Change Begins at Home

June 1st, 2010 · 11 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

In order for an organization to effectively implement and weather change, there must be an organization-wide mandate to move in a new direction. Senior management must support and model the changes they want to make. Change comes from the top, and, if the recent CEO panel at Book Expo America 2010 is any indication, that is the biggest problem facing publishing today.

There is no doubt that huge changes are facing the publishing industry. Many of these have been driven by readers and technology companies, the latter adroitly timing hardware and software to reach consumers just as their willingness to adopt ebooks was reached. Apparently, this is “radically wrong”. Well, it’s not like the publishing industry didn’t have over a decade to take control of the conversation.

I will note, before I begin ranting, that there are many leaders in publishing who both talk the talk and walk the walk. They may not like every aspect of the change they face, and they are aware that the entire industry is making it up as they go along. These leaders are on the ground, listening and responding. You know who you are, you run the companies that garner accolades from readers and your peers, and you are true leaders.

Since last Tuesday morning (also known as Day One of Book Expo America 2010), I’ve been reading variations of the following statement from David Shanks of Penguin USA. All seem to have the same gist, so I’ll go with Personanondata’s version:

D[avid] S[hanks] agreed emphatically that there will be a bigger market but we shouldn’t shouldn’t forget there needs to be big investment to buy reading devices.

This comment was made during what, by various accounts, was a frank — if not satisfactory to all who heard or read about it — debate between high level players in the publishing industry. This group, including Jonathan Galassi (Farrar Straus Giroux), Scott Turow (Authors Guild), Bob Miller (Workman Publishing), Esther Newberg (ICM), Skip Prichard (Ingram), Oren Teicher (ABA), and Shanks, revealed serious philosophical differences when it comes to issues facing their industry.

They also revealed some interesting biases. The quote above, I think, encapsulates it all. I’ll be frank: I am not convinced these CEOs fully understand the world of digital reading, and it scares me they are leading their companies into the biggest shift facing the industry since, oh, mass market paperbacks.

I get that staff handles the day-to-day work on this shift, but, as I noted in my first paragraph, change only works when there is buy-in from top management down. This buy-in needs to be reflected both internally and externally. As long as publishing leaders continue to equate “device” with ebooks, I will remain unconvinced they get what is going on in the real world. Expensive, exclusive hardware is not necessary for people to read ebooks.

Yes, it is true that some sort of hardware is required, whether it comes in the form of a phone or a tricked-out workstation. Also, some sort of software. There is also firmware.

But for every purchaser of a Kindle, nook, Kobo Reader (still waiting for my evaluation device, ahem! Seriously dudes, I have a presentation coming up in about two weeks, call me.), iPad, iPhone, whatever, there are many more readers who have existing laptops and desktops. Put another way, the vast majority of digital reading is being done via those machines. It’s happening at home and at the office. Anyone who has ever held a job that requires extensive (more than one hour!) use of a computer knows this to be true.

It seemed like Bob Miller, Oren Teicher, and Skip Pritchard got that the world was changing while Jonathan Galassi, David Shanks, and Scott Turow were living in the past (or misinformed — Turow appeared to be the victim of bad education; I do wish the Authors Guild would engage in frank, honest discussion about piracy because the fear mongering isn’t helping).

The comments of Galassi and Shanks tell me they don’t like ebooks, personally or professionally. That’s fine, it’s not a requirement. Their jobs are to steer their companies as the overall publishing business model evolves. This means knowing what is happening to steer the right course. In subsequent comments, Shanks continued to focus on devices, saying:

“Our fondest wish is that all the devices become agnostic so that there isn’t proprietary formats and you can read wherever you want to read,” Shanks told Reuters. “First we have to get a standard that everybody embraces.”

He then cites piracy and the need for common digital rights management (DRM) system to make this dream come true. Oh really? These are the problems holding back the dream of agnostic devices and a standard?

Piracy is publishing’s bogeyman. It exists, oh, does it exist, but all the DRM in the world won’t stop it. Keeping books in print-only formats won’t stop it. Smarter thinking about piracy is the key. Heck, we don’t even know how big a problem piracy is. There is much intellectual dishonesty in publishing about this very real problem.

