Books

Go Read This | Will you be in the nine percent of publishers that survive? | FutureBook

It’s a funny thing, but over the last few years I have found myself, occasionally, thinking less radically about the future than I should be and I can’t help but think that this stems from the fact that I am working on building up/rebuilding a legacy publisher. I suppose all of us print dominated publishers are the same. Of course, when I notice it, I scare the hell out of myself and try and snap out of it, but it worries me all the same:

What’s more, even publishing insiders who have a phenomenal grasp of digital may end up still thinking within existing paradigms, cleaving to industry norms despite their best efforts. The same happened in journalism and it’s very hard to combat because we aren’t always aware of our own inbuilt biases and assumptions. To paraphrase journalist Steve Yelvington, human mothers only give birth to alien babies on SyFy.

via Will you be in the nine percent of publishers that survive? | FutureBook.

Go Read This | An Industry Pining for Bookstores | The Scholarly Kitchen

A fine post about bookstores, print and emerging ecosystems (I’ve written about before about this new emerging value web) by Joe Esposito over on The Scholarly Kitchen:

Trade publishers pine for bookstores.  Part of this is nostalgia, but part of this is an awareness that their businesses were built for one ecosystem and another one is evolving before their eyes.  People may clamor for print (which would reinforce the publishers’ historical position), but the marketplace is increasingly becoming reluctant to provide it.

The simple truth is that with one exception, every link in the value chain must be profitable or the entire chain breaks.  Bookstores are breaking and are taking the entire chain along with it.  Amazon’s hands are outstretched to receive the new customers, to play its dominant role in the new ecosystem.

The one exception?  Authors.  Most authors don’t now and have never been able to live on the proceeds of their work.  A few do, and do so spectacularly.  That spectacle draws authors in:  it’s not the prospect of a good and interesting job but the chance to win the lottery that makes a writer out of a normal human being.  When we express regret at the passing of the old print paradigm, don’t shed a tear for the authors.  Our sympathies should be with the booksellers, who held it all together.

via An Industry Pining for Bookstores | The Scholarly Kitchen.

Go Read This | Jeff Bezos Ate My Hamster | FutureBook

Of course Chris McVeigh is making lots of sense here:

The idea that Amazon’s raison d’etre is to destroy the publishing industry has been repeated so often that it’s almost become the accepted wisdom in some quarters and as so often, the accepted wisdom is wrong.

Amazon are interested in selling books as a retail commodity – plain and simple. There’s no philosophical or ideological element to their approach. Books were simply the first commodity Amazon used to establish themselves in the online retail environment – as such they probably still hold a special place in Jeff Bezos’ heart. To believe that books are the main drivers of Amazon’s business strategy is to vastly underestimate Amazon’s ambitions and to vastly overestimate the importance of publishing in the wider scheme of things. Amazon doesn’t even break ‘Books’ out as a separate category in its’ accounts, they are lumped in along with DVDs, CDs and Movie & Music downloads under the catch all title of “Media” 

via Jeff Bezos Ate My Hamster | FutureBook.

On Galbraith, JK Rowling & Debut Novellists

Cuckoo's CallingI can’t say I agree with this argument

But there’s another downside, which is the negative impact on thousands of writers the public has never heard of or, more importantly, had the opportunity to read. In that sense, it could even be argued that Rowling’s well-intended hoax has backfired, turning into yet another story about fame in the modern world.

via JK Rowling’s book ruse is a cautionary tale for unknown writers | Joan Smith | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk.

For one thing, readers always have the opportunity to read debut authors, though they may never consider them and they may choose not to read them, given that readers’ time is limited and the chances of getting a bad book are high, it’s understandable that they often pick authors they already know and like.

Secondly the publishing industry has always been hit driven, there’s some argument that it is becoming even more so with the bandwagoning effect of the internet, but that’s a question of scale rather than kind. New writers always struggle to get exposure in this environment. But even the hits start small until something or someone pushes them over an edge, that can be advertising spend, celebrity endorsement, top line publicity, word of mouth or just dumb luck, but even JK Rowling started at the bottom with Harry Potter, the initial print run for The Philosopher’s Stone was around 1,00 copies!

Finally no writer is entitled to success, just as no publisher or bookseller is entitled to it. We all have to work to reach readers and entice them to read book (hopefully our books). Sometimes that means publishing a few books before gaining a readership, sometimes it may mean a writer never gains that readership despite being talented. There’s no foolproof way to guarantee success, you just have to keep plugging away at it and finding good partners to work with and hoping you can do everything right so that if success comes, you’re ready.

