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Whatever happened to innovation in the publishing industry?

Creativity-819371_1920Remember the excitement surrounding the launch of Amazon’s Kindle eight years ago? It was a clunky device, even by 2007 standards, but it was revolutionary. One of the original Kindle’s breakthrough features was the ability to download books via cellular network. The eInk display and extremely long battery life also led to its popularity despite the device’s hefty $399 price tag.

That was eight years ago and it’s hard to name even two or three other innovations that have had as significant an impact as the first-gen Kindle. Sure, the iPad was noteworthy but it didn’t exactly reinvent reading. And while today’s devices are faster and cheaper than yesterday’s they feature incremental improvements, not groundbreaking innovations.

The same can be said for all aspects of the digital publishing ecosystem, not just devices. The most interesting development over the past few years is probably the all-you-can-read subscription model. But any momentum there has been halted as Oyster is about to disappear and Amazon’s offering has no Big Five content. FWIW, I still believe in all-you-can-read models but only if they’re focused around a topic/genre and they avoid the unsustainable business model that crushed Oyster.

Why has there been almost no innovation in the book publishing industry since the original Kindle?

As I meet with publishers I hear a lot of conservatism and anxiety in their voices. Many are just trying to survive revenue shortfalls and staff downsizings. They’re also afraid of doing anything that might be perceived as a threat to the key retailers.

I believe most publishers are relying too much on the industry leader, Amazon, to also serve as innovation leader. Given that books (print and e) represent less than 10% of Amazon’s overall revenue I’m not convinced they’re motivated to innovate. Amazon is more focused on building other areas of the business and not so much on the book industry they currently dominate. They want to protect and grow their book market share, of course, but I doubt they want to pour a lot of money into reinvention breakthroughs. Amazon didn’t invent the all-you-can-read model, for example; they simply launched a service in reaction to Oyster and Scribd.

This is why I’ve always been a huge fan of the startup community. But it seems as though there are fewer and fewer new, interesting startups in the publishing space. Perhaps it’s because techies see more upside in other industries or maybe they too are afraid of getting squashed by the dominant player. Whatever the reason, there seems to be less startup innovation focused on publishing than ever before.

One interesting development on this front is the Ingram Content Group’s 1440 accelerator program. It’s great seeing an industry leader like Ingram stepping in to help drive and encourage innovation. I plan to keep a close eye on the startups who make the 1440 cut and I hope other publishers and leaders in the publishing ecosystem will work to support and develop similar initiatives.


nate Hoffelder

The book publishing industry hasn't had an innovator in a long, long time, and you proved that point in your first couple paragraphs.

Amazon innovated the Kindle as a retailer so it could sell ebooks. It wasn't in the publishing industry at the time.

Okay, Amazon is now in digital publishing, but it conceived of the Kindle as a retailer, so if the Kindle is the last truly innovative change in publishing then you don't have any innovators at all. My feeling is that the inherent conservatism of major publishers drove them away.


Joe, I realize your audience is namely trade publishers and their partners, but do you see some of the adaptive learning relationships in Higher Ed publishing (Learnsmart with McGraw-Hill, Acrobatiq, Cerego, etc) as innovative around personalized learning? I definitely think that combining publisher content with these engines will make a better learning experience for students/learners. Part of the challenge in digital publishing is that the reading experience still does not stand out. Students are online and mobile perpetually, yet publishers are still in the infancy of making the digital experience comparable to other forms of digital consumption. A work in progress.

Mike Perlman

I have been working on an offline alternative to PDF` and ebooks.
So far the W3C Digital Publishing Interest Group has ignored me despite the fact that my efforts predate theirs AND I have a site that displays samples and generates prototypes.
You can find more info about what I am doing on the site.


Jason Freeman

Joe, I've helped cofounded two prior startups that were both eventually acquired before this third one in publishing, and I can say that this is a very challenging industry in which to inovate. There are very few early adopters in big publishing and these people have to fight hard against the inertia of the industry. The other major reason for lack of entrepreneur activity is that it's tough to build a story to fundraise in this industry, which forces the would be innovator to bootstrap and gain a lot of traction prior to gaining investment interest.


I would suggest the biggest innovation in publishing is iBooks Author. The ability to create interactive, multi-media books in iBooks or ePub3 format is incredible. An absolute game-changer.


Have you looked at the system (and dedicated customer base) Logos Bible Software (Faithlife is the parent company) has created? Rich meta-data, advanced tagging, syncs between devices, and other amazing capabilities. Here's a short video of how Logos' library system is built:

Also, the way Logos funds books is unlike any other company. Two programs: Community Pricing and Pre Pub (videos respectively): &

Amy Sterling Casil

I didn't even know about this - but to be honest, 30K for a 7% stake isn't a good deal and isn't enough to make a big difference in bootstrapping. We are still hanging in there. However, the real barrier right now is getting partners to get their content together. Three big projects are creeping along and everything else we have is a "regular" book. But ... hey ... as someone who came out of entrepreneurial nonprofit work, I think it will be OK.

Michael W. Perry

Nothing crushes the thinking that leads innovation like stress and fear. I know. I've experienced it.

