I recently joined a Facebook group called The Urgency of NOW, Move it Up, HBP. The group was created around the following cause: “a show of social solidarity to move up the publishing release for Andrew McAfee’s upcoming book, Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges.”
This cause isn’t likely to attract a million strong on Facebook. In fact, when I just checked, it had 149 members and counting – mostly people who, like me, are interested in issues concerning Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0.
Andrew McAfee, a Harvard business professor, is an acknowledged expert in this field — in fact, he is credited with coining the term “Enterprise 2.0“.
Having written a book that touches on the same issues, I know McAfee’s work and follow his blog. I don’t know him personally, however; in fact, I have never met him. We both spoke at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston, and he sent me an email invitation to a party at his house during the conference; but I was unable to attend because I left Boston earlier that day for Washington DC. So I’m not rallying behind a pal.
It would be inelegant of me to stir things up between McAfee and his publisher, and that is not my purpose here. I presume, however, that McAfee is not happy that Harvard Business Press has pushed back the release of the book till the fall. The Facebook page, though not created by McAfee, appears to have his tacit consent. A blogged pre-review of the book meanwhile has taken up the cause to get McAfee’s book into the market. It ends with this sentence: “I am looking forward to reading Enterprise 2.0 when it is finally published.”
On Amazon, the book’s release date is given as November 16 2009. HBP has however put the book’s short introductory chapter on the Web for free download (in fact, it’s just a preface outlining the contents of the book, not a sample chapter). Offering a free downloadable chapter five months before a book’s release seems like a long lead time to me. Something clearly did not go as planned. Which presumably explains the launch of the Facebook group.
The Facebook group behind Enterprise 2.0 is interesting for two reasons.
First, it demonstrates that authors can — even if indirectly — use social networking sites like Facebook to, in effect, negotiate with their publishers (or, expressed less diplomatically, to put the squeeze on them).
Second, McAfee’s understandable frustration as his book hangs in limbo while the debate about Enterprise 2.0 zooms forward underscores the all-too-familiar structural, cultural and operational sclerosis that has long plagued the book publishing business.
On the first point, it should be said straight away that authors like to whinge about publishers. Put a group of authors around a table and, before long, they’ll be swapping stories about the incompetence of publishers, cataloguing all manner of cockups and oversights. These tensions are not unusual in a business where – like pop music — creative people are obliged to go through vertical, corporately-structured gatekeepers to get their work produced, distributed and promoted. Just as pop musicians (even the most rich and famous) invariably loathe their labels, writers (even bestselling authors) usually find some reason to feel profoundly betrayed by their publishers.
The Urgency of Now group on Facebook is the first time I’ve seen a group mobilize on the Web and put direct pressure on a publisher. This is usually the job of literary agents. They negotiate fees and terms with publishers and act as intermediaries between the highly structured, slow-moving book publishing culture and the thin-skinned, ego-centric crankiness of authors. Now authors have Facebook, blogs, YouTube and other Web 2.0 platforms to negotiate tacitly with their publishers — even through shame and embarrassment if necessary.
These tactics are fascinating because they provide further evidence that power is shifting away from vertical structures to horizontal networks — in this case, from publishers towards authors and their readers. It’s not unlike the power shift, a decade ago, from the big music labels and retail chains (most now out of business) towards musicians and their fans.
On the second point about the corporate culture of the book business, maybe it’s time to ask: when is Book Publishing 2.0 coming?
Everybody knows the numbers: the book industry is in deep crisis. Online retailers like Amazon are squeezing their margins, bricks-and-mortar retailers are on the verge of bankruptcy, and the advent of portable devices like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader is threatening to do to book publishing what the iPod did to the music business. Indeed, the disruptive iPod/iTunes/iPhone techno-triumvirate provides the book industry with a powerful case study of the same forces of creative destruction that are sweeping through their business and are about to knock everybody on their ass.
It might be tempting to believe that the crisis has inspired the book industry to innovate, try new things, and think outside the box. When you’re in a crisis, after all, it’s time to think differently — and think fast.
Publishing executives are not dumb, they understand the challenges facing their industry. Down the ranks, not surprisingly, there is widespread anxiety about the impact of expense cutting — or as one writer in the New York Times lamented, “The Party is Over“. When you get past surface anxieties about cost cutting, however, you don’t have to have a PhD in organizational behaviour to notice that publishers are doing very little to change the way they think and operate.
