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Is Everything Disruptive? Not So Fast!

27 October 2011

From Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Director, Content & Digital Product Development for Media Source / Library Journals, LLC, and a published poet and journalist:

Truth: Disruptors are overrated. Most are made of smoke and mirrors, and the rare “Black Swan” is exactly that, rare and unpredictable.

For every Google, there’s ten Cuils.  For every Facebook, there’s twenty Pings. For every iPad, there’s fifty Skiffs. In publishing, every day it seems there’s a new upstart or three that’s going to disintermediate (or even better, KILL!) traditional publishers, but with the exceptions of Open Road Integrated Media and, possibly, Ruckus Media Group — both run by major publishing veterans, and have partnerships with a variety of “traditional” publishers — you’d be hard-pressed to name too many others that have had any truly notable impact to match the hype surrounding them at any given moment.

Beast Books? BLIO? Copia? Cursor? Push Pop Press? Scribd? Smashwords? Zinio?

Not a game-changer in the bunch, despite all kinds of hype that proclaimed otherwise.

Last week, in preparation for a video interview with Jane Friedman (my former Writer’s Digest colleague, not the Open Road founder), she referred me to an older post by Michael Nielsen, Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?, wherein he made a number of interesting points, including this one:

The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

It’s a longish read, and the tl:dr takeaway is basically summed up in, “It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.” While that’s certainly arguable, as someone who’s worked on both sides of that equation, “easy” is often exaggerated and/or misrepresented (everything’s a bit easier when there’s millions of dollars in funding and no short-term obligations or expectations), and I’d argue that the ideal angle is building from a solid foundation with room to experiment, test, and strategically fail forward.

. . . .

I’m a big fan of Brooke Gladstone’s recent book, The Influencing Machine, wherein she states, “We get the media we deserve,” and think about it often when reading muddle-headed coverage of the publishing industry that’s filtered through the prism of technology.

Truth: Consumers control the future of media, and right now, Amazon, Google and Apple have their fingers on our collective pulse and are developing the new distribution channels via which we will consume increasing amounts of a variety of content, but they are neither infallible, nor immune to being “disrupted” themselves. The fanciest devices, apps, and websites are useless without good content, and I’d argue that’s why we’re seeing Amazon and Google move into publishing directly rather than solely as distribution channels. Same with Netflix, though their self-inflicted wounds may have already disrupted their long-term viability.

It’s also worth noting that Barnes & Noble, which has been a publisher for years now via Sterling and should not be mentioned in the same breath as Borders, is in no way ready to concede the digital playing field to Amazon:

Sales of digital content through BN.com quadrupled in the quarter, and B&N estimated it has a 26%–27% market share of e-book sales and a 30% share of the digital magazine market. The majority of e-book sales are made through the agency model and B&N’s self-publishing platform, PubIt! By the end of fiscal 2012, B&N projected that digital/Nook sales will represent about 24% of total revenue compared to 12% in fiscal 2011 (and 2% in fiscal 2010).

Link to the rest at Guy LeCharles Gonzalez and thanks to Bridget McKenna for the tip.

Guy is obviously smart and knowledgeable and makes some good points. However, Passive Guy thinks he misses some points about disruptive changes.

Guy cites a lot of technology failures as if they were indications that disruptive change will not happen. The failures are better evidence of how very hard it is to pull off disruptive change. If disruption were easy, there would be no large establishment companies left anywhere.

A lot of things have to come together at the same time to create disruptive change. At a minimum, you need extremely smart people with adequate resources and at least one really brilliant idea to come together at a time when the market externalities line up in just the right way to allow disruption to happen.

Smart people and a great idea aren’t enough. Anybody who has been in the tech business for very long can point to dozens and dozens of wonderful ideas that started flapping their wings, got a few feet off the ground, then crashed.

Passive Guy’s favorite example is the single best word processing program ever developed, WordPerfect. Before coffee comes out your nose, let him reassure you he’s not speaking about the program as it is today.

PG came upon WordPerfect at about version 4.0 while he was practicing law. It was love at first sight.