I've written several books describing from various angles what happened when I stumbled, as a mere EMT, into a high-stress nursing position at one of the country's top-ten children's hospital. I was all too aware that in the middle of the night, while caring for desperately ill children with leukemia, a child's life might depend on my ability to think beyond my training and see a crisis developing before it was too late.

I think I did my job well. As far as I know, no child suffered serious harm because of a mistake I made. But throughout I was frustrated by my potential to be blindsided and, even more so, by my difficulty coming up with creative solutions when needed. I couldn't take a moment's rest. I had to stay constantly alert, questioning everything I saw, and letting nothing slip past me. I would remind myself that one little quirk in a child's behavior might have life-or-death consequences.

Unfortunately, our minds are not wired to handle that level of complexity. At best, we're designed to respond quickly and simply to life-threatening emergencies like a lion suddenly rearing up in front of us in the African savannah. We do poorly with modern demands on our skills.

Some 10-15% of the people panic in emergencies and do something stupid. Those in the middle, the 70-80%, simply freeze, doing what seems obvious or what they've been trained to do. That fits with dangers in nature, where lying low when a lion appears is often the best response. At the other extreme, some 10-15% come up with a carefully thought-out response. Those are the ones you want alongside you in trouble. It's very extreme of that last group that SEAL training is intended to discover. They want people who are under unimaginable stress still think clearly and persevere.

In that hospital position, I fought that battle, constantly trying to force myself out of the comfort of middle group and into third. Keep in mind that doing that was risky. If I'd followed my second-group training, I'd have never gotten into trouble. I would simply report what I was expected to report, which in a hospital generally meant numbers going bad.

My struggles to project myself not only into the third group, but into its boldest extreme carried with it a risk. Going on mere intuition about a patient entailed danger. I'd be calling for a child's chemotherapy to be stopped when everyone else thought the child was fine. And in the end, I realized that I might have to risk my job to wake up senior physicians in the middle of the night to get that child the attention he or she needed.

Business may not carry such a heavy life-or-death overtones, but it is like that. Innovation involves risk. Doing something new means doing something that might fail. Read the history of Boeing and you'll discover that many of its executives believe they were 'betting the company' on the 747 in the late 1960s. The cost to develop it was so great, the company might not survive if the plane failed to sell in sufficient numbers. They succeeded. 45 years later, the 747 is still in production.

Publishing, particularly in our era of rapid change, is like that. The future is never clearly seen. A scheme that may succeed well may also fail disastrously. Publishing carries an additional burden. In the past, technological change in the field has come with almost infinite slowness. Someone who entered the filed as a youth found things done much the same way when he retired decades. What few changes that came were in marketing and distribution. Unlike Boeing and aviation, it's not a field that have favored the bold or the risk-takers.

Now publishing being asked to be bold, to take risks, and to think out of a box that's stood almost unchanged since steam-driven presses came along in the mid-nineteeth century. And unlike say the high-tech arena, it's being asked to do so even when the rewards for success may not be that great. That is our problem.


Thanks for the Link to Ingram's 1440 project. I've put myself on their mailing list to see what develops. I also feel that all is not as dark as it may seem. Some good may come out of 1440 and two other sources.

1. Apple's small iBookstore team is moving in the right direction. I suspect that they simply lack sufficient support from upper management. Apple's 'change the world' corporate mindset remains mired in the surfing and music world of 1970s California. It has little appreciation for the world-shaping impact of books or of ideas in general.

2. I'm also wondering if Adobe has grand plans that it is keeping close until they're better established. Their mobile (Android and iOS) apps allow ordinary people to create and publish online without a lot of tech-savvy being required. Their high-end, professional apps are moving in that same direction. InDesign now has a Publish Online feature that allows documents to be posted online that look almost identical to their print counterparts. That could shape up into either a path for publishers to go directly to consumers, bypassing Amazon, or to allow publishers to publish once to Adobe and have Adobe take care of all the messy details that currently accompany digital publishing. You can see what the result looks like here:

Make an arrow appear on the right and you can page through the book. It looks at how stress creates tensions among hospital staff and harms nursing morale. The solution is a new position called a senior nurse mentor who can act independent of those pressures.


Finally, in this, as in many other areas, we can learn from the past. When I'm tempted to wimp out and take the easy path, I'll go here and read Kipling's great poem "If."

This stanza is particularly relevant to publishing today:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Publishers need to be willing to risk all on one bold venture and hold on when all seems lost. They also need to set aside the whining that seems to be the besetting sin of our age. They should be makers of change not victims of circumstances.

--Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia

Joe Wikert

Nate, I'm quite familiar with Logos and the terrific company Bob Pritchett has built there. I wouldn't include them in this because I'm pretty sure Logos precedes the Kindle. So if we're talking only about significant innovations that have happened since the dawn of the Kindle I don't believe Logos would qualify. Great platform and company though.

Marshall Gass

I think the problem of innovation is controlled by the volume/content of reading required of a book. Who, in this day and time, has the inclination to settle down to read a whole novel within a given time frame? The time today is tightly allocated for a whole lot of new daily tasks and reading has to fit into that timescale. This stunts innovation.

