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What is not happening (in publishing)

June 24th, 2009 Posted in Digital Books, Google Book Search, Innovation, Publishing | digg it blank

[Warning: This is a long post.]

I was speaking with a researcher pulling together data on the development of digital books and the IDPF, and I found myself discoursing about the larger organizational responses that publishers are, or are not, invoking in response to revolutionary changes in media. The post is specifically motivated by the observation that some strategies common to other organizational fields under competitive threat are not being widely implemented among large trade publishing firms.

I have a particular interest in this topic; my doctoral research (never culminated in a degree) focused on the adoption of biotechnology – a new way of doing product development, through new forms of science and engineering – by established biopharmaceuticals.

Broadly speaking, a large biopharm company has a limited number of ways to adapt to a R&D environment in which new products can be developed in a fundamentally new way, via genetic engineering versus chemical discovery. It is useful to compare biopharm’s strategic options to those embraced by the NYC based trade publishing industry, which is confronting the explosion of possibilities for new generation publishing and distribution made available by network technologies.

Publishing, in many ways, is arguably more complex a case than biotech because the innovations are more diffused and are associated with widely disparate competencies; it is not merely a case of molecular biology contra chemistry. New forms of engagement with social media; struggles to foresee attractive device engineering strategies; models for mobile consumption; changes in book packaging, particularly toward network based access; migrations from traditional physical to network based design paradigms; new models of remuneration; the challenges of an increasingly flat, complex, and global rights world; and the escalation of traditional factor costs all impose severe constraints on traditional publishing’s ability to rapidly innovate.

Here are some options:

1). Get the religion, and reinvent your company. This is grossly difficult, and arguably not done in biopharm. There are several reasons, and one of them is that older forms of drug discovery and development still have some value, so throwing out the baby is not a good choice. However, more importantly, a very large company is not well positioned to undertake the wrenching changes necessary in strategy reformulation and organizational restructuring to go native; additionally, and equally as importantly, a phoenix company will need to wholly re-structure its world of network ties to external firms: suppliers, customers to some extent, and developers. In biotech, a suddenly critical resource was the strength and extant of ties to fundamental science researchers in molecular and genetic biology, versus chemistry. This is not the kind of network redesign that happens overnight. In fact, because of career advancement patterns, it usually does not happen.

In publishing, I just do not see this happening anywhere. No publisher has looked at the precipice and said, “Yep, that’s not good, we’re heading for a new high ground.” Instead they have valued their existing baby – traditional models of publishing – very highly. In an odd but direct sense, this can be reflected in the AAP’s embrace of the Google Book Search settlement proposal, which is a profoundly conservative method of maintaining the existing book business, off loading some innovation in distribution, but not touching the essence of the product – the book – itself. (It also has some characteristics of an alliance strategy, discussed below). At any rate, I do not believe we are likely to see a large, established publishing company transform itself into a technology focused innovator.

2) Birthing the beast within. In biotech, some large companies tried desperately to create an entrepreneurial atmosphere within their companies, setting up quasi-independent units to undertake biotech style research and drug discovery; encouraging their scientists to form new relationships with university science departments, and allowing them to operate with relative freedom, including the opportunity to establish new alliances with external biotech firms without the traditional review triage.

Success has been slow, at least at the fundamental task at creating a beach-hold from which the new way of doing science and business might establish itself as a rapid and healthy alternative within the established company. Again, there are many reasons for this: a reluctance to surrender resources in environments constrained by external factors and threats; resource envy over the targeting of a select group for streamlined operation and concomitant higher risk innovation; the extraordinary difficulty of establishing communication, much less practice-sharing, with the mother-ship; and the pragmatic likelihood that the individuals placed in such units are already part of professional networks that are “outside” the industry, and are thus more likely to find attractive employment elsewhere.

Some publishing outfits are attempting to implement this strategy. Harper Studio is exemplary; there are a few others. I find Tor’s pan-sci/fi portal site to be a bold step in a future-forward direction, although Tor is specifically focused on user (web) transactions versus more polygamous engagements with data (for example, by developing enhancements that facilitate linked data and integration with off-site network resources).

I frankly cannot afford these much assurance of success, except for very limited purposes. Most of these efforts fail to deliver their original vision for the host organization, even if they are locally successful within their units, for a simple reason: they grossly underestimate the extent of the revolution occurring outside the doors of their house.

3. Allying oneself with transformative companies. This has been a very common strategy for biopharm; it does not invoke painful internal change, and it allows one to suck off some of the benefits of innovation elsewhere. However, it conversely does not reinvent your firm, and it creates resource dependencies that can debilitate over time. Alliances are fragile, and the costs of out-of-firm maintenance can suddenly emerge as a threatening constraint. This strategy generally pulls out the survival curve but does not alter its direction.

