By Darin L. Hammond
Article first published as Print Publishers--Extinction May Be Imminent on Technorati.
The reading environment has changed so rapidly in the past decade that publishers have been forced to rewrite their stories or quickly expire. The past year alone has sent traditional publishers reeling, scrambling for the next move.
Since Gutenberg industrialized the written word for the western world in 1450, adaptation has been the norm, and current publishers must learn the new next step through experimentation.
The evolution of traditional publishers is yet to come. The eReader and eBook are innovations from the realm of technology, not publishing, and how the publishers respond is yet to be seen.
Right now, as Suw Charman-Anderson of Forbes points out, the publishers have an intricate problem, which will be resolved, not “by relying on expert opinion, but ... using trial and error. Not just a ‘fling mud at the wall and see what sticks’ kind of trial and error, though, but something smarter, where failure is survivable and success recognizable.” She makes an astute analysis here by putting the problem in the context of science and business management.
Charman-Anderson suggests an organic, evolutionary approach on the part of publishers, but the industry’s adaptations are reactionary rather than progressive, and natural selection is deleting the slow changes, rejecting them. She describes these mutations of publishers as “incremental”—slow, meandering efforts. The publishers are not yet fit for survival.
June of 2012 illustrates the misguided attempts of many publishers to adapt, as Penguin jumped on the bandwagon of companies headed away from libraries and free lending. Penguin made this move after the American Association of Publishers reported that eBook sales had soared above hardcover print for the first time in history, remarkable as the first shift away from paper print since Gutenberg.
The other piece of news in June came from Pew Research, who highlighted the value of eBook library lending and the public’s limited knowledge of all that was available. Penguin reacted to these two reports by following Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, limiting library lending. They exacerbated their image and publicity problems when, on June 21, Penguin wandered back into the library business.
The weakness Penguin exemplifies is a business reacting rather than evolving quickly through trial and error mutations. Perhaps the only exception is the non-traditional Amazon, who has control of both the means of publication and the medium—eBooks and Kindles. At present, Amazon seems to have the only proactive strategy, lowering and eliminating prices while promoting authors and self publication (through Amazon).
Amazon appears at this point to be the fittest, and traditional publishers seem attached to their old models. Amazon is positioned in a way that makes Gutenberg look small by comparison, with power in publishing, technology, and authoring. They are already masters of the online machine and do not rely solely upon the sale of books.
All is not gloom and doom for publishers, but if they do not adapt, Penguin and others will be extinguished by the organic, evolutionary processes of market selection. Change, both rapid and creative, is necessary for the survival of these stalwarts of publishing. Will they act or continue to react?