Future of Books

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.

Go Read This | Burning the Page – an instant review | FutureBook

On my kindle waiting to be read after The Signal & The Noise:

I could review this book for another thousand words, and still have more to say. In that, this book is incredibly valuable. We’ve not had much exposure to the minds of those driving the eBook revolution, and to have something to engage and in places disagree with strongly is rather novel. There are some very nice idealistic long-term statements in here, and though this is no exhaustive business history we get an idea of some of the thoughts behind the technology. I cannot in all honesty say I’ve been blown away by what I’ve read, but it has given me a more direct perspective on another experience of eBook History. Merkoski’s peek behind the curtain is valuable, it will be interesting to see if the conversation goes somewhere new from here.

via Burning the Page – an instant review | FutureBook.

Go Read This | If you’re in marketing, kill yourself now | FutureBook

Snarky and brilliant piece on discoverability from Chris McVeigh over at FutureBook:

Discoverability is a problem for publishers precisely because it’s NOT a problem for readers. There are so many books, so many places to buy them, so many routes to the checkout, so many subtle nudges towards choosing a title – the fact is, what remains is that publishers need to find some way of getting their products in front of potential customers.

The problem with the discoverability debate is that it’s often been framed the wrong way around. The real discoverability problem for publishers is how to they can discover their audience, not the other way around.

via If you’re in marketing, kill yourself now | FutureBook.

Go Read This | Amazon Defied All My Expectations

Great piece by Will Wiles, exceptionally interesting throughout but the last paragraph is the winner by a mile:

Ascendant companies always seem most threatening at the moment when they’re becoming indispensable parts of the scenery of an industry. I suspect we may come to feel the same way about Amazon.

via Will Wiles: Amazon Defied All My Expectations.

Go read This | The Finite Library by Willem Van Lancker

Colour me intrigued. Van Lancker is one of a trio involved in new ebook venture Oyster (good description and round up of the issues the start up will face by Martyn Daniels here). I found the section posted below in a rather interesting essay on Van Lancker’s blog. It suggests that ebooks are but the tip of Oyster’s iceberg of ambition and that while the public facing pitch is one that speaks of Spotify, the goal is actually something more refined controlled than that:

We are at an exciting impasse for the accessibility of content (e.g., images, writing), but simultaneously are confronted with a litany of services focused on incomplete collection and organization. This abundance of sources, media types, and proprietary systems has led to a fragmented and often frustrating environment. Few services promise the comprehensiveness of being your definitive library. Netflix, while likely replacing many viewers DVD libraries, offers no tools for curation and no sense of collection apart from a to-watch list queue.

via The Finite Library | Willem Van Lancker.

Go Read This | Appearing At Harrogate – The Plot Thickens

In which an author serves a publisher:

So I explain to Ursula – and the audience – that I can write a short story in five days and am happy to sell that at the Amazon minimum of 72p which generates me an income of 25p. At this point Ursula – who runs one of the biggest publishing houses in the UK –  asked me “so you’re happy to work for 5p a day, are you?”  The audience laughed and clapped, and I was frankly gob-smacked.  I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t seen the fallacy in her comment. She was assuming that I spent five days writing a story and then sold one copy. She can’t possibly have believed that, could she?  Of course I don’t work for 5p a day.  My Inspector Zhang stories sell about five or six hundred copies a month. Each. So one story sells 6,000 copies a year. So over the next ten years it could sell 60,000 copies which means I’d get £15,000, which is £3,000 a day and that’s probably more than she gets paid.

via How To Make A Million Dollars From Writing eBooks (or How I Learned To Love The Kindle): Appearing At Harrogate – The Plot Thickens.

Moving Up The Value Chain: How Digital Publishing Disrupts

A good while ago now (nearly 2 and half years I think) I wrote a piece called Whither Publishing In The Twenty Teens? It looked at the changes in publishing which I argued were being driven by digital publishing over the internet.

I made a prediction in that post:

3) Quality and curation will deliver rewards (so firing editors may be self-defeating) in the long-term, if you survive the shakeout. Given the proliferation of poorly written/created content, acknowledged quality will be a valuable feature as will good filtering capabilities (as we can already see).

The point here was that value could be created through curation of content, whether that meant building a dedicated niche in one topic or aggregating content from one specific area or doing that across many topics at once, but ensuring depth and value in each.