Publishing has done some of this, usually with firms that engage in new forms of content distribution, e.g., in mobile platform. This is a conservative approach, and one already established in publishing by historical patterns of off-loading technology development to digital conversion hotels and content repositories. Adequate internal expertise has to be developed to successfully interface with more specialized staff in external firms, but these units, and the individuals within them, can often be “bolted on” to existing firm divisions such as “digital media” or “acquisitions” or “marketing” without massive disruptions. Random’s engagement with gaming firms is a wonderful example of the short term success that can come with this strategy.

As I mentioned previously, in some form, the GBS settlement can be seen as a limited, non-transformative alliance between an innovation purveyor and traditional industrial firms. It is limited to an innovation sector in discovery and distribution, and the most attractive innovation, in data and related integration services, is not shared beyond Google, and indeed not adequately perceived by publishing as a longer term strategic necessity. This characterizes one great shortfall of this approach: it is often narrowly focused on innovative forms that occur on well-marked edges of existing firm processes instead of the hazy, shadowy borders of greater risk and return; alliances focus on incremental versus revolutionary embrace.

4. Acquisition. It is always easier for significant revolutions in production, distribution, and product design to emerge wholly apart from existing industry. The resource inputs are either dramatically different, or distinctly sourced; development processes require different input skills that are more prevalent in unfamiliar professional networks; the organizational field of collaborators, and the type and nature of resource dependencies often resides on an entirely different vector to the established sector. Indeed, a hallmark of transformative eras is that the most market-disruptive firms are often entirely blind to the existing industry, or at least not reliant on its continued existence. Arguably, e.g., craiglist could give a shit if newspapers folded; from their perspective, that is not a location for competitive friction. Facebook might be; Hearst Media is not.

For these reasons, one of the most prevalent strategies of established biopharm firms under threat from biotech is to acquire these competencies, or alternatively make significant equity investments in them; in the case of acquisitions, usually “parking” them to the side of the existing core organizational structure. This protects the innovator’s ecology, and shields the larger organization from disruption, while lowering the risks of external alliance collaboration and resource dependency. Roche (+) Genentech, and the various share-wars that have erupted between those two firms, is an interesting case in point. (Indeed, as Genentech’s fortunes have stabilized, it has thrown increasingly stronger ripostes to Roche’s efforts at incremental consolidation).

This is not happening to any significant degree in trade publishing. That is striking to me. It speaks, potentially, to a greater breadth of transformation in media, compared to drug development. Biopharm and biotech both had to make accommodation to the identical set of ultimate customers, physicians and hospitals; both were reviewed and regulated (albeit in different fashion) by similar government processes, generally by the same agency. One could argue that the transformation confronting most legacy media companies is more encompassing. In fact, instead of these changes becoming more tractable over time, reflecting the same conundrums from music to books, it might be that they are becoming more intractable as the pace of external innovation accelerates.

Harper did not acquire Lexcycle; Amazon did. If I had to conservatively predict an acquirer for Scribd, it would be Google, Amazon or Microsoft, not Random House. That is a particularly telling commentary, and I think it argues for an unhealthy and fulsome separation between traditional publishing and the locus of innovation boiling up on the edges of the traditional publishing industry.

In sum. Revolutions in industry are times of both great creativity and disruption. It is intriguing to witness the development of responsive strategies by existing firms, as they learn to recognize external threats to their business model, emerging from larger social, scientific, economic, and/or political changes. So far, as indicated in this very informal analysis, I would suggest that publishing has only anemically adapted to an altered landscape, and the consequences could be very troubling for existing firms.

2 Responses to “What is not happening (in publishing)”

  1. Eric Hellman Says:

    I think you’ll have to narrow the scope of your thesis to “Book Publishing”. If you look at journal publishers, for example, you find examples everywhere of all four of the response types you’ve enumerated. Over the past 15 years, journal publishing has thoroughly shifted business models from ones oriented around print, to models oriented around digital.

    I’d also add a 5th response seen in both the pharma world AND in book publishing- that of consolidation via merger. It’s a defensive response, but certainly it is a response to a shifting technological environment.


  2. Helena Markou Says:

    Generally I would agree that traditional publishers are slow to embrace innovation.

    However, you will find examples even within book publishing of innovating through each of the ways you’ve described.

    Acquisition is common especially within the academic sector (Pearson, Wiley & McGraw Hill spring to mind). However, diversification tends to be strategically focused on enriching content, virtual learning environment, or evaluating/testing services rather than retail or distribution (such as Lexcycle and Scribd).

    I’m not at all familiar with the biopharm industry but I’m guessing they don’t innovate through acquisition of pharmacies?

    In academic publishing the R&D focus is likely to be a by-product of distorted market pressures, by which I mean the students are the end users but textbook adoptions and library acquisitions are driven by decisions from faculty. However, I assume this distortion also exists within biopharm as generally patients don’t write their own prescriptions.