Certain types of lawyers have to turn out many pages of paper with intelligent words printed on those pages. Once PG understood WordPerfect, he could use it to turn out more paper faster than any other attorney he knew. With WordPerfect, PG could place himself in the optimum competitive position for an attorney: by working smarter, he could charge his clients less than other attorneys while earning more than attorneys who couldn’t crank out paper very fast.

WordPerfect was a disruptive force in the early days of DOS-based word processing and caused the death of many other software companies. In his own modest way, PG was a disruptive force in the field of hillbilly law with his knowledge of WordPerfect.

PG can sense BS meters twitching among his readers. Let him bolster his WordPerfect credentials a bit by saying he taught thousands of lawyers to use computers and WordPerfect. In a single year, he was paid to give talks and demonstrations to large groups of attorneys in New York, Beverly Hills and Honolulu. He was on a first-name basis with the legal product manager for WordPerfect and sat down for extended interviews with each of the two founders of the company.

So what happened to WordPerfect? Despite very talented people who created an excellent product, WordPerfect got disrupted itself. The story is longer than is appropriate for a blog post, but Bill Gates head-faked the two guys who owned WordPerfect into deferring development of a Windows version of the product.

While WordPerfect developed the best OS/2 word processor available (if you don’t know what OS/2 was, don’t worry), Microsoft introduced a new version of Windows with a crappy word processor called Word. While Word wasn’t very good, it was bundled with some other not very good products into an early version of  Microsoft Office which was easy to buy at the same time millions of customers purchased their first copies of Windows or bought their first computers with Windows preinstalled. All those millions of customers learned how to use Word and nobody wants to learn a second word processor once they have figured out the first one.

Although today, centuries later, there are still ways in which Word is not as useful as the ancient versions of WordPerfect were, almost nobody remembers WordPerfect. Disruption can be harsh and there are usually no second-place survivors.

PG believes the difference between success and failure for WordPerfect was falling for Gates’ head fake. Absent that decision, it is possible Microsoft would eventually have been able to use Windows to grind WordPerfect down, but the WordPerfect was so good for power users, PG thinks it would’ve been anything but a slam-dunk.

PG was reminded of the events surrounding the critical mistake made by WordPerfect when the trial of an antitrust lawsuit began a few days ago between Novell (the purchaser of WordPerfect) and Microsoft. (For clarity’s sake, this suit involves a second Gates move, not the one PG mentioned above.)

With that windy background, PG will observe that, like torpedoes and battleships, while many companies will try to build a great disruptive product, only one disruptive company needs to be successful in order to take down a major establishment industry. When Guy lists all the failures in his blog post, that should not make anyone conclude that every start-up will fail. All it takes is one torpedo.

While Amazon, Google and Apple are certainly capable of being disrupted, it will be a cold day in hell before anybody in the establishment publishing business beats these guys. When Jeff Bezos wakes up at night in a cold sweat, he’s worried about some guys and gals drinking Red Bull and shooting the breeze at Stanford, not HarperCollins.

Barnes & Noble? Sorry, but they didn’t work hard enough to buy Amazon during Amazon’s early days. That battle is over and Amazon won. Barnes & Noble is already a bit player on the Amazon/Google/Apple stage and is going to get smaller.

That’s what PG thinks. But he could be wrong.

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23 Comments to “Is Everything Disruptive? Not So Fast!”

  1. When I decided to publish Impossible Charlie with Lightning Source, I found my beloved Word Perfect not that jolly about the task at hand. Since the person who was helping me was using Open Office, I switched temporarily. As time went on, it became obvious that WP had isolated itself from the rest of the world, being compatible with nothing. As a longtime user of WP, I still miss it. It was a better program for writing. But who cares? It’s obsolete. I remember Multimate fondly, too.

    Word made itself the default. It’s okay but the thesaurus stinks. If you google enough you may find out how to center text or some other kindergarten level task that should be easy but takes hours to resolve–especially when it comes to ebook formatting. Microscoff also contains a surfeit of unnecessary coding. But what’s the choice.