At most big houses, it’s the same old business model: battalions of editors prospecting upstream for talent and titles; a laborious production process to work on manuscripts and package hardcover products; tight-fisted allocation of marketing budgets to a small number of selected titles (authors whose books are not chosen are cheerfully neglected); indecipherable negotiations, lubricated by financial inducements, with retailers to get selected books into stores; and finally, downstream, standard PR and promotional efforts to get media attention for the lucky authors chosen for the publisher’s marketing push.
There are undoubtedly many sharp publishing executives who realise the writing is on the wall. The problem isn’t the individual people in the book business, or even proprietors like Rupert Murdoch. The problem is an institutionalized conservatism that finds its origins in a complacent corporate culture, monopolistic professional values, and outdated operational methods that, when taken together, are fatally ill-adapted to current market realities.
That explains why publishers, instead of reinventing their business by rewarding innovative approaches, are retrenching into familiar risk-reduction strategies — keeping inventories low, going with bankable authors with track records, putting out low-risk flavour-of-the month books, and so on. As in the music business a decade ago, the innovation is going elsewhere.
True, publishers are now, like authors, using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as marketing vehicles for their titles. Why not, these platforms don’t cost much. Getting someone to tweet about your forthcoming catalogue is much more cost-effective than hiring PR firms to spend countless hours on the telephone with newspaper and magazine journalists.
For the most part, however, publishing houses are stubbornly faithful to their familiar business model of releasing over-priced hardcover books on the expectation of higher margins on initial print runs. Their supply-chain strategies are stuck in the old vertical model of mass production/mass marketing/mass media. By stubbornly printing hardcover books priced at $29.95, large-scale publishing houses are where the Big Four music labels were circa 1999, churning out over-priced CDs while their entire business model was collapsing. For publishers, the easy margins on institutional sales and low-hanging fruit are just too attractive. The result: business as usual.
Web 2.0 evangelists doubtless would tell me that my points here are irrelevant because the book is moribund so why bother even discussing different models to produce and monetize a product that is soon toast. Jeff Jarvis argues that books are static and hence outmoded. Or as he puts it: “Print is where the word goes to die.” That reminds me of Steve Jobs’ even more radical comment when asked about the impact of the Kindle: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” I don’t believe that is ture, but it should be enough scare the publishing industry into rethinking their business model.
There are undoubtedly, to be fair, some encouraging examples of publishing houses adopting innovative business strategies, and I’d like to hear about them as I fine-tune my thinking on this subject. A quick Google scan revealed that the issue is the subject of some serious and articulate thinking in the blogosphere. I found one blog that, interestingly, is called Publishing 2.0. The brainstorming is happening, but is it permeating publisher boardrooms yet?
If asked by a publishing house for some big-bullet advice, I would say straight off: get out of hardcover books entirely (with very few exceptions); put out e-books as a first-window as soon as manuscripts are completed, then go to lower-pricepoint paperbacks on a quick-turnaround basis. No more two-year delays between signing an author and book release; no more six-month periods between manuscript delivery and printing; no more two-month delays between release date and commercial retail availability. And most importantly, remove all obstacles that obstruct your new quick-turnaround timetables. The only way to bring change to operations is to transform the corporate culture.
There are already some positive signs that this message is getting through, as some publishers speed up their turnaround cycles for just-in-time releases. But they are the exceptions.
Which brings me back to Andrew McAfee’s still-unreleased book. The Facebook group pushing for an earlier release throws down the gauntlet. It’s a message to publishers that, in the fast-paced, innovative world of Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, and Markets 2.0, the old way of doing things isn’t good enough. And if you don’t believe it, look what happened to the music business.
Footnote: These issues are clearly being debated inside the publishing industry. Two days after my blog post, the New York Times published this story about the dilemmas publishers face regarding the timing of e-book releases:
UPDATE: Publishers often argue, defensively, that the music/book comparison is not valid because ebooks won’t be as disruptive as iPod/iTunes. In short, their business-as-usual culture is not under the same threat. Yet the CEO of Harper Collins doesn’t appear to agree. Quoted in this article, she predicts that 50% of all books will be read electronically within a decade.