This piece is part of a series of articles summarising the key topics discussed at the workshop “Book publishing in the age of platforms” held on 29 November 2022 hosted by Möbius, a Horizon 2020 project focused on innovation in digital reading involving prosumers (consumers that generate content themselves) The workshop, marking the midterm of the project, gathered a panel of experts from different disciplines to reflect on the future of publishing and the role of Möbius in this process of transformation. For those interested, a complete recording of the workshop is available here. Readers interested in knowing more about Möbius should not hesitate to contact the Möbius team at Möbius – The power of prosumers in publishing (mobius-project.eu).
Horizon2020 project Möbius is taking stock of innovative online reading and writing practices, while supporting publishes in their effort to engage with new digital audiences, especially prosumers – writers of fanfictions, bloggers, etc. Möbius is developing new tools suited to achieve this goal, and is bringing together publishers, readers, and prosumers in a dedicated digital space. Some of the project’s outputs include tools for data analytics, new reading and writing apps, new business models for publishing in a renovated digital space, and many more.
The workshop Book publishing in the age of platforms was born with the goal of investigating the prosumer environment, at the midpoint of the project, examining the nature of publishing between micro-creators and massive gatekeepers, having experts from different backgrounds exploring the situation, its potentials, and risks. The event was chaired by Simona De Rosa, PhD (Möbius representative and member of the board of directors at the DEN institute) and was moderated by Christoph Bläsi (Professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz). The panellists were: Gianpaolo Scacco (Policy Officer – Regulatory aspects, digital policies at DG EAC, European Commission), Olivier Braet (Senior research associate at Guberna and formerly at Möbius partner IMEC), Quentin Deschandelliers (Legal Advisor at the Federation of European Publishers), and Alexandru Stan (Innovation Manager at IN2). This first instalment of our report covers Professor Bläsi’s overview on the role of platforms as the current dominant actors on the digital marketplace.
Professor Christoph Bläsi of Gutenberg University Mainz offered an overview on the opportunities and difficulties that publishers and other creative industries face in a digital space dominated by platforms. While at first many platforms might appear simply as mediators between different players, and sometimes are still understood as such (or present themselves as such), in truth they cannot be reduced only to this role. Platforms aren’t simply mediators between producers and consumers, as many are so-called double-sided platforms in a narrow sense and employ a winner takes all approach to digital spaces, taking control of entire market areas from their intermediary positions. For example, Airbnb originally positioned itself as a mediator between homeowners and people looking for accommodation, only to end up taking control of the house-sharing market. This situation made any entry in the hosting market extremely difficult from several sides. Other platforms were cut out from the space, while Airbnb kept the power to dictate conditions for all players participating in the market.
We can consider platforms in the publishing sector as mediators between producers or providers (the few, the companies) and customers (many more). In this context platforms can be transformative by e.g., employing economies of scale, or potentially making market entrance for competitors more difficult. With regard to publishing and bookselling, Amazon managed to gain this kind of control without actually being a proper double-sided platform. And in the field of prosumer writing, Wattpad is the one taking the lion’s share in the grassroot writing ecosystem at this time – also without being a proper double-sided platform, since in this case “producers” typically contribute content without getting paid. Therefore, while publishers aim to have access to customer data analysis and technological innovation, they are hindered by the presence of platforms dominating the market and slowing down the disruptive potential of creative enterprises, often small and mediums sized – a situation which Möbius intends to address directly with its efforts.
Big platforms’ centralisation and homologation is not solely controversial from a business perspective in fact. Their approach is in direct contrast with the driving forces behind European creative industries and book publishing especially, which rely on diversity, ubiquity, fragmentation, and expressive variety to create value, overall thriving in a diverse, complex environment made up of many players. It follows that platforms are damaging the publishing ecosystem radically, and European publishers don’t have many defences against their approach, which is informed by purely utilitarian attitudes rewarding winner takes all strategies.
The current imbalance between players is not the result of chance; platforms are very good at what they do, which is leveraging user data. This makes it easier to obtain in-depth knowledge of customers and determines platforms’ current position in the digital space. Access to customer data is in fact key to platforms’ business practices (and user experience) and consequently their existence. Likewise, users and prosumers are attracted to well-designed big platforms for supporting their creativity and for the possibility of reaching wider audiences.
Therefore, the role of platforms poses several puzzles for the Möbius team: how can this or any project fit in the complex publishing ecosystem? How can a project impact publishing in the age of platforms? Does Möbius help in rebalancing the score between publishers and platforms? The content presented during the workshop (covering legal, practical, and technical aspects of publishing and creating content online) will prove essential in supporting readers and writers looking into new creative outlets, and in making publishers more data-savvy. Such a renewal will greatly foster new opportunities for cooperation among creative stakeholders, originating new business models fitting a changed environment.