Failures of imagination

Earlier this month at The Guardian, James Bridle posted a short endorsement of BookScout, a Random House app built on the Facebook platform. As Bridle notes, the app "recommends users books based on their timelines: the things they like, the things they discuss, the things their friends like."

In other words, "we're going to mine the data in your profile to hand you back books WE think you'd like." For some reason, Bridle considers this a good thing. He's even encouraged that "it doesn't just recommend books from Random House, but from all publishers":

This may seem like an obvious step, but it's one that most publishers have missed in the past, concentrating on competing with one another rather than addressing the far greater threat of domination of the industry by tech companies. BookScout is a small, but welcome, redress.

From my perspective, the problem with BookScout, and Goodreads, and Bookish, is simple: the defining metaphor is a book. In all cases, the assumption is that the reader is looking to read a book. But, as I argued in 2010:

I call this situation “container myopia”, paying homage to Ted Levitt’s 1960 article, “Marketing myopia”.  In the article, Levitt called on marketers to shift from a product-centered to a customer-centered paradigm.  He famously showed how railroad companies failed to see that they were in the transportation business, much as publishers have struggled to see that they are in the content solutions business.

Or, as I argued as recently as yesterday, publishers facing disruption would be well-advised to:

  • Understand the criteria customers apply in choosing between solutions.
  • Pinpoint an important job that isn't being done adequately.
  • Unlock markets by eliminating barriers for customers.

None of these strategies relies on tools that try to protect or extend a format that is not reader-valued.

For one concerned with the threat of domination by tech companies, Bridle is silent on BookScout's use of Facebook, which seems like a tech company of some scale. Rather than worry about tech giants, though, Bridle (and publishing) might be better channeled figuring out ways to grow the size of the market.

Reading is just too small a business – boutique, really. Apple alone could buy the U.S. trade publishing business with less than a sixth of its cash on hand. Is the problem technology, or a failure on the part of publishers to imagine a different, much larger world?

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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