And, of course, the industry has settled on a good-but-not-perfect standard, EPUB. Standards evolve, so what you get today will be better tomorrow, and EPUB works for a good number of the books being produced today. Amazon is the only major retailer not playing along with EPUB, but they don’t have much incentive in that regard. Publisher insistence on DRM that doesn’t stop piracy (or that people use the evil Adobe Digital Editions) gives Amazon all the motivation it needs to continue with its proprietary format, one that is based on HTML, just like EPUB.

In fact, one could, if one had the energy, convert an unencrypted MOBI file to EPUB and read that file via Kobo, nook, iBooks, and other platforms/devices. However, most publishers don’t allow Amazon to sell unencrypted MOBI, due to those fears of piracy, so they are equally complicit in practicing Amazon’s version of the DRM religion.

If Shanks has properly articulated the goals of the industry, where is the leadership necessary to implement this vision? Just as there are few publishers out there communicating the value of what they do to the general public — who have a vague understanding of what goes into publishing a book, just as they have a vague understanding of what goes into manufacturing sunglasses — there is little visible leadership on the biggest issues being discussed in the world of digital publishing.

(For those keeping track, those issues include: pricing, piracy, windowing, formats, DRM, portability, quality control, and others.)

And while publishers believe the development of the marketplace is radically wrong, retailers (who are both hardware and software vendors) are doing everything they can to make the user experience seamless, painless, and loyalty-inducing. I don’t have to think about the technology when I make a purchase via the Kindle store…and while I am in agreement that customers don’t like proprietary, I am not sure they realize the cross-platform approaches utilized by Amazon, Kobo, and (eventually, sorta) Apple are proprietary.

(Or, I suspect readers are far happier with excellent user experience that means they are reading faster than they are worried about “proprietary”.)

Contrast this approach with that of publishers. Shanks’ comments could be read as broaching the topic of user experience, but his word choice suggests his vision is blinkered. Digital reading is not device specific, it is evolving into something platform-specific. Publishers are herding readers toward proprietary platforms; they demand DRM, and given the desire of retailers to build market share, of course each entity will have its own flavor of DRM. There seems to be very little initiative on the part of the content side of the industry to create the best possible reader experience.

I have worked in three industries as an adult, and I see how each has adapted to change. Some better than others, but they’ve all managed to weather the inevitable. I’d personally feel a lot better about publishing if the people at the top sounded like they are ready to lead their companies into the next phases of publishing…even if they don’t personally like what is happening.

(I left out the topics broached by Esther Newburg, not because they are not valuable, but because they take the discussion in different directions.)

File Under: The Business of Publishing

11 responses so far ↓

  • Fran Toolan // Jun 2, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Hey Kassia,

    I did not attend this panel, so I cannot comment on what was said or surmised.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your thesis that effective change only happens when the top leadership is involved in making things happen.

    I know for a fact that David Shanks is personally leading a charge to make Penguin a more efficient and agile company internally.

    Whatever he feels about ebooks or reading devices personally is not deterring him from making sure that his company is positioned to move in whatever direction the market moves.

  • Mark Anthony // Jun 2, 2010 at 8:15 am

    What publishers need is a different (DRM free) approach to ebooks. Like many people my age, I pirated because I couldn’t afford to pay for what I was downloading. It was a difficult process (viruses, tediousness, etc), one that I abandoned as soon as I was able to afford to pay for things. Release official ebooks on the pirate sites, request donations, offer a community of support for those willing to pay. ‘Pirates’ are among your biggest fans – remind them that they’re needed.

  • Marguerite Butler // Jun 2, 2010 at 8:31 am

    I’m so sick of DRM. It doesn’t frustrate the pirates. My 12yo can strip the DRM from anything in minutes. DRM only frustrates the consumer and makes things more difficult for us.

    As a writer, DRM doesn’t bother me. My books are available in multiple formats. As a consumer? It frustrates the heck out of me.

  • Kate Sullivan // Jun 2, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Hear, hear! One of the reasons I went into publishing now, honestly, is because I’m so FRUSTRATED with how the Big Publishers are treating the digital conversion. There’s no reason to be afraid of digital if you go about it in a smart way, and no reason to hobble your users’ experience with crippling, pointless DRM if you simply accept that most people are going to do what’s easiest and simplest…make buying an eBook simple, painless, and efficient and they won’t bother pirating it.

