The Truth About Disruption in Publishing

Wheel of Fortune by iwinatcookie
Wheel of Fortune by iwinatcookie, via Flickr

Even with the challenges that traditional publishers face, it can’t be denied that this ever-changing landscape can also be embraced as a time of opportunity to connect directly with readers, cut out middlemen, and disrupt norms that are no longer relevant, so that this illustrious and important industry, which I still love wholeheartedly, can take its rightful position at the forefront of connecting great stories with readers.

“The Book Publishing Industry of the Future: It’s All About Content,” Felicia Pride

Truth: Disruptors are overrated. Most are made of smoke and mirrors, and the rare “Black Swan” is exactly that, rare and unpredictable.

For every Google, there’s ten Cuils.  For every Facebook, there’s twenty Pings. For every iPad, there’s fifty Skiffs. In publishing, every day it seems there’s a new upstart or three that’s going to disintermediate (or even better, KILL!) traditional publishers, but with the exceptions of Open Road Integrated Media and, possibly, Ruckus Media Group — both run by major publishing veterans, and have partnerships with a variety of “traditional” publishers — you’d be hard-pressed to name too many others that have had any truly notable impact to match the hype surrounding them at any given moment.

Beast Books? BLIO? Copia? Cursor? Push Pop Press? Scribd? Smashwords? Zinio?

Not a game-changer in the bunch, despite all kinds of hype that proclaimed otherwise.

Last week, in preparation for a video interview with Jane Friedman (my former Writer’s Digest colleague, not the Open Road founder), she referred me to an older post by Michael Nielsen, Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?, wherein he made a number of interesting points, including this one:

The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

It’s a longish read, and the tl:dr takeaway is basically summed up in, “It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.” While that’s certainly arguable, as someone who’s worked on both sides of that equation, “easy” is often exaggerated and/or misrepresented (everything’s a bit easier when there’s millions of dollars in funding and no short-term obligations or expectations), and I’d argue that the ideal angle is building from a solid foundation with room to experiment, test, and strategically fail forward.

(eg: The NY Times, or The Atlantic.)

For some, that means funding new projects via mature projects before things fall apart; what Sourcebooks’ Dominique Raccah frequently refers to as running two companies at once, and what Google is currently in the process of doing with its latest initiative, or Macmillan has done with its publisher-agnostic, community-centric online properties,, Heroes and Heartbreakers, and Criminal Element.

In reality, most so-called disruptors are effectively just industry research & development units that end up folding, fading into the background as minor players, or, if they’re lucky, being acquired by bigger fish, which, if we’re being honest, is often the primary objective.

As the publishing industry evolves beyond the fascimile stage of ebooks, and there proves to be actual gold in those distant mountains, most of the Big Six publishers will make the necessary pivots, either via acquisitions, like Random House acquiring Smashing Ideas earlier this year, to develop their own mobile and interactive online products and services; via internal startups, like Macmillan launching Macmillan Films last year to develop original properties; or, via strategic partnerships, like Scholastic and the aforementioned Ruckus, and a slew of smaller publishers for whom Open Road handles marketing efforts.


Amazon is making a big investment in books and writers, and that’s exciting. They are putting together an interesting team, and I’m eager to work with them and see what they can do. But it’s not white-hat/black-hat. There is something much more interesting and complex going on than the one-dimensional article in the Times would indicate. It’s unfortunate that people outside our industry got such an incomplete and misleading view of things.

Really, New York Times??, by Brian DeFiore

I’m a big fan of Brooke Gladstone’s recent book, The Influencing Machine, wherein she states, “We get the media we deserve,” and think about it often when reading muddle-headed coverage of the publishing industry that’s filtered through the prism of technology.

Truth: Consumers control the future of media, and right now, Amazon, Google and Apple have their fingers on our collective pulse and are developing the new distribution channels via which we will consume increasing amounts of a variety of content, but they are neither infallible, nor immune to being “disrupted” themselves. The fanciest devices, apps, and websites are useless without good content, and I’d argue that’s why we’re seeing Amazon and Google move into publishing directly rather than solely as distribution channels. Same with Netflix, though their self-inflicted wounds may have already disrupted their long-term viability.

It’s also worth noting that Barnes & Noble, which has been a publisher for years now via Sterling and should not be mentioned in the same breath as Borders, is in no way ready to concede the digital playing field to Amazon:

Sales of digital content through quadrupled in the quarter, and B&N estimated it has a 26%–27% market share of e-book sales and a 30% share of the digital magazine market. The majority of e-book sales are made through the agency model and B&N’s self-publishing platform, PubIt! By the end of fiscal 2012, B&N projected that digital/Nook sales will represent about 24% of total revenue compared to 12% in fiscal 2011 (and 2% in fiscal 2010).

I’ll repeat what I said in the Spring of 2010: don’t sleep on Barnes & Noble. The value of a brick-and-mortar presence is grossly underrated these days, but there’s a reason Apple started opening retail stores 10 years ago, five months after launching iTunes; and there’s a reason Amazon made deals to sell the Kindle at Target, Staples and other brick-and-mortar locations. Even Google is experimenting with brick-and-mortar to help their Chromebooks gain traction in the marketplace.

The future isn’t a zero-sum game, and while further “disruption” is inevitable, there’s arguably a lot more opportunity than DOOM! on the horizon for most publishers, whether they be fledgling upstarts or savvy established players. In the end, the Big Six might become the Big Five or the Big Ten, and there will surely be shifts in market share and a few new players in the mix, Amazon being the most obvious.

My optimistic hope is that, unlike the music industry, we’re going to see the publishing industry actually grow as the evolution (and definition) of the “book” takes us beyond short-sighted debates over formats into far more interesting experiments with content, subject matter, and experiences, not to mention new audiences who were previously under-served due to limited physical shelf space.

If you work in the publishing industry and are expecting any less, it begs the question: Why not go work somewhere else?

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3 thoughts on “The Truth About Disruption in Publishing

  1. Symbiotic (codependent?)relationship between innovators and traditional in publishing. We need upstarts and young guns to push and experiment and most importantly vet what the public will and will not accept but the new guys on the block need the traditional publishers critical mass of content and distribution. The best part of the digital revolution for publishing is it forces everyone off the couch and motivates us to get back in the game and that’s a good thing(even if it is out of fear).

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