Not a manifesto: On 'a complicated relationship'

Not a manifesto: On 'a complicated relationship'

"What if cozy, fuzzy old traditional publishing has got it right?" writes Unbound's Jason Cooper. And as our FutureBook 2015 Conference approaches—surrounded by our flotilla of manifestos on the future of the book business—his provision of this anti-manifesto, if you will, is most welcome as part of our thinking. If nothing else, you'll find here one of the most cordial understatements of FutureBook Week: "Consumer book publishing has had a complicated relationship with digital innovation."—Porter Anderson

'Have we goofed?'

When requesting manifestos for FutureBook 2015, Philip Jones asked us to reflect on five years of digital.  This pins the industry’s digital awakening to the UK launch of Kindle and iPad in 2010.  Much had already happened: GoodReads and Wattpad launched in 2006, Kindle in the US a year later, Smashwords in 2008, Kobo in 2009.  By 2010 the Google Books Library Project had digitized over 12 million titles. Amazon was 16 years old.

‘Have we goofed?’ Philip asks.   

It’s hard to argue a sector characterized by over-supply, consolidation, redundancies and falling margins does is not exhibiting the classic symptoms of industry decline.  However, with the significant exception of Amazon’s use of technology to dominate a market, few of these problems can be pinned on technological change specifically, nor did they all start with Amazon. At the same time, digital doesn’t seem to have provided significant opportunities for growth. 

Authors, missing out on the benefits of higher margin ebook sales, have seen even less benefit. 

If these are indications of goofing, then much of the goofing had already happened by 2010: it was the goof of omission.  Amazon lost money until 2003 and has continued to do so most years since. The market leaders in our industry have long enjoyed an advantage in this regard. What was missing was a compelling, long-term strategic understanding of technology—and a convincing vision of a positive future with it.

Consumer book publishing has had a complicated relationship with digital innovation

Once alert to it, the industry didn’t underestimate its importance. Indeed, as Philip’s article points out, it sometimes attached too much importance to the wrong elements. Many embraced the idea of innovation, some responded positively to the radical chic of ‘disruption’. Companies and their executives jostled to position themselves as digital leaders.  Yet, there are very few who can demonstrate new businesses successfully brought to market.

No consumer publisher seems to have achieved an identifiable, sustainable competitive advantage as a result of its digital strategies. While there have been important incremental changes, consumer publishing remains essentially much as it was five years ago: a medium scale, B2B industry serving the needs of retailers and author representatives according to the same counter intuitive rule book.  

'An issue of two cultures' 

To my mind it boils down to an approach that stopped at an attempt to adapt technological innovations to existing routines and values—and could get no further.  The rhetoric of change was often just that. The understandable urgency was to shore things up, rather than re-think first principals. Change programmes as a form of conservation may have proved a conceptual oxymoron.

There were good reasons for these developments.  By 2010 margins were already under pressure from the market power of a few retailers. The core volatility and risks of publishing tend to make it averse to risk elsewhere. Large, diversified corporations didn’t need their consumer publishing arms to do their digital innovation for them when it could be better managed elsewhere—in markets and with content of a more straightforward kind. 

But it is perhaps the difficulty of relating many cherished values to the strategic logic of tech that remains the greatest barrier to change.

The Internet thrives through vast scalable, algorithmic engineering solutions, data driven decision making, semi-covert marketing tactics, a direct, responsive relationship to customer behaviour and an intensely market orientated ability to customize everything to the needs and tastes of individuals. This feels very different to our industry’s more romantic emphasis on intuition and feeling—‘passion’ being our overused equivalent of ‘disruption’—and the dissemination of the taste of a few to the many through push marketing.

This is an issue of two cultures. When technology does something radically different—as in the case of self-publishing—industry largely defines itself in opposition to it and thereby misses a bigger point about the changing relationship of people to the creative written word.

'What if cozy, fuzzy old traditional publishing has got it right?'

This will only feel like criticism if one feels partisan. Some publishers, authors and agents thrive just as they are. Book shops overflow with fantastic books beautifully presented. 

What if cozy, fuzzy old traditional publishing has got it right? Not all companies in a declining industry decline. Those with large market share can positively benefit from exiting smaller and medium size firms. Like large infrastructure based industries (think utility companies) consumer publishing is a hard market for new entrants to have any impact on and consolidation only reinforces that.  Retail supplier industries, like farming, can, with the occasional cull, survive on very low margins.

'Has the hegemony of Amazon...actually saved traditional publishing?'

The future of the industry is dominated by traditional growth strategies: acquisition, international expansion, efficiency saving. There is nothing wrongheaded about this, nor anything especially digital. It’s possible those publishers who dominate the market are now as technically competent as they need to be at the current time. A more interesting thought still: has the hegemony of Amazon—which has frozen many innovative entrants out of the market—actually saved traditional publishing which, for now, it needs to serve it product?

To my mind the question is the longer-term one that remains unanswered since the early millennium:

  • Does our industry have a strategically sound and compelling vision for its future? 
  • Do we have a a version of what readers and writers are going to need and value over the longer term and how these needs may be supplied? 
  • Is it possible to get the next generation of technically literate, diverse consumers and workers inspired by and committed to the business we currently have and its current outlook?

Richard Rumelt’s observation that  ‘Simply being ambitious is not a strategy’ appears key in an industry whose default strategic though tends to be ‘more only better’.

I doubt there is a generic industry solution. 

Specific businesses have different problems to resolve in different ways, but all will need to address a future that will continue to be dominated by the influence of new technology and the changing consumer behaviors shaped by it.   

'Trade publishing is currently almost entirely locked out of this opportunity'

The power of retail reflects the prime importance of a direct relationship with consumers. Technology has revolutionized how businesses learn from and create value for customers. Trade publishing is currently almost entirely locked out of this opportunity. If it were to engage in the sort of value laden exchange relationships driving the success of dot-coms, we might have greater insight into people’s complex needs and behaviours when it comes to books. 

The industry doesn’t seem to have moved beyond the marketing myopia identified by Theodore Levitt as far back as 1960 (and powerfully dramatized  in the Carousel scene of Episode 13, Series 1 of Mad Men. The love of writing, narrative and discourse is everywhere and yet publishers play a curiously minor role within it, focused diligently and politely on a narrow slice of the supply chain.  

It will, I think, take more than a manifesto to answer these tricky questions and the answers are likely to be contingent on specific organizational issues. 

But if we start by asking the difficult and interesting questions, then I can’t help feeling we may find answers that could lead to something a little more contemporary, compelling and inspiring than the path our business currently seems set on.

This is (not) an entry in our series of more than 30 "Five-Minute Manifestos" for The Future of the Book Business. In his article Those magnificent manifestos, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones revisited his call for the FutureBook community to reflect on five years of the digital dynamic, "to challenge the customs we have begun to adopt." The response has been robust, and we thank all our manifesto writers. See their articles here.

Emma Barnes and Alastair Horne have been chosen to present their manifestos at the FutureBook Conference. Their presentations are two high points in an engaging range of perspectives from many parts of the industry. 

Final bookings are being closed as this story moves on 2 December for the Friday (4th December) FutureBook Conference at the Mermaid in London. We hope you have a seat and look forward to seeing you there.

As we add more in this series, our most recently published #FutureBook15 manifestos are:

Main image - iStockphoto: ghoststone