The book trade must stop focusing on disruption and start focusing on impact

The book trade must stop focusing on disruption and start focusing on impact

For many outside of it, the book trade can appear quite conservative—to the point where it has been held up as an icon of an industry that’s been slow to adapt to the social and digital changes over the past few years. Even those inside the publishing industry are keen to bemoan their lack of innovation.

But if we look to the industry of publishing and selling books as a whole, it is very much a dual history. Yes, many traditions are still alive and well, even though their best-by date may well have passed. However, be it Sir Allen Lane’s decision to sell cheap but stylish quality books in the 1930’s (what in today’s parlance would be considered both a disruptive innovation and a business model innovation) or the rise of the bookselling superstores in the 1990’s; trying to turn bookstores into micro-malls or testing out every imaginable angle as to what to publish, from tweet-collections to endlessly repackaging the classics, the book trade has always been keen to disrupt itself. Also, lest we forget, the relentless innovator and now close to unstoppable retail behemoth Amazon was long associated mainly with the book trade it sprung out of.

So how can the industry connect with this part of its history, this part of its metaphoric DNA, rather than the narrative in which the trade is traditional and hidebound? In an age where there is a palpable fear that macro-trends and an over-saturation of the market will keep eating away the economic foundations of the book trade, there is a need for real innovative thinking, the kind that the industry has shown before. The danger, however, is that this selfsame fear will drive people towards shallow innovation thinking, the kind of copycat novelty-seeking that has beset many an industry. For the book trade, which has wrestled with questions regarding its relevance and impact in our brave new world, this would be deeply problematic.

What the industry of books needs, then, is to reconnect with deep innovation. By this I refer to forms of innovation thinking that look for something more than mere novelty and the latest fad, but which instead considers the impact and the originality of its innovation endeavors. This would mean moving from pledging allegiance to innovation buzzwords such as "disruption", "transformation", and "digitalization", and instead looking back to what it is that has always made books, and the people who make and sell them, powerful.

This isn’t mere puffery, nor is it wishful thinking. Whilst we may live in the age of the celebrity tweet, we also live in the age of #bookstagram. In an age of commoditized inauthenticity, people are busy sharing pictures of their favorite bookstores, and teenagers are gravitating towards poetry once more. Libraries are reporting that all kinds of reading for pleasure is showing strong growth, and people are increasingly looking for authentic pleasures, including that of a good book.

Here, I believe it is important to look back to what many of the great past innovations of the book trade did. They didn’t necessarily add functions to either books or bookstores (although the cafés were a nice touch – thanks!). They didn’t reinvent storytelling, not really, nor throw out classic formats. What they did, quite often, was democratise reading and simplify access to knowledge and stories. They lived up to the desire for something authentic and deep, and did not solely reserve this for the affluent urban intelligentsia.

Central to this is that the industry has a serious discussion about the things that made the book trade innovative, including the key issue of impact. Publishers used to care about books having impact, and assumed the sales would follow. Booksellers wanted for their stores to have a place in the surrounding community, and trusted that the customers would come. Today, we need to tap into this anew, and try to find the kinds of novel modes of publishing and bookselling that can affect new groups and open new discussions. Here, the trade would do well to slow down a little, to scan society and try to identify potential readers and communities that haven’t usually been on the industry radar, and further see what role bookselling can have in an era of huge mega-trends – aging and inequality being two of the more obvious ones.

Regardless of what the evangelists of small screens say, the book isn’t going anywhere. Nor is bookselling. What the industry needs, however, is a discussion about the many ways in which it has always been innovative, always capable of great change. By channeling this, the secret innovation history of the book trade, we can find ways to talk about innovation that isn’t just tied to the tired buzzwords and empty clichés. Such deep conversations about what innovation can be, whom it can serve, and how an industry can try to address wicked problems in society, would be far more productive than worrying about whether something is "transformative" or not. The book trade has always been built on a foundation of man’s search for meaning, and the industry is uniquely placed to draw upon this to define its own role, and what makes it meaningful in this day and age. Innovation? That will follow, as surely as day follows night.

Alf Rehn is a professor of innovation at the University of Southern Denmark and a leading keynote speaker. His new book Innovation for the Fatigued is out now from Kogan Page, priced £14.99. Visit to find out more.