At the time I was interested in how traditional publishers might adapt their print curation to online and digital curation, something several have done well and others have not. I saw both an opportunity and a challenge to traditional publishers in the new curation.

I stand by the thrust of it, but I think I failed to make clearly enough a subtle point about that prediction. That is, that as blogs and websites gained credibility and status, they could quite easily move up the value chain towards the same kinds of products traditional media/publishers currently produce. If they show that THEIR curation is at least as effective and valuable as that of the traditional publishers is, then they can benefit from that prediction as much as anyone. It’s the classic example of a disruptive player moving up the value chain and it is happening before our eyes. What’s more, because they were coming from a smaller cost base, they can likely do it more competitively than traditional book publishers.

In many ways, it is the problem newspaper and magazine publishers have been facing for a long time, writing itself all over the face of book publishing. It’s a slightly different type of problem from the issue of self publishers growing in confidence and ability  (equipped as they are now with more tools to aid the creation, distribution and sale of their books). We are talking here about content producers designed around the web, using the web as a platform and building their content offering off a low-cost base and often offering most of that service for free to web surfers.

Demand Media has just announced the launch of two series of ebooks one on wine varietals and the other on pets. I recall how Demand was viewed when it first came to prominence, a content farm, and in some ways it has never shaken off that description, but with this move it shows that its low-cost model can deliver content that has pricing power and provides value.

Here’s how Jeremy Reed discussed their new effort:

As the digital landscape continues to change and new concepts are introduced, we’ve stayed focused on the still important idea of connecting people with knowledge through various media. The shift to smartphones and tablets has opened opportunities for new content formats, and the lines that once separated how people consume content — on television, in print, via online or through mobile devices — have all but disappeared.

The eBooks we’re releasing today exemplify this change. For people interested in learning about the vast world of wine or the intricacies of pet ownership, our collection of eBooks offers a modern alternative to what’s offered online or on shelves today.

Demand Media has taken almost the reverse approach of traditional publishers, but the more traditional approach (in the sense that the content being commissioned is specially created for books rather than created for multiple purposes, one of which may, at a future point, be books) also gets attention today with the funding announcement for Open Air Publishing:

Open Air believes it can disrupt traditional publishing faster. The New York-based startup has published four books. Priced between $5 and $10, all of them have at least broken even, and all of them have taken just three to four months to produce.

Now, with $800,000 in seed backing from SV Angel, 500 Startups, Charles River Ventures, Social+Capital Partnership, David Tisch, Advancit Capital, and others, he’s set to release a total of nine ebooks by the end of the year.

There is a huge amount of room for different models in the market and there will be customers for both the higher end products produced by Open Air and the cheaper ebooks created by Demand. However, in terms of scale and, I would wager, profitability, I think Demand has the game in hand. Certainly, I’d be betting any investment on them rather than on Open Air. After all their bottom up creation model means that a rigorous selection and filtering model combined with some judicious article creation around perceived gaps can result in far quicker production and, most crucially, the creation of ebooks without incurring extra cost (because the content is presumably being reused in other ways).

The Demand Media model for non-fiction publishing looks a lot like moving up the value chain from lower order prospects. In the same way the moves by the likes of GigaOm to start selling ebooks as a standalone product show two things, firstly that their reputation has created value in their brand and people trust it (their curation and editing and credibility) and also that what started as a threat to magazine publishers and newspapers is now a threat to technology and general book publishers.

GigaOm’s move shows the versatility of that publisher’s content too. Their offering now encompasses free content (ad-supported of course so not FREE free), premium subscriber content (their Pro offering) and what might be described as their mid-range content, their new ebook range. This comes close to the Publishing Continuum I first heard Dominique Raccah talk about and certainly does so from a surprising direction at least for traditional publishers. Whereas publishers might have seen GigaOm journalists as potential authors on their lists at some point in the future, it seems clear that GigaOm journalist are at least as likely to be published by their own home imprints.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the internet IS creating direct competition for new non-fiction books exactly as has been predicted that it would. Another short paragraph I wrote two years ago seems relevant if sadly telling now:

The challenge for most publishers is first to realize there IS a challenge and that responding to it is less about social media, ebooks and fancy apps (though they all have a role) and more about rethinking the way you conceive content and how and where you deploy that content to engage and build an audience.

If the world of publishing doesn’t seem to be moving very rapidly, that’s only because you are looking in the wrong direction.

From a very, very, rainy Dublin!
Eoin