If books can be serialized and dispatched in small bite-able chunks, readership may grow exponentially and in turn initiate innovation. Its no more about innovative gadgets but innovative methods to deliver content. ( Future Books?). (Emailing chapters?)

Kindle was designed to replace the book. It did so on novelty value alone. Once that wore out and competition set in, the price and product war killed off innovation. At one time I saw hordes of people read on Kindles. So I wanted one too. Now everyone has a cellphone, but try reading a book on one and getting away without fatigue? It just does not equal the printed book.

Innovation will happen when all the hoopla dies out and printed books are back on the shelf!

David Mark Brown

Joe, thanks for the article. I've had the same view on all-you-can-read services for a few years. Only sites such as Harlequin, etc. have done it well.

I also agree with Jason's comment above. Innovation is coming slowly due to the need to bootstrap and gain significant traction via grassroots efforts. The industry is simply unwilling to flex. I've cofounded two startups in publishing over the last few years. Epifiction is an educational platform that allows students to participate in live, ongoing serial fiction via device. It has taken us three years and three versions to prove the product enough to raise our first round of capital. Currently we are building the fourth rendition in order to accommodate our first 10,000 users in 2016.

My second startup ( isn't a year old, but with the help of Kickstarter, we've 100 subscribers who are receiving weekly digital episodes of serial fiction from our collaborative "serial box" storyworlds. We're still using wordpress to drive this bootstrapped company that intents to unlock the ability to write your favorite story as fast as you can read it.

Over the past five years I've watched dozens of great sounding start ups come and go. Most of the ones I hear about have gone the more traditional startup route and they fail. That is one of the reasons why my companies are seeking a more grassroots, lean startup process. Via social media and services such as NoiseTrade it is possible to build enough traction to bypass gatekeepers and deliver something directly to the reading public (by connecting an open author network with willing readers). But it takes time (so far, three years). I believe the new innovations are coming. The ebook is just the beginning.

Lou Johnson

Hi Joe,

As a publishing veteran (makes me sound very old) of over 25 years, I decided to spread my wings, resign my post heading up Simon & Schuster Australia and set up my own venture to drive innovation as it wasn't happening quickly enough for me within traditional publishing environments. The Author People launched officially in October this year so we're just getting started. Our purpose lies in "Bringing Authors and People Together" which means clearing all the roadblocks presented in traditional publishing processes and mindset.
First step for us is re-engineering the supply chain, so we can then work with Authors and partners to explore other opportunities for connection between authors and people and walk bravely (and with huge excitement) into the future together. Can't wait!

Carl Diltz

In a phrase, "It's the economy." Kindle wouldn't have survived without the recession of 2008 because it offered the hope of a new economic pipeline that eliminated traditional publishing production costs and provided digital delivery. Now, although the Kindle is a totally serviceable reading device, there's not much reason to "innovate," because "innovation" means costs to publishers, which is unacceptable when they can just keep doing things the way they've done them for the last dozen years at least, cutting costs and quality--they're a lot like politicians in this sense--and with a recovering economy even Barnes and Noble can stay afloat! Without innovation.

Paul Swengler

My name is Paul Swengler.

I started publishing around 1990 and epublishing around 1995, before the dot com bubble.

It was a very different world then, in the early through mid 90's. My first epub was on a CD. The writer was a huge unit and cost $5500, the blanks were $15 each and to make it work on Win 3.11 required a 1 Gigabyte drive that cost $1000 and extra 'megs of memory' that ran around $100/meg.

Then, the only formats for epublishing were essentially Text. Adobe had only recently introduced Acrobat but it hadn't taken hold yet. AOL was issuing new disks daily it seemed. I was publishing Law in Hawaii and points west. My publishing company was under a different label/brand than my domain, but it was obvious even then that "epub" had value, so I acquired it. Since then I have retired from publishing and now is time to make these domains reach their potential. For what ever it is worth, during the perusing years I acquired more epubs:,,, I had but decided not to publish in that world.

I remember the big splash of the rocket reader - the first such portable device. but people reference Kindle because of marketing not product.

The point is that big innovation comes from an emerging market, not a mature one. Think of the big difference the first self winding watch, the first lcd watch, the first calculator under $10. I recall the impact Sony Trinitron made when all TV were three gun tubes. It wasn't a industry rocker but the innovation did impact the industry. The same tech migrated into our flat screen today, but all that was migration or evolution.

So when you say innovation, you want huge, forget it. Little innovation is here and now all around us in little steps. Example: Do we need an alternative to Acrobat? YES! But if you create it Adobe is likely to just buy it and integrate it into their arcane app or kill it.

Is there innovation - yes it is here daily, new releases of software, updates, new versions with additional features and so on. Calabre updates me monthly for example.

But understand the forces of huge (Amazon, Adobe, Microsoft) have made it nearly impossible for small entrepreneurs to compete. The cost of funding to compete is enormous.

So where is the big innovation? Largely it's behind the funding barrier or buried in patents large orgs have locked away in the basement.

I would suggest that if you want big innovation you do something about it. Innovate!

If you want to rock the boat, and innovate on epublishing document management or the like talk to me directly. I own

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