The Futurist Interviews Frank Daniels, COO of Ingram's Digital Group.
July-August 2008 Volume 42, No. 4
Frank Daniels is the COO of Ingram's Digital Group. We asked him about the future of publishing.
FUTURIST: What do you think is the future of publishing?
Daniels: The future of information is, of course, unlimited with technologies that are out there. I think the bigger challenge is, what is the future of different business models and technologies that are out there? What we're seeing is an either/and world. Consumers want their content either in print and in some other format--audio, ebook. The challenge is trying to figure out how that blend of business models works in an environment where most of the logistics systems are set up to deliver either digital-only or print-only. A blended world means we have to start thinking about how do we create blended business models that maximize the return for intellectual property owners such as publishers? We at Ingram spend a lot of time thinking about how to create a supply chain system that makes it transparent to the publisher as to what environment the consumer is getting their content. We think that as we build out with publishers those possibilities, there is very little limit to the opportunity for traditional publishers to embrace this future.
FUTURIST: Most authors consider working with words on paper to be their competency and they might be very intimidated by this notion that now you should have a podcast and possibly a YouTube vlog and do all right in front of a camera. A lot of authors probably wouldn't have been published in that world in the 1800s. You talked about how that change means that business models have to evolve very quickly. Do you see anything being sacrificed in that transition to a multi-modal business model?
Daniels: I would say the thing that people are going to struggle with is their notion of process. What people are comfortable in is a process. They understand how to take a story and migrate it into print and migrate it to a reader. If you think of that as a straight line and then you engineer your world around a straight line so that your competency is not so much what's a good story but how to take a story and move it to a consumer in particular process, that's going to be sacrificed. We're not talking about a straight line process. The thing that's going to change is, how do we help editors and then publishers understand that you have to think about stories and content before you think about the production process? Most editors think, 'how will this story work as a book?' instead of ‘how will this story look in all the different ways people can view it?’ Think of Eragon by Christopher Paolini. It began as a self published story and migrated backwards from a thought process into a traditional publishing model. We're going to see more of that coming from a short story or a photo book and migrating into all the different ways consumers use media. Like, 'I really like that set of photographs, I want the story behind that,' or 'I really like that story, I want it told as a video.' They'll be thinking about all the different ways that consumers might want to buy and absorb that experience, really expanding their view of merchandizing.
FUTURIST: Tell me a little about this new digital platform Ingram has going. I mean, a cutting edge author was releasing stuff online in chapter form bit by bit. He could pull his podcasts and video all together on site. How is what Ingram is doing now different?
Daniels: There's no pride of invention. It's really about making it more efficient. On the digital side, Ingram right now is focused much more education and academics--integrating a printed version of the book with animations, assessments, corollary and supplementary material, delivering that over Web over a download and making that a seamless operation. That's the program we're focusing on primarily today at Ingram. As we learn those pieces, we bring them out to the platform. But the integration aspects we've been primarily pushing on the academic and education scenes.
FUTURIST: Of all the technologies you've been looking at, at Ingram, which one is the change leader, which one is the most interesting to you?
Daniels: I'm not sure that any one technology is driving us right now. I don't see a game-changing technology right now. The beauty about the Kindle isn't that the device is great. The device is terrible. But the buying experience is wonderful. Some of the things that we're doing at Ingram within the textbook space isn't so much that the textbook is some great new metaphor of a book. Yes, we want to help publishers break the metaphor of the book and deliver something that's more appropriate and effective for students. That's the transformation in my mind. We want to make it so that it’s as easy to do digital stuff as it is to buy a book. As we get that done, publishers will say, 'Yes. There is a market there. I now want to add some video and audio and create truly a different metaphor.’ Right now when you say ‘book,’ you're thinking of 300 pages bound in something, delivered and consumed in one period of time. What is the new metaphor for the book? Is it something that exists more like a TV show? That's episodic? That's consumed both in one sitting or later? Or is it something more like a Website and a Web environment? You both own it and subscribe to it. As we create a platform where editors can be creative in their thinking process, then we will truly begin to break the metaphor for the book and have an experience for our consumers that they will consume and continue to consume.
FUTURIST: I think that a lot of editors feel like the editing process, which used to be very creative, has become less creative over the years. So you see creativity coming back into that job?
Daniels: I do. There are so many ways to take a book and turn it into something more than a book, or take a book that has gone away and can be combined with something new. Some of the most profitable publishing involves taking public domain material and making it relevant again. There are lots of different ways to take and recreate a story, combining new intellectual property and creating an experience that's richer and more informed for the consumer.
FUTURIST: In many ways, the publisher or the editor of the future is someone that not just works with the words as they exist in a document but someone whose working with a studio very early on to get something almost like a visual narrative up to correspond to it, working with a music studio, and it all happens at once, in a sort of seamless birthing that happens, in which the publisher plays largely a go-between role.
Daniels: Absolutely, and really, the publisher always was that. The publisher was an aggregator of a very creative editor, a very creative agent that pulled something together, and then someone on the other side packaged that and moved it along. As an either/and world. We'll still have books that just come out as a book. That's the very best way they should be. Nothing wrong with that. Obviously, some great stories can be delivered there. But stories should be told in whatever is the most effective environment for that story. Sometimes that's straight print. Sometimes it's print, pictures, and video. But it's the story that has to carry, and that's what editors should be great at. Editors really focus on the story and carry the story and worry less on which is the dominant medium to make that story go forward.
FUTURIST: I've talked to a lot of people today, and no one else has emphasized the story as product as much as you have.
Daniels: Well that's what we all sell. We monetize the story in many different ways, to bastardize the word. But all that we're doing is selling stories. Even a textbook is taking a set of facts and converting it into a story that can be absorbed and used and understood. That's what we all do. By story, I don't just mean novel. I mean a logical flow of information....
FUTURIST: But the same skills you use in one, you use in the other.
Daniels: Absolutely. Come on, what's the biggest thing that held up Hollywood in recent years? The writers went on strike. They're the ones who put the story together. We want to make sure in our world that we enable storytellers to take advantage of all the new technologies and make that work seamlessly.
FUTURIST: Why did you get involved in this process of distributing digital content?
Daniels: I came out of the newspaper business. Very early on, we were involved in integrating our newspaper...
FUTURIST: What newspaper was that?
Daniels: The News and Observer in Raleigh North Carolina. We created a Website called Nandonet and a variety of things like that. We ended up with a family of Websites. So we began...
FUTURIST: When was this?
Daniels: This was 1993. When Mosaic came out, we began doing World Wide Web sites and publishing on the Internet, and the thing that we learned was that it's all around story, it's about creating the opportunity for consumers to get information in the most effective way possible--what they want, when they want it, at the time they most need it. We began telling stories in multimedia with audio and interactive graphics and video stories back in 1994.
FUTURIST: Back in 1994, when you were first encountering this new medium, was there a moment where you looked at it and you said to yourself "You know, this is going to completely change journalism"?
Daniels: Absolutely. It happened in the fall of 1994, and we decided we were going to sell our newspapers, and we sold all our newspapers but one in 1995. That's what brought me here. I saw there was an opportunity to bring this either/and world to publishing.
FUTURIST: That's really remarkable. You took a look and said, ‘That's it, we've got to get out.’ Taking a look at what's going on right now, what would get out of?
Daniels: Well publishing should be about selecting stories and marketing those stories to the right people. If that's their expertise, what are the things they do that don't deliver that expertise? So if I were a publisher, I wouldn't own my own distribution system. But that's a bit of a selfish observation.
This interview was conducted by Patrick Tucker