Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt
By Stephen Page, CEO, Faber & Faber
In 2006 Tom Coates wrote the following: “My sense of these media organizations that use the argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!”
7 years on you’d have to say that the industry has yet to be out run by the snail. Plenty of change has come but you’d be hard-pressed to make the case of widespread failure, or failure by publishers to find opportunity in the new market. So have we outrun the snail?
In the USA e-book growth has slowed dramatically, e-reader sales seem to be slowing – witness the poor quarter for E-INK the provider of e-ink screens. There was better news of independent bookshop openings in the US last year. In the UK high street book sales grew in August versus last year. So perhaps the snail has stopped moving, we’ve coped with the format shift and all is finding a new equilibrium.
Well, to believe that will result in both the failure of our businesses, and also to publishers missing out on a series of thrilling opportunities. We’ve travelled a long way in the last decade, and have begun to transform our business and the industry. The key to succeeding in what comes next is to continue to disrupt our own businesses and to open our minds to the opportunities of disruption that will be done to us. It feels to me as if the burning platform for change is smoldering and rather than rest, it is our job to blow on the embers and ignite the next inferno of change.
At Faber we found success in our digital publishing by separating it from the rest of the business, as we did with our creative writing and services businesses. Some degree of separation is necessary to allow real challenge, different P&Ls and investment models, and also to keep the teams small and empowered. What’s noticeable about our recent digital conversation is that it has become normal, part of what we are. That sounds good, but actually it is only good if there are small teams free to go off again and break rules afresh. The seduction of “normal” is profound but as new initiatives become normal so we have to challenge ourselves again to disrupt and transform. And this does not only apply to the new, we also have to continue to transform our existing publishing business at the same time, from within.
Our own disruption will have to have an eye to the outside disruption: subscription models, social marketing platforms, global audiences, e-lending, and new technologies and gadgets – anyone publishing for the Galaxy Gear Smart watch yet?
The snail of technological change has not outrun or eaten publishing yet. It will though if we fail to continue to be our own greatest challengers and become the prime disrupters in our market. Many commentators expected us to fail, but we haven’t not least because it is possible to cope. We have to continue to cope, not rest or pause by the roadside. The future is full of possibility and opportunity and difficulty, but the excuse of technological change that is too fast is not credible. After all, how embarrassing would it be to be outrun by a snail?
© Stephen Page, September 2013