The phase change

When water becomes ice, it undergoes an astonishing transformation: something that physicists term a phase change. Water, the very essence of fluidity, becomes hard, sharp and brittle. Phase changes take place when environmental conditions reach a critical point.

That moment has now arrived in publishing. Yet the transition that most of us are expecting, even willing, to happen is far from what is actually happening. Let me explain by analogy to the newspaper industry. Many years ago, the wise ones in the newspaper business could see that change was coming, like some distant digital tsunami. So they prepared. For some, this meant throwing their lot in with "walled gardens" such as America Online (in publishing terms, think the iBookStore). For others, it meant trusting Digital Rights Management to protect their revenue. . . or expecting that income from online advertising would expand infinitely.

For all their plotting, we can see now that none of these tactics worked. Newspapers are today in extremis. Why?

Fatally, their owners signally misunderstood the transforming nature of that digital tidal wave. They assumed that "the newspaper" as a product would survive untouched, in a world where "news" as a commodity is free, instant and infinitely reproducible. All they had to do, they reasoned, was to convert their paper product into electrons, and business would continue without missing a beat. This became an item of faith, as industry commentator Clay Shirk lucidly explains: "Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones noticing that the real world increasingly resembled the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad."

That is precisely the same mistake we in publishing are now making. What we fail to understand is that our business is undergoing a phase change to an altogether different state. It is not simply a question of digitising our paper product. The publishing environment is not just changing: it is new and virgin territory. Bad news? Only if you fail to grasp the opportunities inherent in the new environment. Here’s one.

Traditional publishing is a one-way enterprise: a small number of publishers deliver lots of product to a larger number of retailers, with little feedback going the other way up the chain.  This worked in an age when book production and distribution were accessible only to a few. But in a digital age, it makes no sense.

We should see booksellers as local publishers—a kind of mini-HarperCollins or Random House, just around the corner. Publishing should become distributed and collaborative. Bestsellers would originate locally, and rise up through the system. The slushpile would become a valuable asset; booksellers would become a digital nexus for their community. Am I barking? Or is this the future? We may find out sooner than you think.