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Do Publishers Have the Stomach for Innovation?

Amid a post on what’s wrong with venture investing, Umair Haque mentions publishing as a risk-averse industry unfriendly to innovation:

And so what’s happening isn’t surprising. The dynamics of old boy’s clubs are almost deterministically predictable: they fight tooth and nail against risk, against the radical, against any kind of change to the status quo. They’re great at "monetization" – cutting deals – but the last thing old boy’s clubs are good at, unfortunately, is sticking up, come hell or high water, for innovation. From music, to publishing, to food, to autos, the outcome of locked-down boardrooms has been innovation stifled and suffocated. [Emphasis added]

I’ll agree with Umair about music and about publishing applied to newspapers, but I believe that book publishing — as-yet spared by a digitization tsunami — still has time to embrace innovation. Which is not easy to do, because it tends to challenge a lot of fundamental assumptions on which careers have been built. For example, Techdirt notes a recent AP article on the perception gap between newspaper readers and editors:

Editors are against the idea of anonymous comments being allowed (only 30% thought it was okay). Yet 55% of readers felt that allowing anonymous comments was a good idea. 58% of editors didn’t think that journalists should join in the online conversation and give out opinions, but only 36% of readers agreed. You can certainly see where the old school journalists are coming from — having grown up in an era where journalist objectivity was everything, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that people don’t believe journalists are objective — and they’re much more upset by journalists pretending to be objective than those that are willing to be open with their views and willing to discuss them. Once again, newspapers need to start realizing that the very nature of journalism has changed.

Taking some license here, I’d revise that last line as: Book publishers need to start realizing that the very nature of publishing is changing while there’s still time to change with it. While many in publishing are experimenting, I’ve also encountered a lot of industry folks who just want the world to wait while they figure out how to deal with it. For example, at a recent trade show, I heard the same gentleman ask in three different sessions when there would be a "solution" to the "problem" of file sharing of books. The answer I would have given? None of your readers think it’s a "problem," so there is no "solution" forthcoming. The solution is to adapt to the reality of file sharing, and use free to your advantage. Nearly all of O’Reilly’s books can be found online somewhere (sometimes with full blessing from us and the author), yet subscription-based access to digital versions of our books continues to be a strong growth business for us (Safari Books Online is our third-largest reseller, behind only Amazon and B&N).

I’ll be at the London Book Fair next week (drop me a line if you want to connect: andrew AT oreilly.com), and am eager to gauge the sentiment there on these issues, particularly amid the latest Amazon dustups.

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