Down with Disruption

Down with Disruption

Publishing is a business that’s indivisible from language. Most people who go into it do so because they believe in the power of words to tell stories and explain complex ideas. So it seems only fitting that following the first Digital Publishing Xmas Fair, which aimed to encourage closer relationships between London’s digital publishing start-ups and the publishing community, that we spend some time considering the language we use to describe and discuss these businesses. This is because as it stands, I think this might need a little bit of editorial finessing. 
 
The language that surrounds start-ups centres on the idea of creating "disruptive technologies", a term first used by Clayton Christiansen in the 1990s. Start-ups, we are told are disruptive – the successful ones succeeding by their ability to destroy existing markets and create new ones. Disruption is what companies in Silicon Roundabout and Silicon Valley are all about, surely?
 
I’m going to disagree with this by saying no, not always.
 
Because I think the idea that start-ups have to be "disruptive" to succeed is becoming dangerously close to received thinking. Especially with start-up businesses like those that live alongside the publishing industry which I'd call vertically focused. These are companies dependent for their survival on the fortune of a certain category of businesses: in this case, publishers. If they disrupted these businesses out of existence they wouldn’t have customers.
 
There are different categories of disruption, and not all of them express themselves violently. Nor do all of them have to take on the pugilistic attitude to the industries they're entering that received wisdom now demands. Since it's the season of goodwill to all men, how about we think about how start-ups and publishers can and do co-exist peacefully and talk to one another – just like animals were supposed to do on Christmas Eve.
 
My argument is that publishing isn't so much being disrupted as unbundled by digital forces. Analyst Benedict Evans describes this process in his latest presentation "How Mobile is eating the world", explaining how the lead of a dominant platform like Craigslist, eBay or Facebook can be innovated away by other companies nibbling away at the margins. He suggests that the greatest threat Facebook faces is not that another network gets bigger than it, but it finds itself eaten away into irrelevancy by a large number of small players who do things like social messaging or picture sharing better. It’s a sign of how nervous established platforms are of seeing their messaging utilities unbundled by more recent entrants like Whatsapp that both Instagram and Twitter have launched private picture messaging functions within 48 hours of one another.
 
Let's apply this example back into publishing, which is in the middle of being unbundled now. The formerly established well-understood supply chain by which books were written, commissioned, created, printed, marketed and sold has been broken up, with its constituent parts now managed very differently. The one part of the supply chain where we've seen disruption in its purest, violent form is bookselling, where has essentially created a new "market and value network".
 
But if we look elsewhere we see unbundling, not disruption. Just look at the businesses that exhibited at the Xmas Fair in Shoreditch. Valobox takes a part of the retail book business that might once have been occupied by a bookseller; Jellybooks gives authors and publishers tools that replicate or replace work done by salespeople and the marketing team; businesses like Pugpig or Contentment take a part of the production process.
 
I'd argue that the area where we're seeing the least unbundling lies in the really important stuff: the content. You could argue that self-publishing is beginning to shift the paradigm (another ghastly, over-used word out there in start-up land) of how content is made available to readers, but this shift has also created other problems. Self-publishing platforms’ well publicised struggles with spam, plagiarism, obscenity and over-abundance of choice all reinforce the importance of the role of the publisher. The editor and publisher’s value judgement and appetite to take risks is the integral part of the process that hasn’t yet been disrupted, automated or unbundled out of existence. The editor and publisher's value judgement, and appetite to take risks.
 
This isn’t to say change is impossible, but the business truly dedicates itself to the disruption of the publishing supply chain will probably look, smell and act like... a publisher.
 
Why is that? Well, look at Netflix. It created a massive platform on the back of quite a backward looking business - the distribution of DVDs in the post. Now that it has that platform it’s transforming itself into a TV company. If, however, you've ever spent an idle Sunday evening trawling through the back catalogue of Netflix's own productions you'll know that it's still quite scant. And also very hit and miss. Creating great content is hard, and exceptionally hard to achieve at scale. Particularly the scale required for "disruption".
 
Google's misadventures with Zagat and Frommer’s, among numerous other examples tells us that for all their talk of disruption tech giants find content creation difficult. They can index it, distribute it, sell it and create tools that allow millions of authors to realise their dreams of publication. Fundamentally, they need other people to create the content that brings life to their otherwise lifeless platforms.
 
Which brings me back to why disruption isn't quite happening yet within the core business of publishing. Publishers still have access to all of the great content, the means to create it and the skill to tell the good from the bad. Start-ups in this sector don't need to disrupt the industry, they just have to unbundle enough of the supply chain to make a profit.
 
What publishers are great at doing is creating something to read. And until another business comes along with a more efficient way to create those things, publishing will not be disrupted, but it might be unbundled.