    Thanks PG for the tute on search and replace, I’ve saved it for later.

  2. Can anyone spot what’s missing from this article? Anything that might have radically changed publishing over the last couple of years? Something that sprang direct from the disruptive forces that are changing everything?

    That’s right, self-publishing. It’s a HUGE game-changer. And as much as many industry veterans want to dismiss it as a gadfly, an inconsequential nuisance, a simple glance at the Kindle bestseller list will show a huge transfer of power towards self-publishers, and a huge drain of revenue away from traditional publishers. I have been monitoring the list (casually) over the last three months. Between a third and a quarter of the Top 500 or so e-books in the Kindle Store have been self-published. Usually closer to a third. That’s HUGE.

    On top of that, they are losing big earners all the time to self-publishing, and the existing self-publishers are getting smarter, more professional, and more savvy, increasing their audiences with each title they bring out.

    Meanwhile, publishers are having conferences about metadata and they still haven’t learned how to format an e-book. They are light years behind and focused on all the wrong things. They are obsessed with piracy. They think the e-book market will plateau at 40%. They justify paltry royalty rates by pointing at the high prices they charge (meaning the author does okay anyway). They show contempt for their authors through horrific contracts. They attempt rights grabs at every turn. They don’t have a clue who buys their books. They don’t know how to reach readers, or talk to them.

    As you said, PG, a lot of things have to come together for true disruptive change. E-books had been around since the 70s. E-readers had been around since the 90s. Fast internet connections have been common for over a decade. But once Amazon launched a killer device, which captured the imagination of the public, and then allied it to an open, accessible, easy-to-use, powerful self-publishing platform, all the ingredients were in place.

    I know some publishing industry people like to pretend that self-publishing is some kind of separate, curious beast that really belongs at a Jim Rose circus, but it really is part of the industry and is capturing a larger share all the time. Ignore it at your peril.

    • I would suggest that the amazon self-publishing platform was the true disruptive technology, rather than the “ereader” itself, though the one rather needed the other. Before kindle, there was the POD option, but the self-publisher couldn’t compete on price effectively with only POD. Of course it’s ebooks and the ereader that everyone was always hand-waving over.

      Generally, I think all hand-waving about disruptive technology can be safely ignored, because it’s almost invariably coming from people trying to promote their own vision of the future (or product), while true disruptive change is rarely recognized except in hindsight.

    • Excellent points, David and DDW.

      I think it’s fair to say that the combination of Amazon’s Kindle Store plus the Kindle ereader in an integrated any-fool-can-use-it system may be incorporate the necessities to move from interesting into disruptive. This combo disrupted paper books and the people who make money from them.

      The KDP platform is a related disruptive technology. It would be no good without the Store/ereader combo, but it disrupts traditional publishers and with Amazon’s freedom of pricing, provides additional fuel for disrupting printed books.

  3. While self-publishing has been a disruption in the present, there is no way to tell what will come of it in the future. With marketing taking so much time, I can see the rise of marketing co-ops and ‘Content Sites’ (Romance is already doing this) to help readers find their favorite genre.

    Wordperfect…sweet memories!

    My understanding of that one piece of software changed my life by putting me into the IT business.

    Word can’t hold a candle to it. Word is over-engineered and under productive by comparison.

  4. PG is exactly correct about WordPerfect. It deserves highest praise for one feature in particular–reveal codes. I used that *constantly*, and Word’s underhanded sneakiness in hiding formatting codes from the user makes me grind my teeth.

    Of course, I also preferred OS/2 to Windows 3.1, which presumably cements my computer geek credentials.

  5. I use WordPerfect X5, the latest version — and frankly, what’s not compatible about it? I use it to edit Word .doc files all the time. You just choose “Save as” and there you are. It’s actually easier to edit .doc files in WordPerfect than in Word. WordPerfect might have a niche market compared to the people who feel they have no option but having Word foisted on them, but then Maserati has a niche market compared to Subaru. I’ll take the Maserati of word processing programs, which is WordPerfect, and other people can have the Subaru.

