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3 Things Holding Publishers Back

6 December 2013

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?

. . . .

Last week I was part of the Big Ideas panel at the Futurebook conference.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

[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.

. . . .

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.

Big Publishing, Disruptive Innovation

31 Comments to “3 Things Holding Publishers Back”

  1. …the Internet has created massively asymmetric intermediaries. Exhibit A: Amazon.


    In the same way that many readers can’t readily shift from a Kindle unless they want to lose their purchased ebooks…

    Looks like more ADS at work! 😉

  2. What are asymmetric intermediaries?

  3. Interesting article. You gotta have a number – makes it seem more official when it has a number…
    The only kind of article or speech that will change anything is one that outlines three (or whatever #) remedies to the problems facing the big publishing houses. Big companies usually spend more time looking at what the competition are doing than they do on actual innovation.There is a small percentage of corporations out there coming up with new ideas, but the rest are riding coat tails.
    There’ll be a few experiments with everybody watching, but it might be too little, too slow…

  4. I don’t agree with the statement “many readers can’t readily shift from a Kindle unless they want to lose their purchased ebooks”. In actuality I think Amazon is at least if not more open than others to having their material read on other devices, as they provide Kindle software for a number of other platforms; you can also easily download the book in multiple formats from your Kindle library on Amazon’s website. So if you really are busting a gut to switch from a Kindle to say, an iPad, there’s nothing stopping you from accessing all your prior Kindle purchases on the new device.

    I don’t necessarily feel that way about all of the other ebook readers out there, because I think the companies selling them are on the edge, but if you buy a device from an unstable company, you’re running that risk.

    Kindle was the only one I was willing to invest in because Amazon isn’t going anywhere, at least not in Jeff Bezos’ lifetime.

    • I agree, Mia. I have plenty of Amazon/Kindle ebooks, and I’ve never owned a Kindle. I have an iPad. If I were going to switch systems, I’d probably get a Nexus. I can’t see any reason to tie myself down to a single-format reader (since I also own some Nook eBooks, for example), and owning many Amazon/Kindle ebooks does not in any way require me to do so.

      • Yup. I have an iPad and a Kindle, and I read on both devices. I also have Kindle software on a Mac and a PC where work-related texts find their way occasionally, as it’s super nice to have them onscreen for reference while working.

        I had the iPad first gen, but then eventually requested the Kindle Fire 7″ for Christmas because the iPad was just darn heavy to hold, when I was reading way past my bedtime… lol. I also like that it’s a lot easier to tuck my Fire into my purse and take it with me.

        But even if I wanted to sell my iPad and Kindle today and switch to perhaps an Android-based tablet, I could totally do that and not lose any of my Amazon/Kindle ebooks.

        I have B&N’s reader on my iPad, but I’ve never bought anything in it because I don’t think they are going to last long term. I have bought a few books in the Apple iBookstore because they weren’t available on Amazon, but everything else in my ebook library has been an Amazon purchase.

    • Publishers want DRM, not Amazon.

      With DRM, it’s still easy to shift platforms, you just have to do a little work. Without it, there wouldn’t even be that. Amazon wants you to use Kindles and stay in their ecosystem but have done zilch to try to make you.

      • The publishers’ demand for DRM has got to be one of the best examples of shooting yourself in the a** in all of human history. They created the lock-in to Kindle that’s helped make Amazon their biggest fear.

        • Yeah, funny isn’t it?

          And yeah I know I could strip DRM on purchases and such… but I am lazy. Amazon provides free Kindle software for a multitude of device types beyond their own, and I purchased Kindle books for my iPad for years before I finally got my Fire for Xmas last year (I wanted an offline novel-reading device small enough to stuff in my purse, and iPad Mini seemed a lot to spend for that). Amazon has good customer service. Amazon isn’t going out of business anytime soon.

          And because I am lazy, and I don’t want to have to figure out what to do about getting to (for example) previously purchased Nook books if B&N goes tets up, I just can’t come up with a single reason to build a library outside of the Kindle ecosystem. I can’t justify spending the time to rip DRM out of books when I like the Amazon ecosystem just fine. I am that pleased with Amazon’s customer service and quality, and with what they have done for writers.

    • Calibre.

      • ^ Exactly.


      • Calibre, a great catalog program with rudimentary format conversion; but it doesn’t process DRM books itself.

        Apprentice Alf.

        A German court recently found a downloading assist program in violation because a third party supplied some circumvention code which got included with the distribution. Calibre _never_ includes circumvention code.

