is they’re forecasting.  They have become free agents to me.  I’m a resource for the entire communications business.  I have 14,000 subscribers who read me every day.  They rely on me for valuable information.  I am their filter.  I use Twitter as a filter for information without branding.  Some of those people I know, some of them I don’t.  But I’ve ascertained that their value, they’re gold of information, and it works great.

Interviewer:  Now, I guess the real question still remains, whether or not the larger publishing organizations can adapt into that kind of world.  Does it become a situation where they create a lot more new brands?  Is that their way out of this?

Bo Sacks:  Yes.  We have to figure out a way to monetize, nobody’s—actually that’s wrong.  It’s not that nobody has monetized this.  There’s billions being made on the internet every single day.  And I struggle with this theory that print is dead and the internet is a wasteland.  Print is not dead, the internet is not a wasteland.  People are making tons of money.  How do publishers do it?  We’re still scrambling, this is in its infancy.  We haven’t even begun to understand how this can be used, how we can distribute information, how we can make money on it.  I’m convinced somewhere along the line, we need to get units of sale, maybe not selling a whole magazine, but selling the value of a particular author.

Now, that author could be in the bullpen of a publisher, or he could be in a writer’s guild, eliminating the publisher completely, or if he’s already branded himself, ala Stephen King, he doesn’t need the guild or the publisher, he can get out there and make his money on his own, with his own converted following.  And this is happening today.  Self-publishing is big and it’s growing and new authors are making money.

Interviewer:  The big news on the self-publishing side was when Seth Godin jumped his publisher.

Bo Sacks:  Right.

Interviewer:  Now, that may be fine for a while, but he still has to go out and find new people all the time to keep filling anyone who leaves their preference or their interest in what he does.  So he still has to rely on traditional publishing to promote himself in some way.  And I find a lot of brands have to walk in all the media at the same time.  And I think a lot of the branded publications have trouble understanding that.  They have trouble connecting with all of...

Bo Sacks:  I’m not sure I agree that Seth needs to use traditional paths to seek new avenues, new readers—what we’re talking about is new readers.

Interviewer:  Right.

Bo Sacks:  How does Seth get new readers?  There’s, you know, a billion-plus people on a global scale on the internet.  How does Seth blast through the noise to be recognized by new readers?  That’s a skill set that marketing can take care for him.  You know, can he do his own marketing or does he rely on a traditional marketer?  And even if he did, how do they do it now?

Interviewer:  Right.

Bo Sacks:  The rules have changed.  There is a skill set for marketers, traditional marketers, they’re still effective, 15% of publishers’ revenue is still only digital and 85% is print, but the graph and the chart is changing dramatically.

Interviewer:  Very dramatically.  Well, thank you very much, Bob.

Bo Sacks:  Thank you.

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