When Your Consumers Become Producers

June 24, 2010

It wasn’t all that long ago when the idea of “Do-It-Yourself” was associated primarily with craft hobbies and home repair. But recent technologies have facilitated our ability to undertake a variety of new DIY projects, from video and music production to publishing, and it’s becoming far easier for us to become producers, not just consumers, of material.

But what are some of the implications of consumers becoming producers? How does the shifting role impact companies that choose to offer their customers the ability to create and disseminate content? Does it make that customer-business interaction more of a peer-to-peer relationship?

Earlier this spring, Barnes & Noble announced that they were planning a self publishing system for authors that would leverage its e-reader, the Nook, as well as the bookseller’s online store. Set to be launched some time this summer, B&N’s Pubit will allow authors to have their manuscript (along with a book cover and book-leaf blurbs) converted to e-Pub, an open source format that is supported by not only the Nook, but by most e-readers, including Apple’s iBooks.

As the books will be published by the self-described “world’s #1 bookseller,” B&N tells authors on its website that they will be able to “sell your digital content to millions of readers.” That’s an attractive option for many writers. And arguably it’s an attractive option for Barnes & Noble as well, who will be able to garner new content for their e-reader, as well as some media attention. This attention will come, in no small part, because the bookseller’s self-publishing platform runs counter to the restricted approval process utilized by Apple, whose iBooks is poised to be a major player in the e-book industry but whose promise to keep the company’s devices free from porn would make self-publishing unlikely.

But facilitating your customers’ abilities to become producers of the content you sell raises some interesting questions for B&N. As the above statement by Apple points out: if anyone can produce their own content via the Pubit platform, how will they handle questions of “offensive” publications? It’s unlikely that B&N will have the time to vet everyone’s books that move through the publishing process, and the company will probably have to have some sort of disclaimer to that effect (and likely a subsequent plan to pull books from the “shelf” that are offensive). Allowing consumers to be producers muddies some of the legal and PR waters for companies, who must monitor the content as it’s still associated with them, even if they are not the original creator of it.

But beyond questions of a company’s legal responsibility and branding, the stakes can also be high when a company takes on the responsibility of helping its consumers become producers. As a bookseller, B&N has long been in the business of disseminating its customers’ content. But in this case, those customers have been publishing houses, not individual authors. And this shift from dealing with the needs of large organizations to those of individual writers requires a different approach when it comes to service. It’s one thing to misplace an online order for 300 copies of a novel, for example, or to ship the paperbacks instead of hardcovers. But it’s another thing entirely to misplace or misprint someone’s novel manuscript. The costs are qualitatively different. The former is annoying; the latter, devastating.

As more and more companies take advantage of the tools that are fostering a DIY culture, there needs to be a recognition that their consumer’s creations are certainly unique and often deeply personal.

Helping consumers become producers can certainly make a company be poised to take full advantage of new technologies. But doing so will also have some far-reaching implications for what we’ve long recognized as a traditional consumer-company relationship.

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