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.

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2 comments

  1. Agree wholeheartedly. Print books live on but the e-order model has killed the bookshops, just as have digital files killed (or are killing) record stores.
    PoD (unfortunately undisciplined) is emerging but bookshops won’t handle them. I can’t feel much sympathy but would welcome new chains of back-office editing and design and post-print distribution.

    John Stackhouse

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