        • Exactly.
          Calibre has an architecture that accepts plug-in extensions that provide added features. A lot of different extensions that let you convert ebooks from one format to another, convert series titles into an omnibus or break up an omnibus, embed fonts into round, etc. (Lots of non DRM-related uses.)

          Calibre is (fortunately) perfectly safe from over-reaching prosecutors under a variety of well-established precedents.

      • Calibre won’t strip DRM from ebooks.

        For that task, I recommend DeDRM for Mac OSX.

  5. Hard to imagine more “dead wrong” packed into a single article.

    “Few industries have shown themselves as adept at managing change in challenging circumstances.”

    Wow. This guy has never worked in any other industry (I looked him up). There are a number of tools and metrics to use for measuring the adaptability of industries. Publishing does not rank highly on any of them. It is about as hidebound as any industry around.

    “only now, 20 years after the adoption of the web, are we seeing the true contours of the challenge”

    Uh, you weren’t paying attention.

    “publishers lack ‘slack’”

    This is the single most laughable assertion in the article. The industry is rife with rent-seeking (Google it) of the worst sort. There’s so much slack in publishing they don’t even recognize it for what it is.

    “In hindsight I think it’s quite clear that ebooks were not a radical disruption but in fact, in most ways, slotted quite neatly into workflows and organisations.”

    It takes a peculiar and powerful form of self-delusion to write that.

    I give up. This guy must be from sort of alternate reality. Maybe the Doctor dropped him off.

    • In his native universe, Spock has a beard.

    • I worked in traditional publishing for ten years. I don’t know your background, but I found myself nodding when he wrote about slack. At least a few times a year, our publisher would come up with a great idea–innovative, exciting, radical. E-books, definitely. Blogging, sure. Mixed media. Adding videos to books. Distributing electronic copies of the book on CD in the back of the book for easy searching. (Gives you an idea of when I started!) Great stuff. Absolutely.

      But she’d toss the idea at a staff that mostly worked ten hour days to meet the deadlines that we already had on the books we were already working on and we’d nod and say, mm-hmm, we’ll do that, sure. Great idea. Just as soon as we find the time.

      Now, were the priorities skewed? Definitely. We were not allowed to have any kind of administrative support so you’d find editors at the highest pay range, with lots of seniority and plenty of ability to innovate, standing over the photocopier making paper copies of contracts, mailing them, and then later filing them, an economic decision which was idiotic from beginning to end. But it does no good to have people thinking up great ideas unless you’re also willing to pay people to implement them and in that respect publishing really hasn’t believed it’s had any slack. Speaking as a person on the front line, our deadlines got crazier and crazier over my decade at the job–there was barely time to look up between getting books out the door. There was definitely not time for radical creativity, no matter how badly it was needed. I’m pretty sure that every acquisitions editor at every traditional publisher would feel the same. I’m not arguing that it’s right or that it was a smart decision, but… there wasn’t a lot of slack in my job. That’s all.

      • Speaking as someone with an airline background, I have to say very gently that when you get trapped in that mindset of running faster and faster and hoping the wheels don’t come off… usually there’s massive process inefficiencies, and redundancies, and policy decisions driving that which could be drastically cut.

        Once upon a time there was a not-so-little airline that couldn’t. It had a staff of accountants six times the size of the next largest airline, and all of the accountants were working flat out. In fact, its accounting staff was more than four times larger than the next airline up the food chain. And yet they “couldn’t” do without any of them, and they even were desperately outsourcing work to any potentially idle hands in any other department.

        When the little airline got bought out, the accounting policies and the processes were changed, the staff was chopped to one-sixth of what it used to be… and the survivors were less busy than they originally had been. Now, the process of getting there was brutal, but the end result was worth it. (Except to the laid-off accountants, but even some of those, who found happier jobs with work-life balances, found it a brutal and wrenching change for the better.)

        It takes a lot of guts and vision to drive change, or it takes being bought/sold/bankruptcy/desperation from losses. And even then, it takes a lot of guts, vision, and hard work from a leader. Like Newton said, objects in ruts tend to remain in ruts, unless acted upon by an outside force.

        • As I said, the priorities were skewed. It makes no sense to pay people senior-level salaries for work that an entry-level person with reasonable sense could do just as easily. The data entry tasks were particularly ridiculous–I easily wasted several hours a month arranging and holding meetings for a routine that for nine books out of ten was completely unnecessary. Ah, but the tenth…

          But my point was never that the system was right. If it was right, I’d be much too busy working my ten-hour days to be reading here. 🙂 My point was that the slack doesn’t exist and that it can’t exist without dramatic systematic change that doesn’t happen because someone has had a good idea. The people who are actually working in the industry are working their asses off, trying to get their jobs done and their books out the door in a condition which will make everyone involved proud at the end of the day. The minions of publishing are much more akin to your average low-wage worker, hoping the paycheck covers the rent and no disaster strikes this month, then the romanticized futurist innovators that people seem to think we should be to “save” publishing.

