The UK’s Futurebook, the digitally-focused offshoot of The Bookseller, has just put up a highly alarming (or conceivably alarmist) headline: “Will you be in the nine percent of publishers that survive?”
Courtesy of social technology consultant, journalist and blogger Suw Charman-Anderson, that headline draws on the experience of former Harvard Business School professor (and more recently, newspaper entrepreneur) Clark Gilbert (pictured below), who is passing on his knowledge via workshops.
“Across industries, only 9 percent of disrupted organizations ever recover. Of those, 100 percent created a separate digital unit to take on the disruption. Not one company Gilbert studied succeeded trying to develop digital inside the existing company.”
Gilbert’s data was derived from news publishing operations, but Charman-Anderson concludes, not unreasonably, that the same argument applies to book publishers. “It is not enough to dabble, to make adjustments here and there, to have a digital-only imprint that’s in all other ways a carbon copy of a print imprint,” she states. “Now is the time for publishers to truly reinvent their own business because the only way to survive disruption is to disrupt yourself.”
For a number of reasons, I don’t agree. The number one reason is that, as already shown here on TeleRead, publishers, unlike booksellers, have finally worked out that the economics of e-book publishing are not actually that bad for their bottom line, even given the cut they have to give up to Amazon or Apple. Publishing electronically allows them to keep print runs short, tailor releases, and generally box clever in ways that aren’t exactly digitally disruptive but are certainly savvy uses of the new platform capabilities.
Fine, this may be a question of them belatedly and reluctantly getting the message, but it doesn’t appear to be wholesale self-disruption either. Piecemeal and halfhearted change still seems to work when the economics are that good.
The other reason is that publishers, again unlike bookshops, don’t really have a fundamental structural problem with e-book publishing. With their printing operations long outsourced to third parties often a world away, their physical distribution and even promotion often in the hands of independent providers, they are free to focus on being talent development and marketing houses. Digital disruption doesn’t contravene that.
So I’m not persuaded of the merits of the case. I am persuaded, though, that Futurebook likes the kind of alarmist headlines that keeps the more impressionable readers nervous, and more ready to back Futurebook’s own training and other initiatives.