A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Disruption

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What happens when consumers push back against disruption?

Is that even possible? Common logic would dictate that a business disrupts itself in order to stay aligned (or ahead of) their consumers. It’s a business move to keep pace or get ahead of the competition. But, what if, in the midst of an entire industry being disrupted, the consumer turns around and says, “nah, brah… we’re good with things as they are…”? This seems to be the current situation of the book publishing industry… to the surprise of almost everybody. According to The New York Times article, Bottleneck at Printers Has Derailed Some Holiday Book Sales, many authors, book stores, book publishers (and, in kind) book buyers were left flat-footed and unable to purchase books as holiday gifts this season. How is this possible? Aren’t book stores dead/dying? Isn’t everybody reading their Facebook feed and ingnoring the power of a book? Aren’t all/most books now digital or audiobooks? Aren’t book publishers paying less advances to authors, and taking fewer chances on unknown authors in lieu of paying celebrities and celebrity chefs bigger advances, in order to maintain their sales?

This is a story worthy of a book of its own.

The story is somewhat telling for any industry trying to figure out digital transformation. In the book publisher’s case, some of the bigger titles had a much higher demand in sales this holiday season, and this pushed book publishers to print more copies (where their initial run/projections were more pessimistic). So, when a book popped this holiday season, all other scheduled printings were pushed aside, creating a bottleneck at the printers that became impossible to unclog. According to The New York Times article:

“Agents and authors say part of the problem is that publishers and retailers have become more risk averse. Publishers are printing smaller first runs, partly because retailers are ordering fewer copies initially, waiting to see which titles take off to avoid making the wrong bet and getting stuck storing unsold inventory. In the past, it was often easy to get another batch of books printed in a week or two if a title sold unexpectedly well, but these days some publishers say it can take one or two months… At the same time, publishers have been caught off guard by a handful of surprise best sellers, literary titles from lesser-known authors that are now in short supply the week before Christmas, the worst possible time to be out of stock.”

Who gets hurt?

The author gets hurt the most. Imagine being an author… and doing everything right… but because the book publishing industry has been so affected by the challenges of print, retail, digitization and new distribution models, that it found itself in a tailspin. So, people want physical books. They want to buy them as gifts. They want to read them. Still, they can’t get them. The pain is inflicted (mostly) on the author. When books are not available or out of stock, the author gets hammered with bad Amazon reviews, they don’t get what little they were hoping for/anticipating in writer’s royalties and – to make matters worse – on the oft chance that an unknown author’s book does get traction, to not be able to sell actual books – after years of toiling in obscurity and finally getting a book deal signed and then published – is a dagger through the heart. 

Can self-publishing save an author?

On-demand and self-publishing might prove to be a solution for some authors (but not all). It turns out that the book stores are not dry. There are plenty of books to dig through, read and enjoy. But if your book happens to surprise the publisher with more demand than anticipated (and this can happen to big-named celebrity or a newbie just cracking through the surface), it’s extremely painful. A lot fo the blame is being passed down to the printers and that industry’s consolidation and lack of demand, but the consumer doesn’t see/know that. They blame the author. More from the article…

“Surprisingly, some of the current chaos has come about because the publishing industry is not only stable but seems to be thriving. After years of declining print sales, hardcover and paperback editions have been rising recently, while e-book sales have fallen. Publishers’ revenues from hardcover sales rose 3.5 percent in the first 10 months of this year, while revenue from digital books fell 3 percent in the same period, according to the Association of American Publishers.”

Wait now what?

This is the challenge. What happens when a market speaks loudly, retail book stores close, startups disrupt with digital models, traditional publishers shift their strategies and, ultimately, things swing back in a surprising/other direction? Is it just books?

Get your quotes right. 

This reminds me of Tom Goodwin (of Zenith Media) and his well-worn/well-used quote from 2015:

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

What many people don’t know, is that Tom updated that quote this year to read:

“The world’s largest taxi firm, Uber, is buying cars. The world’s most popular media company, Facebook, now commissions content. The world’s most valuable retailer is now Amazon, and has more than 350 stores. And the world’s largest hospitality provider, Airbnb, increasingly owns real estate. Things change.”

Things change, indeed. 

Tom Goodwin’s quote demonstrate a profound lesson for business these days. Even those who disrupts and scale, eventually lean back into the traditional models to truly grow, scale and become the market leader. Why? Because traditional business models are still mass (and many are still very effective). The models are what the majority of consumers are used to. Disruption doesn’t equal market leadership. Disruption may happen fast, but consumer behaviour may shift at a different pace. And, ultimately, consumers decide what (and how) they want to spend their hard-earned money on.

Disruption is real. Digital transformation is imperative. Consumers may decide otherwise.