The myth of plateauing ebook sales
Never tell people what your book is about

Why BEA was like a live performance of "The Innovator's Dilemma"

It's one of my favorite business books and I just had the pleasure of walking through it as a Broadway performance. OK, the Javits Center isn't on Broadway but it sure felt like I was surrounded by professional actors and actresses, all reading from the script of The Innovator's Dilemma.

Clayton Christensen must be smiling

Everywhere I turned I came across industry members who are way too focused on current channels and products. They're happy that 20-30% of their revenues are coming from "digital"; of course, by "digital" they mean quick-and-dirty print-to-e conversions, print-under-glass, or any one of a number of other descriptions of today's ebook marketplace. Many of them will tell you privately that "the ebook revolution" was overblown, they've wasted way too many resources on speculative e-projects and now see no reason to throw more good money after bad on this front.

The Digital Discovery Zone was a quaint little area set off by green carpeting and featuring about a dozen of the usual suspects, many of which are sponsors of the various industry conferences. It felt like walking through a petting zoo at your local state fair. I half expected someone to say, "wash your hands if you touch one of those animals, honey, you don't want to spread any germs."

Isn't it amazing that we still separate the "digital" players from the rest of the exhibitors at a major trade show?

Where's the disruption?

An attendee from outside the industry could walk away from BEA believing all is well and that the digital sector is a nice side-business, almost a hobby. They'd probably look at ebooks as something akin to audio books: an easy way to squeeze a bit more revenue from the print-first product line.

Let me share a secret with you: I've spent the past couple of years immersing myself in the publishing startup space and they don't care about the big industry trade shows. That's why none of them were there to exhibit.

I met individually with a handful of CEO's of startups that are all less than 24 months old and they each offered the same feedback: They were only there to meet a few attendees, figuring they could kill many birds with one stone (vs. flying to multiple locations for the same meetings). IOW, for these disruptors, BEA was nothing more than a Meetup. In fact, since I met each of them away from Javits, usually at a coffee shop or their hotel, I'm not even sure all of them actually attended the show.

Exploiting the blind spots

The startups I've been focusing on know that publishing is facing the same challenges that completely overhauled the steel and disk drive industries. IOW, publishing is ripe for disruption, the kind that starts with "three people in a garage" and ends with a completely new set of industry leaders.

None of this is intended as a slam against BEA. It's a fine event produced by some terrific people. My point in writing this article though is to offer the perspective of someone who's been a publisher for 20+ years and has had the opportunity to see the industry through the lens of outsiders as well, thanks to the numerous founders and other startup members I've met.

One of my goals as a startup advisor is to help them understand the industry's ground rules. I'm also quick to tell them they need to promise me one thing: Regardless of who it's from, including me, if they get advice from someone who's been in the industry more than a year, they need to take it with a grain of salt. After all, we don't want to discourage innovation just because an "industry expert" says "that's not how things are done in publishing."

Have you hugged a startup today?

Javier Celaya was right. Startups and publishers aren't engaging like they need to. Yes, there's innovation happening within publishing houses. I was even thrilled to get a firsthand look at this taking place within one of the big six houses. But it's what I'm seeing outside the traditional publishing ecosystem that excites me the most. If you're part of the old establishment, what are you doing to engage with these disruptive innovators?

P.S. -- Maybe this whole situation is an elaborate and clever ploy by Christensen to force us all to buy one of his other books, The Innovator's Solution. :-)


Lynn Vannucci

As CEO of one of those start-ups you're talking about, just wanted to take the opportunity to give thanks for the encouragement. It isn't always easy, being disruptive. Thanks.


Could not agree more. I was at the show in 1988 and then left for the technology and photo industries and now coming back it looks pretty much like the 1988 printed book show but with a lot fewer exhibitors and booksellers and very little excitement. Many of the same people are still there.

At the end of the old 35mm film and photo industry, the PMA Annual Show at least integrated the new with the old. And in the world of paper atlases and digital mapping/GPS, the two were integrated into industry shows like the ESRI annual event and others.

My sense as an outsider who has travelled different roads, is the West Coast innovators simply do not want or need to be treated like second-class citizens who are disrupting another industry so don't bother coming. (They see themselves as making amazing new things possible and consumers agree.) Their brands are not allowed to be tucked away in small booths off in a corner and anyone who has seen them at CES and other tech shows understands this.

I felt like Rip van Winkle walking through the BEA Show. When the feel-good Show headline news is "happy to have stabilized" you know things are not where they need to be. I saw this with paper atlases when they halved in sales worldwide due to GPS between 2005 and 2009. I also find it amusing that the digital innovator conferences are downstairs -- as in Downton Abbey! You just would never see that at CES or any significant industry event outside this one.

Publishers and booksellers need not hide in fear of the tech future but figure out how to participate in it. Ebooks make reading more exciting again for a lot of people. Fuji figured this out in the photo biz years ago and thrived; Kodak and Polaroid did not. It can be done but hiding in denial is not the way.

Just one man's observations from another planet.


Christensen's other memorable attribute, which you may know, is that his son played basketball at Duke! He sometimes comes to Harvard games where he is quite anonymous, except for his size.

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