From The Literary Platform:
Publishers are locked into legacy systems and mentalities on too many levels. It’s almost impossible to change this. What to do?
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Last week I was part of the Big Ideas panel at the Futurebook conference.
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One question at the end of our session prompted a more practical response. The question was: why don’t publishers change more? Now, I am the first to puncture the myth publishers don’t innovate.
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[O]nly now, 20 years after the adoption of the web, are we seeing the true contours of the challenge: the fact that a) anyone can be a publisher, that the monopoly we used to enjoy has gone and b) the Internet has created massively asymmetric intermediaries. Exhibit A: Amazon. Complacency is not an option over the long term. So how many publishers have radically restructured, tooled and skilled to meet this challenge? Precious few. Asking why is a good and valid question.
My answer started by saying publishers lack ‘slack’. By slack I mean something specific – the slack suggested by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir: the ability to absorb shocks and disruptions, a general surplus which might appear idle but is actually integral to running a system. This crosses domains. There is financial slack, mental slack, capacity slack. The common factor is that slack is hard to find in publishing. In this thin margin business there is little time for people to stop, reflect and pivot. There is little space or money for doing things beyond simply keeping the show on the road.
Hence change, always hard, is even harder.
Beyond that though, I think publishers are suffering from two related diseases: path dependence and lock in. Path dependence is the phenomenon whereby, because you have done something in the past, so your future actions are conditioned in a certain way, even when that conditioning works against your best interests. Even if there is no necessary connection, because you have done x, you do y. Because that is the way you walk to work, you will walk that way tomorrow.
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Coupled with this is system lock in. In the same way that many readers can’t readily shift from a Kindle unless they want to lose their purchased ebooks, so publishing systems and norms lock publishers into certain patterns of behaviour.
Rebecca Smart’s Big Idea on the panel is a perfect example. She argues the publishing schedule exerts a tyrannous influence. It locks us into inflexible practices and, to outsiders, inexplicably sluggish lead times. We are locked into bibliographic systems that prioritise a certain kind of product and release method. We are prisoners of our habits, methods and operations.
Link to the rest at The Literary Platform and thanks to Jan for the tip.