On Innovation & Disruption

Baldur Bjarnason has a great post on his blog this week, Which kind of innovation? In it, he asks whether ebooks can be considered a true disruptive innovation (as per the work of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma) or whether they should be considered a sustaining innovation that the publishing industry flubbed.

It’s a great question and he supports it well, but I think he’s wrong in his assessment for a number of reasons. Firstly his premise is mistaken, ebooks are not the disruption, merely the manifestation of the disruption (of which more below) and secondly even if we are to accept his categorization of ebooks as the disruption/sustaining innovation, he misses a key point about the nature of the trade publishing industry that undermines his argument.

On Disruption
The error Baldur makes in looking at ebooks as the disruptive innovation rather than considering ebooks as part of a wider context. I would contend that ebooks themselves are simply one symptom of a much wider and radical transformation that is underway, digital creation and distribution of content.

This process has actually been ongoing for quite some time and began with the emergence of tools that digitized the back-end of the business; word processors, computers, design software, email and much more (which changed writing, editing, typesetting, design etc) and has over time moved from there towards more front facing aspects of the industry (production, distribution, selling) before starting to make a large impact on the consumer side of the industry, consumption in the form of ebooks and web-reading (not to mention making many other forms of content from music to games available to those consumers).

It is this process which is causing the disruption, not ebooks which are merely one, now obvious, fork that it enables. What’s more this process is very much a disruptive one. It enables self publishing, which Baldur points out has the potential to be very disruptive and I would argue already has been and will continue to be. It also makes real the competition between all forms of content in a very cutthroat way. Digital creation and digital distribution pits amateur against professional, curated against random, quality against crap and, probably most importantly of all, form against form and past creation against current creation. It makes accessible all things ever created (once digitized) and pits them against all other things ever created.

So yes, the ebook is just a format change, but it is not a sustaining innovation in any true sense of the word. Rather it is a symptom of an ongoing, radical and endless disruption of the creative content industry in all its guises (and one which is replicated across most industries that have an information/content/data/entertainment component which is to say, them all).

On Trade Publishing
But let us move beyond the argument of whether it is or isn’t disruptive in itself and onto Baldur’s case of why eooks are just a format change the industry flubbed. One of Baldur’s key points is this:

Unlike most disruptive innovations, ebooks were very quickly adopted by the publishing industry’s most profitable customers, people who buy the most, spend the most, and talk the most about books.

The problem here is that those consumers are not publishers’ most profitable customers, rather they are the customers of their most profitable customers, bookstores.

So when Baldur says:

Amazon’s release of the Kindle was like the iteration of the Thinkpad or the Powerbook that first made them viable as desktop replacements, not a disruptive innovation but a discontinuous sustaining one.

He needs to consider  the impact on bookstores before he can say the Kindle was a sustaining innovation. Ebooks might be just a format change but they are a format change which would, if they were adopted by a large enough group of consumers, wipe out publisher’s key trading partners. That is what makes them so disruptive to the industry even though they are only a symptom of the real change.

To ignore this key fact is to misunderstand the trade publishing industry as a whole.

Baldur also says that:

Ebooks are a sustaining technology that are being mismanaged into devaluing an entire industry (that mismanagement is a subject worthy of a series blog posts) while the true disruptors get to work in peace. (In the long run, Google is the real winner here.)

I have much to fault in this section.

First Baldur notes that ebooks have brought about a considerable devaluation across the industry (which presumably has been a boon for readers) something I question and isn’t really held up by the figures either even if you look at the most recent figures from the UK, print sales were down modestly but digital sales more than made up for it.

He rests the fault for this at the door of publishers who have flubbed the transition to a new format. BUT how else might they have acted? Ebooks threatened, and still threaten, to close  their most profitable route to market, bookstores.

The only booksellers who have successfully launched rival ebook offerings have done so only with great difficulty. Barnes & Noble has sunk considerable cash into the project and struggles to gain further traction in the US or any beyond the US, even as it has successfully spun out the entity and sucked in money from Microsoft. Kobo was started as an independent entity and recently sold by Indigo to a non-booktrade player.

If Ebooks were indeed sustaining and just a format change, we should be seeing the old order of trade publishing flourishing, we are not, our bookstores are dying. Publishers can and will survive ebooks, but their major customers look almost certain not to. Print booksellers are looking like the major casualty of a “format change” which seems to me an unlikely occurrence of that “format change” were indeed sustaining.

One thing Baldur certainly gets right about the implication of this true disruption wreaking havoc up and down the supply chain is that Google is happily egging the disruption on, but he misses that Amazon is too. if he got that, he might see this for what it is.