Deer in headlights

A couple of years ago, I presented a print-on-demand workshop at what turned out to be the last iteration of BookExpo Canada. At the end of the trip, severe thunderstorms stranded me in Toronto.

After weighing my options, perhaps poorly, I decided to drive home rather than wait at the airport for another 24 hours (or more). Most of the drive would take place at night, but I wasn’t tired and traffic was light.

By 12:30 a.m., I had made it around the lake and was just outside Rochester, NY on the New York Thruway (their spelling, not mine). I looked down to pick up a cup of coffee I had bought at the last rest stop, and I looked up to see a deer in headlights.

Things got worse after that – I swerved, caught a guardrail, bounced off the road and landed deep in a marsh – but I missed the deer. As I passed it (on my way to a date with the guardrail), the deer was frozen in the same spot, either uncertain what to do or hoping for the best.

It’s the end of a year, so we’re waist-deep in retrospectives and prognostications. Reading them, I’m reminded of the way that deer looked.

A Mashable thought piece, “5 E-Book Trends That Will Change the Future of Publishing”, started me down the path. Predictions like “The $9.99 e-book won’t last forever” (he didn’t think the price was high) and “Publishers will be more important than ever” were enough to make me swear off end-of-year reading.

Unfortunately, I didn’t stop. When the New York Times ran an obligatory roundup that might have been better titled “Big Trade Publishers Realize E-Books Are Popular”, this stopped me in my tracks:

“My No. 1 concern is the survival of the physical bookstore,” said Carolyn Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “We need that physical environment, because it’s still the place of discovery. People need to see books that they didn’t know they wanted.”

Yes, this is the same Carolyn Reidy who stood with Jeff Bezos at BookExpo in 2008, announcing the digitization of the S&S backlist.

That took place before publishers realized that you don’t need a publisher to sell a book on the internet. Apparently publishers haven’t yet learned that people can also use the web to see books they didn’t know they wanted (they can even sample them!).

Of course, only people with trade relationships can get books on shelves at major retailers. That’s what things look like at the end of being proud.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen two U.S. car companies fail (“people will always drive cars”) and several major banks collapse (“people will always need money”) . TimeWarner, which less than ten years ago was twice the size of its largest media competitor, now ranks behind the likes of Comcast and DirectTV.

You can swing a cat at a New Year’s Eve party and not hit anyone who thinks “people will always want news in print”. Per-capita newspaper consumption has been declining for 63 years. The newsweekly Time reaches less than 70% of the circulation it had two decades ago, and its last remaining competitor has had three owners this year.

Market structures change. The competitive mix shifts. New technologies support and even encourage new entrants. Sure, I may always drive a car, but that doesn’t mean I buy your car. Companies saddled with infrastructure and overhead costs can hope that consumers will pay higher prices, but that’s just hope.

For a few days after my accident, whenever the phone rang, I’d say it was probably the deer calling to thank me for avoiding him. The deer never called, and I doubt that it learned a lesson watching me careen into the marsh. Deer are like that. We don’t have to be.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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