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).
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.