The Fall of Rome is still debated. How could such an empire fall? Various theories are floated; taxes were too high, barbarians joined the army, borders became too porous, corruption and incompetence were rampant.
But I would argue that these were mitigating factors. Empires always fall for the same reason.
They stop adapting.
Adaptive Capacity is the technical term for an ecological or social system’s response to changing conditions in the environment.
A system that cannot adapt, self destructs.
Traditional publishing is just such an empire, built over half a millennium (if we go by the invention of the Gutenberg press) the industry has had a long run. Now, e book publishing and print-on-demand technology have changed the landscape. Within a short amount of time, the book market has transformed. Some of the new players are Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo, Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble Nook Press and distributors like Smashwords and BookBaby.
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The Amazon/Hachette debate is not just a negotiation, it’s a skirmish between the new world and the old. The latest salvo comes in the form of a letter signed by a number of brand-name authors who support Hachette’s point-of-view. In response, a petition was circulated and signed by the indie writing community supporting Amazon.Why did a simple business exchange create two opposing camps? Because the argument represents deeper, more treacherous currents between a crumbling empire and an evolving system.
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Before Nielsen’s BookScan arrived in 2001, the only data publishers collected was the zip code of the brick & mortar store selling the book. Bookscan was initially greeted with skepticism, then suppressed. Publishers had already seen what happened when Nielsen’s Soundscan hit the music industry in 1991, irrevocably shifting the power base and heralding the rise of previously ignored music genres like rap and christian. The new data threatened publishing’s control of perceptions. By 2004, publishers were purchasing data at $100,000 per year and not letting anyone see it, including authors. Writers in the system report being stonewalled or receiving book sales reports that were six months old. This careful parsing of data served publishers well, allowing them to control the perceptions of writers and readers.
They were continuing an old tradition pioneered by the New York Times Best Seller List, which releases rankings, but not actual sales figures. These rankings are based on a mysterious process of unverifiable estimates and surveys of secret reporting bookstores.
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When JK Rowling’s book sales unexpectedly overwhelmed the list in 2000, taking all the top spots, they needed to take Rowling off the adult list because her sales undermined a system that brought in tremendous revenue from publishers who bought ads. So the NYT Children’s Bestseller List was created in order to accommodate Rowling’s swelling numbers. As the NYT editors at the Book Review put it at the time, “The change (in the NYT Bestseller List) is largely in response to the expected demand for the fourth in the Harry Potter series of children’s books.”
So by the time barbarians showed up at the gate, publishing had built a bloated, convoluted system that relied on manipulation of data, brick & morter bookstores and an antiquated remainder’s system.
What could go wrong?
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Publishers did not understand the technological frontier. The Internet was just another way to sell books. Amazon was an outlet, not a competitor. But Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos did understand the potential of the Internet. He was playing the long game and was willing to explore innovative programming, algorithms, data-mining and exciting new ways to track reader habits.
On the surface, the Internet was a communications curiosity, but revolution was in the air. In 1993, the year Amazon appeared, the Internet only communicated 1% of the information flowing through two-way telecommunications networks.
By 2000 (when JK Rowling was being tossed into the kiddie pool) that communication figure grew to 51%.
By 2007 the Internet carried 97% of tele-communication information. 2007 was also the year Amazon introduced The Kindle, offering free e books in the public domain and cheap downloads of new books.
The Kindle sold out within five hours.
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In late 2007, Amazon was also beta-testing a structure for writers to self publish, offering 70% royalties. In publishing circles, this was heresy. A cold war started on the Internet. The old guard released a torrent of saber rattling blog posts, warning aspiring authors not to self publish. It’s dangerous! Reckless! they shouted, insulting Indie writers, calling them vanity press, substandard and illiterate. Like priests defending their temple, publishers, writers, agents, trade organizations and bookstores closed ranks. There was no way e book writers would cheat their way inside the hallowed gates of publishing. Publishers even fought for out-of-print back-lists previously left to rot. Bookstores refused to stock indie books or anything from Amazon’s Publishing Imprints.
The most unsavory aspect of this predictable reaction was the marked lack of concern for art. But publishing had jumped that shark a long time ago. (Anyone who’s ever walked into a Barnes & Noble and witnessed the geegaws and novelty books piled high on the bargain tables knows what I mean).
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So far, Big Publishing’s reaction to the brave new world of e books shows a lack of adaptive capacity. They have tried to force Amazon into capitulation with their old system rather than adapt to new market forces.
When technology is involved and those in power lack vision, a deadly form of myopic denial can develop. This denial of reality pervades the publishing industry at a time critical for its health. The more publishing refuses to look toward the future, the bigger the chance it will decline and collapse. Instead of Visigoths, Vandals and Huns, the publishing industry is defending itself from a strange and wily opponent, the future. The problem is publishing companies see this paradigm shift as an opponent rather than an opportunity.