    • Lovely put-down, K.W.

    • I dunno, I think that analogy might fall down; in New England, the Subaru’s all-wheel drive makes it much safer in the snowy roads than the Maserati. I don’t think you want to say that WordPerfect is better only when you have good conditions. 😉

      • Talk about analogies falling down: I don’t have “snowy conditions” in my computer. If you do, maybe you need to take it in for a check-up. In the meantime, I’ll speed along in my Maserati.

  6. I miss Word Perfect too. Unfortunately, I have been assimilated by Word many years ago and haven’t gone back.

  7. The WordPerfect part of the post: amen.

    Revealing the codes was indeed the refuge of the intelligent member of the word processing (formerly typing) pool. Too bad Micro$oft thinks all people who “process” words — their own or others’ — are too brain dead to want to look under the hood of the software with which they’re working, even in such a superficial manner as represented by revealing those formatting codes.

    My better half, who has to create huge complex documents in collaboration with several or more people, emphatically agrees with me: sometimes you have to wonder how some of the formatting in a MSWord doc ever got there.

    K.W. Jeter has me almost convinced to go out and buy a copy of WordPerfect X5. OpenOffice has recently been a fiasco due to the feud between its development people and its notional corporate sponsor (though apparently that’s resolved now). While Word 2010 is a big improvement over the last three versions, I’m sick of learning Styles.

  8. WordPerfect 5.1 was the last good version. Once it went to a graphical interface it lost me.

    One of the biggest problems with Word is the way in which the damn thing is always attempting to “help” you by correcting things that weren’t wrong, and inserting all kinds of crap formatting you didn’t want and can’t get rid of without a PhD in witch-doctoring.

    Used Open Office for a while, it’s okay, but bit slow.

    Now am very happy with Scrivener.

    • WordPerfect 5.1 was the last good version

      WordPerfect 8 was a real misstep, but after that it got back on track. All of the “x” versions, from X3 onwards, are state of the art.

      You can also run the later versions of WP to emulate the 5.1 “grey type on a blue screen” version, if that’s your preference.

      • I always thought that choice of color scheme was a bit odd. I first used it on a PC with a monochrome screen though, and ever after kept the kept the colors set to emulate that green on black look.

        I tried running an old copy of 5.1 in a dos emulator on linux for a while, but eventually gave it up as too much hassle, (the emulator not linux) and just started writing everything in vi. These days I’m on a mac though. All my WordPerfect skills are long forgotten.

    • I made a ton of money with WP 5.1 in my law office.

      It had the most useful macro language I’ve ever used. I once counted and I had 367 macros for 5.1.

  9. Excellent post.

    On a WordPerfect note, my dad is also an attorney and his first desktop computer in 1992 came with WP. He used that computer for nine years to crank out work for clients, until it finally gave up the ghost. (He then moved to a newer computer and a newer version of WP.)

    I learned WP first and then moved over to Word after we bought a Win97 Toshiba laptop with Word 2000.

  10. I’m happy to see all the WP fans.

    The vibe WP fans give off is much different than Apple fans have, but I think the intensity may be comparable. Amazing, particularly for a program that’s been pretty niche for a long time.

  11. Actually, Word does have “reveal codes”.

    Not its own, of course — that would be too much like being useful. But if you produce or edit a .doc in WordPerfect, then send it to somebody else who uses Word, the destination copy of Word will enthusiastically display WP‘s codes. There follow telephone calls, emails, and the occasional visit from large men carrying blunt instruments and/or writs, discussing why the document is full of smiley faces and characters used in Urdu or Cherokee.

    In other words, Microsoft plays dirty. This is news?

    Regards,
    Ric

  12. I’ll add my vote to those longing for good old WordPerfect, and especially “reveal codes” and a straightforward macros language that worked. Then again, I also long for DOS, the command line, and batch files, and the days before Bill and company decided it was much better to hide the inner workings of Windows in a maze of interconnected hidden files, so the uninitiated couldn’t mess around under the hood.

    Regards,

    Bob

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