A fix on anything

The book business has been full of stories about challenges to existing business models: growth in demand for e-books; concern about pricing e-books (well) below their physical, hard-cover counterparts; how the proposed Google Book Search settlement might alter the landscape for printed and digital content; the extent to which consumers will continue to support digital books as purchases migrate from ownership to licensing content; and as access to digital content expands, what (if anything) to do about piracy.

Phew. That’s not even the exhaustive list. It’s easy to imagine publishers, searching for a fix on anything, deciding to bunker (just stay the course) or flail (try anything). Neither option makes for good strategy.

It probably doesn’t take too much effort to convince anyone that bunkering is a bad idea. This isn’t a time to debate whether or not to innovate; that’s a given.

But innovation needs to take place in an era of lean consumption, meeting the expectations of consumers who want what they want, when they want it, where they want it, seamlessly. If there’s something publishers need a fix on, it’s the needs and expectations of their ultimate customers.

The question is really “what kind of innovation should publishers be pursuing?” Change can occur along three different, inter-related dimensions, taken here from work done by Ricky Griffin at Texas A&M:

  • radical (a whole new product or service) versus incremental innovation

  • product (change in the physical characteristics of a product or service, or the creation of a new one) vs. process (change in the way a product or service is manufactured, created, or distributed)

  • technical (a change in appearance, performance or method of creating a product or service) vs. managerial innovation (a shift in product or service-related management processes)

Because book publishing is essentially a mature industry, radical innovation is rare and even resisted. It disrupts well-established processes and upends controls when (for example) a whole new product or service is developed alongside its mature counterpart.

A mature business can exert an uncomfortably strong pull. I’d argue that e-books today are an incremental innovation (an extension of their print counterparts) largely because making them incrementally different is easier and less disruptive than trying to create something wholly new. Offering a nearly identical product in a new medium may be easier, but it has also forced publishers to confront pricing competition from digital versions of the very same titles that they have simultaneously released in hard-cover.

This is where product and process innovation could help. Continuing with the e-book example: if the product itself were not directly comparable to the print version, price comparisons would be easier to deflect. A more robust e-book, with annotations, author’s commentary or links to supporting work, could enhance the value of a digital version and potentially command a higher price.

The use of print-on-demand technology, a process innovation, is keeping content that otherwise would have disappeared available for purchase and consumption. Interestingly, its early adoption came among potentially disruptive self-publishing authors working on their own or through intermediaries like Author Solutions or Lulu.

In my experience, publishers are weakest at the third dimension, technical and managerial innovation. E-book readers have been available for the better part of a decade, and technical innovations have made the devices lighter, smaller (and larger), and introduced power and display technologies that improve the amount of time required before recharging.

But publishers have not owned or even promoted these changes; companies like Sony, Amazon and Apple have led the way. And it is Amazon that claimed one of the most significant managerial innovations when it introduced an e-Book reader that could be seamlessly used to order and download books immediately and directly.

No doubt, publishers, particularly trade publishers, face structural impediments that make innovation difficult. But (as Peter Brantley points out), those impediments can’t really be taken as an excuse. Publishers possess the ability to foster innovation in products or processes, attributes or service delivery vehicles, and they can do so in stages or in great(er) leaps. Failing to make progress increases the likelihood of both disruption and the growth of competitors outside those book publishers have traditionally faced.

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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