          • Skewed priorities *are* slack. And the slack that is the most dangerous.

          • Ma’am, those hours you spend scheduling and prepping for unnecessary meetings are your slack. The hours per month an editor spends on contracts, instead of having the legal department handle legal documents (which contracts are), is slack.

            Slack rarely exists in a business in the form of “I think I’ll just play angry birds and update twit/face for the next thirty minutes” – it usually is filled with redundant processes, misallocated tasks, and meetings.

            In my current place of employment, subordinates regularly come up to managers and say “X is really stupid. Why can’t we do Y instead?” And if there’s no negative impact to safety or the entire process, we’ll promptly set either a team or the whole shift to doing Y instead, and measure whether or not it improves their efficiency. If it does, we keep the change and implement across all shifts, then measure if it causes inefficiency when it comes into the different conditions on different shifts. And then we see where that could be improved, and start a team or a shift on the update to the update.

            This is as basic as “I want to put a sign on this loading dock door saying this trailer must be gone by X time, so everybody knows we need to load this one before that one.” … “Ok, sounds good, here’s a marker, paper, tape, and do all the doors. If it works well, I’ll get large laminated signs to replace the paper ones.” I’m not talking about only high-level change, here.

            This is part of our company culture – we have no minions and no evil overlords, only employees at all levels, all of whom are given the power and the responsibility to say “this is stupid, let’s change it.”

            It doesn’t take romanticized futurist innovators to drive efficiency, but it often takes very strong leaders to drive a change in the company culture, and then active employee participation at all levels.

        • Yep. Someone I know currently works for an organization that is carrying a HUGE amount of unnecessary process/overhead. I would guesstimate that 30-40% of the headcount is doing nothing more than participating in existing process or actively creating new process. As a result, it can take weeks to accomplish what should take less than a day in any normal business, because of the number of checks and approvals in the process where things get stuck waiting for one person, then the next, then the next, etc. And those driving the “processes” are very protective of those processes because it’s what keeps them employed – if the organization were to hire someone to help them gain organizational efficiency, they would eliminate a lot of overhead (and positions) and do better, faster work.

          I’ll just follow that up by mentioning that it’s a large charity, so to me the extraneous “rent-seeking” is particularly bad in this case. It’s one thing if it’s a for-profit company and the people involved with running it are OK to run an inefficient, bloated organization. It’s different, and worse, to me, when it’s charitable dollars being wasted on that inefficiency.

  6. 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 behavior.

    I shifted to an iPad, iPhone, and Nexus-7 without losing anything I bought from Amazon.

  7. In a previous comment about a similar subject I said that the publishers are in the packaging business. If you take the content out, a paper book is a package, a bundle of paper glued between two covers. The writers provide the content. The publishers claim that they serve as curators for providing the reading public with the best reading experience. That’s true, but what it means, they do quality control. In other words they are packagers with a QC departments. Calling them packagers seems a bit harsh. Well, what are commodity traders but bookies? Eddie Murphy said that in one of his movies and he was spot on. What’s the difference between betting on sports and investing in the Stock Market? Wall Street is the biggest casino in the world. You may argue on this point, but the kid in the movie “Vitus” said it plainly, gaining 1000% outweighs the risk of losing 100% of your money. No matter how you dress a pig, it remains a pig.
    I remember a “Simpson’s” episode where the school/class where Bart was attending takes a field trip to a nail factory. They made nails and packaged them in boxes. When the manager was asked what else do they do, he replied drily that’s all we do, we make nails and put them in boxes. The manager was as dry as a skeleton left in the Death Valley, for ten years. Do you need any creativity, or thinking out of the box, pun intended, for stamping nails, placing them in cardboard boxes on a conveyor belt, and shipping them? Do you need any creativity for printing books, placing them in cardboard boxes on a conveyor belt, and shipping them? Of course not.
    Nevertheless, Publishers are in a different league, one may say. These people are educated, sophisticated, and well read. Sure they cannot be considered mere packagers without any creativity. Then how well have they done so far? It took a retailer like Amazon to pull the rug from under them. How much creativity do you get from book Packagers calling themselves Publishers? Not much.

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