Over on Futurebook, Chris McCrudden has just published a piece entitled “Down with Disruption,” taking issue with the applicability – and value – of the whole principle of digital disruption in publishing. Some of his insights make a lot of sense. Some I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Read on below.
Following the first Digital Publishing Xmas Fair, which apparently sought to bring digital startups and the publishing industry closer together, McCrudden took exception to the wholesale promotion of “disruptive technologies,” arguing instead that publishing was being unbundled, with its various component disciplines being split off and transformed piecemeal. “The formerly established well-understood supply chain by which books were written, commissioned, created, printed, marketed and sold has been broken up, with its constituent parts now managed very differently.”
To an extent, I’d agree, in a sense that certainly fits better with how most startups actually work and what they can do, for all the occasionally grandiose ambitions of some. Most of the more viable ones focus on a small circumscribed area of business in a larger value chain, and concentrate on doing that differently and (hopefully) better. “These are companies dependant for their survival on the fortune of a certain category of businesses: in this case, publishers,” says McCrudden. “If they disrupted these businesses out of existence they wouldn’t have customers.”
So far so correct with McCrudden’s thesis. Where I’d differ is something a touch more fundamental. “The area where we’re seeing the least unbundling lies in the really important stuff: the content,” he contends. “Self-publishing platforms’ well publicised struggles with spam, plagiarism, obscenity and over-abundance of choice all reinforce the importance of the role of the publisher.”
Well do they really? Don’t they rather just look like old problems endemic to the publishing industry simply resurfacing in new guises? Doesn’t the remaindered book chain industry demonstrate both spam and overabundance of choice in traditional publishing? Have old style book and magazine publishing been any strangers to plagiarism? And as for obscenity, doesn’t anyone remember Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, or the Oz trials? Besides, I’d argue that Kobogate was not about sleaze inherent in self-publishing: Rather, it was about a major platform being too rash, too ambitious, and too sloppy.
One slightly brain-dead point to make is that we never before had an alternative standard of comparison with what the publishing industry actually published. There were no comparables to indicate what the publishign industry might be missing or getting wrong, because there was no alternative. The remainder book trade and the periodic unearthing of great forgotten or ignored authors gave some hints, but nothing conclusive. But now there is. And the result? Self-published works cram the Top 100 list on Amazon, never having seen a publisher – only Amazon, and readers.
“The editor and publisher’s value judgement and appetite to take risks is the integral part of the process that hasn’t yet been disrupted, automated or unbundled out of existence,” affirms McCrudden, reiterating those first two qualities for emphasis. Well doesn’t a self-published author risk more, personally, when they put out a book? Let alone spend any of their own money on editorial services, cover design, etc. Mainstream publishing is not an industry that has exactly been renowned for edgy risk-taking.
Or rather, it has in one specific and not very flattering area. Mainstream publishing has a record of getting things wrong – misjudging reader appetite in spades. Remainder book trade again, anyone? It’s been cossetted in this through arrangements that gave it peculiarly favorable arrangements on product return.
“Publishers still have access to all of the great content, the means to create it and the skill to tell the good from the bad,” declares McCrudden. I don’t see much evidence of that skill. Publishers still produce bad books by the bargain-dump-bin-load. And also, for that extra touch of hubris, is it the publishers who create that content? Authors do, not publishers. Unless we’re talking the kind of paper confectionary non-book that so many publishers seem to produce for themselves just to keep the wheels turning. Maybe with all their skillz they lost sight of the distinction between non-books and book books. Authors write book books. All publishers do is package and sell them. And increasingly, they’re not even needed for that.
“The business truly dedicates itself to the disruption of the publishing supply chain will probably look, smell and act like… a publisher,” McCrudden concludes. Will it now? Does that mean that it’ll engage in far-reaching secret cartel arrangements to fix the prices of its products, then settle out of court with the regulator because its position is so indefensible? Does that mean that it’ll lock up vitally needed medical knowledge for its own commercial benefit, and then conclude that it has an “image problem“?
I don’t conclude from this that the publishing industry has any particular skill at “creating” content, simply a historic monopoly on distributing it, which it is now losing. And to judge from the failings and felonies that the above examples are just a tiny sample of, it deservers far more disruption than it’s already had. Disrupt away, gentlemen, disrupt away.