    Seems so simple, but the CEOs are too busy flailing about the destruction of what is, at base, an unsustainable commercial ecosystem that they can’t see the forest.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 2, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Fran — Thanks for this comment. Prior to the recent public comments by David Shanks, I had a positive impression of his activities at Penguin. In fact, I was bit surprised by the narrowness of his statements, and that they reflected what seems to be a common misconception in the industry. Galassi’s thoughts I had heard before, so didn’t focus so much on them. I don’t think he’s going to change his perception or public stance.

    I think my bigger point, possibly not well-stated, was that these are the industry leaders and many other players are looking to them for guidance and vision. If they are not clear about the issues or projecting misinformation (while Scott Turow says piracy is a huge issue, there is so little hard evidence to point to for effective action), then they are setting a possibly incorrect tone for others in the industry. In this specific example, equating digital reading with “[reader] device” confuses the issue and, possibly, creates a mental market limitation on the part of other publishers listening to his words.

    Change is hard — as I was writing I reflected on the various types of change I survived at one corporation. Culture, process, integration, massive sea change in (historical and ) major revenue streams. They weren’t pretty and they weren’t easy. I realized the most successful of these ventures came when there was support from senior management. They not only made buy-in at all levels easier to achieve, but their public statements reflected largely forward looking vision. I contrast this with an unfortunate comment by an executive from Universal Music who, years into the MP3 revolution, decided to say, very publicly, that his plan to save the CD was new packaging.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jun 2, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Addendum to my comment to Fran: I noted upfront that there are many visionary leaders in publishing and they are doing their best to help effect this transition (and no matter how feel about ebooks, there is no question the publishing industry is in the midst of major business transformation). I also don’t fault the current leadership for what appears to be overly slow response to change because what sometimes seems to be the simplest thing to implement is often far more complex than it seems from the outside.

    Where my frustration arises is when companies like Amazon and Apple and you-name-it are vilified for stepping into the breach and creating viable marketplaces where none existed. Calling this “radically wrong” is a misstatement and childish. Like it or not, the business of digital books has morphed into a very public conversation — the media and consumer interest is very high, giving book publishing far more publicity than ever before — and publishers have not only failed to lead in the marketplace, but they’ve failed to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way. I’d say this is both the job of effective leadership and part of change management.

  • Fran Toolan // Jun 2, 2010 at 11:43 am

    I agree with your frustration, Kassia. And, I agree that books are now a very public conversation – a lofty status that this industry has not enjoyed for a long time. Our publishing leaders should be thinking about coming up with an “industry line” to be repeated by all at every press event by all. I also believe that “line” should be optimistic and excited about the possibilities of the written word.

  • Publishing Links – Trends, Desires, and the End of Things « Leith Literary // Jun 3, 2010 at 9:44 am

    […] ? Kassia Krozser at BookSquare points out that change in the publishing biz must start at home, with the executive who run it. […]

  • Theresa M. Moore // Jun 3, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I read this blog and I also caught Book TV’s coverage of the BEA panel. To date I still don’t think the major publishers get it. DRM only relates to publications which can be read on Adobe software. As a small publisher I can and do convert all my books into whatever format is available: PDF, epub, and HTML. I even participate in selling my ebooks through Kindle. I really do not understand why these people do not sit down with their staffs and find out why ebooks are so popular in the first place, and then adopt a more informed policy about the modern forms of publishing. My warning to them is, “evolve or die.”

  • Pauline Baird Jones // Jun 5, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    thank you for being wise again! the level of cluelessness with some publishers is astounding, but I guess I’m no longer surprised. This is industry that thinks retailers are their customer, not readers. They do no focus groups or studies on what readers want and are currently doing all they can to stop those who read digital from buying the books they sell (i.e. trying to force readers who have INVESTED in a reading device from buying books FOR that reading device.) It makes me crazy and it is why I look for indie publishers/authors.

    Interesting side note, was reading kindle korner loop and one poster commented that he used to NOT pay attention to publisher, but that anti-digital practices of some publishers was changing that. These publishers are managing to shift “brand” identity from author to themselves–in a very negative way. Good plan, guys.

    Ditto the ‘evolve or die!’

  • Shelley // Jun 28, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    And where will Maxwell Perkins be?