The disruptor and the undisrupted

The disruptor and the undisrupted

“The biggest skill is mostly philosophical: you have to appreciate the only constant is change. You might have to fundamentally reinvent every part of your business, from its business model to production, to interaction, to design, every couple of years—or every week, depending on the scale of what you are talking about.”

Not my words, but those of George Berkowski, keynote speaker at this year’s FutureBook Conference, and author of How to Build a Billion Dollar App (published by Piatkus in September). Berkowski’s perspective on the book business comes almost entirely from his work as a tech entrepreneur (think Hailo etc), but more recently informed by his own publishing experience. Berkowski peers in at publishing from a world that moves incredibly quickly, deals with far fewer and bigger new releases than most publishers, and is acutely responsive to customer need.

Publishing feels somewhat different from this. And yet terms that we have recently adopted in the book business such as “agile publishing” come out of this environment. As Berkowski notes: “In my business, software is a living, breathing thing; you don’t put out an app then wait for it to bring in money. You build an app and it evolves with its users. What people want today is sure as hell not what they will want in six months’ time. The companies that really flourish on the customer and business side are the ones who just accept that there will continually be new ways to do things better.”

There will be some resistance to Berkowski’s views at FutureBook14, as there already has been on Twitter. When I asked a publisher for his response, the publisher quipped that he would like to address a tech conference and tell them how to do their jobs. That publisher’s reasoning is simple. Despite the tech disruption this media industry has faced since the early noughties publishing continues to live well. Much has changed, of course, but at least as much hasn’t. The business model did not die, in fact it barely blinked.

The digitalists who argued that publishing was about to be run off the road were wrong. They failed to see just how adaptable ‘old money’ could be. The tech companies came and in the case of Amazon, Google, and Apple they stayed but they have so far been unable to wrest the content away from the big publishers. By holding its ground publishing cemented its control over the key levers: the authors and their works. There is a belief among some publishers that so long as the framework around the business remains strong, readers will find the content however it is published. Their view of the tech giants is almost exactly the same as I have heard expressed about the big retail chains in the past: they do a job, but at a fundamental level they are distributors, not content creators. Or in the more colourful words of agent Andrew Wylie, trucking companies.

Publishers have a more noble calling. And the part publishers play in this meta-business of what it is to be a publisher — defending copyright, or fighting piracy, is vital to this view, as is the perception that if they don’t stand up for content, no-one will. Or as Bloomsbury executive director Richard Charkin, now president of the International Publishers Association, said in Sharjah this week: "We have companies in our industry now who do not care about our industry. They are more interested in selling lumps of metal (e-readers and tablets)."

In similar vein was PA chief executive Richard Mollet’s speech to today’s Westminster Media Forum. Mollet talked specifically about how “a top down removal of territorial licensing across Europe would be an erosion of diversity as markets became homogenised, and a further weakening of copyright”. He said this would play into “the hands of US-based platform companies”. He said: “Imposing pan-European licensing is also a policy which will play straight into the hands of the very companies which the Commission claims it wishes not to help. Commissioner Oettinger said last week that he did not want EU creators to become the mere component-suppliers to the US tech giants' supply chains. Amen to that. Yet, if the Commission tells creators that the only way they will be allowed to do business in Europe is through simultaneous pan-EU licensing, then the clear beneficiaries will only be those companies which are capable of fulfilling the orders in all 28 markets simultaneously. In other words, the incumbent American internet intermediaries."

Not everyone sees these American internet giants as bad for books, just bad for publishers. For a lot of self-published writers the platform players who “care little about content”, have actually demonstrated the opposite: that content is what draws the audience in, and it has a value to them that is clear, present, and measurable.

The concern is that the very strategies that have got publishing this far, now place big publishing on the wrong end of the next disruption. In his rhapsody about Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, the hybrid writer Hugh Howey explores the assumption that “publishing executives aren’t idiots”, and yet they still run the same risks from disruption as they did a decade ago. For Howey, one of the biggest problems publishing faces is that it is trapped in a model designed to sustain its bloated margins. “One of the suggestions I made, and one I’ve harped on over and over since, is the need for a major publisher to close shop in NYC and move to more affordable real estate. Reading Christensen’s book, I’m convinced that this is the only way one of the Big 5 can thrive in the publishing world ten or fifteen years hence.

Neither Berkowski nor Howey are clear-eyed enough about publishing to be able to confidently predict the future. But what they do well is articulate a narrative of constant change that seems to me to be indisputible, and which will one day catch up with publishing again. At FutureBook last year, when proposing the publishing hackathon, WME agent Simon Trewin talked of how publishing needed to make itself more robust to change by widening its gene-pool. "The danger of a small community is that it cannot form immunities against new diseases,” he said. At FutureBook14 Berkowski will talk about how publishers can look over the hills at what might be coming next, and make themselves more change-hardy.

In a session at FutureBook14 entitled, New Voices: Who should you hire and how will they change your company? we will look specifically at how the knowledge of a different generation can be tapped into: as former Penguin Random House digital accounts manager Crystal Mahey-Morgan put it: “One of the stats I like to bring up is that 16 to 24-year-olds are the least literate age range in the UK, but the most tech-savvy. That is worrying, and the business case for being in the digital spaces that young people are in is simple: this is [publishing’s] future audience.” In a session, I’m chairing on the “future publisher”, we will look at the range of new business models that digital opens up, with new channels and new routes to the consumer, and the opportunity there is to experiment. I will also be interviewing Penguin Random House UK chief executive Tom Weldon after Berkowski’s keynote setting up a visible contrast with the disruptor and the undisrupted.

The Bookseller's The FutureBook 2014 conference programme on 14th November promises to have the widest scope and most inquisitive bent yet, in terms of signalling digital directions ahead. Keynote commentary will come from author George Berkowski, WGSN's Carla Buzasi, and -- in conversation with Philip Jones -- Penguin Random House's Tom Weldon.

At 11a.m, a panel on What do the future publisher look like? will include Sam Aspinall, c.e.o. of TouchPress, Andrew Savikas, c.e.o. of Safari, Dan Kieran, founder and c.e.o. Unbound, and Henry Volans, director at Faber Press. At 12 noon a panel discussion at FutureBook, chaired by Tom Tivnan, will focus on New Voices: Who should you hire and how will they change your company? Panelists include Mahey-Morgan, Orion's Marissa Hussey, Headline's Ben Willis, and Sanne Vliengenthart, booktuber and digital co-ordinator for Hot Key Books.

Hurry to secure your seat, as sales will be closed soon.