Disruption Is The Decline of Publi- Shh!

What’s to fear from disruption? More to the point, what is disruption?

Disruption is the use of digital technology to supersede established businesses by newer and leaner competitors. Disruptors are often regarded as “smarter” companies, but the truth is that they are nimble and able to disrupt because they don’t have the existing systems that prevent the established companies from moving quickly (often in ways that hurt their traditional model). Disruption is a creative, yet destructive force.

Publishing companies are among some of the oldest established businesses in the world, and hence stand to lose a lot. Even if they can innovate incrementally, the destructive nature of disruption (literally the removal of parts of their business chain) means that they can never competitively disrupt their own practice to defend against newer and more aggressive competitors.

However, it’s a very big leap to assume that publishing is doomed by disruption. I was reading an article late last week that began with the premise that publishing is in decline. This is a premise that I strongly disagree with. I hope many of you reading this will also disagree. I want to look at this from the perspective of an intern or in a more grandiose (or delusions of grandeur) sense, from the perspective of a young-publisher-to-be.

I can understand the doom and gloom when we get stuck on the Disruption narrative – the Amazon narrative. And boy, what a narrative that was last week! Amazon’s office culture was exposed by the New York Times and then there was a subsequent flood of “surprised” and “concerned” articles that ranged from expressions of disappointment to demands to boycott. I found these particularly bemusing. If you’re expecting a company founded on disruption to be the friendly ideal of the childhood ballpit as opposed to the brutal reality of a childhood ballpit, I cannot understand why.

See what just happened there? I got distracted by the Amazon narrative. This happens very often. It happens to all of us. But books are more than their commodification, as is the publishing industry, despite its critics.

Now, are we in the death throes of this industry? No, no we are not. It’s simply a period of change. Whether that change is ending now, or will drag on for a longer period still remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that the initial panic has faded and things have stabilised. I mean, publishing companies are even hiring bright, young people like me. Or more specifically, slightly brighter, slightly older people kind of like me.

That’s not to say that there are no threats or concerns that arise from disruption by digital technology. But more simply, that the business of publishing books seems to be rolling on, ever on. It’s different now in the details, and probably more competitive, but from a big picture perspective, the game remains largely unchanged.

“Is it a good story? Yes, huzzah, let’s publish it. Will it sell x amount of copies? We’ll hedge a bet, let’s publish it. Is this a book that people need to read? We think so, let’s publish it at a greater risk.”

What can be said is that there are dwindling opportunities for new and midlist authors at the bigger end of town. Conversely, however, there is an abundance of new opportunity at the smaller end of town. The changes we’ve seen in the publishing industry allow small presses to be more competitive and more active than ever before. Digital disruption has increased access to publishing tools and services and transformed self-publishing from a difficult affair into a manageable and potentially profitable model for authors.

It’s the literal meaning of swings-and-roundabouts. Yes, a large corporation is making large inroads in controlling a significant portion of the book trade. Yes, they are disrupting the traditional publishing model, but they aren’t burying it (at least not successfully). None of this is an integral part of the publishing industry: it’s all ephemera. It’s affecting, it squeezes the margins tighter, but at the end of the day they were already pretty tight. As an intern and student, I’ve studied the history of publishing and the industry has survived bind after bind just like this. It’s going to do it again, and I’m going to be there when it does.

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