The Book Burns, and Takes the House Down With It

I have always felt a deep connection to books as objects.  I love the weight of them, the feel of the pages, the smell, and the endless potential for creation that they seem to represent.  My affection for the printed word is a fundamental component of how I see myself, and it has swayed the course of my life.  It led me into a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, fostered in me an admiration for all things academic, and eventually, left me with an antique education in a thoroughly modern world.

My mind lacked balance, so I sought out a practical education. I studied business, but I have not forgotten my first love, and in fact, I have spent the better part of my business education attempting to understand the mercurial nature of my love these days.  I found myself wondering what happens to things that are both culturally significant and subject to the whims of big business when sweeping, tidal changes materialize in the industry? How does the industry adapt?

I was recently presented with the opportunity to explore the topic in some depth when I wrote my major research paper,  a requirement to graduate with an MBA.  My paper applied value chain theory, as well as disruptive technology theory to the publishing industry in order to propose a viable business model for the digital age.

The publishing industry is experiencing much the same growing pains that the music industry did in the early 2000s with the launch and popularization of Napster, and yet they do not seem to have anticipated the transition.  Since e-reader sales took off a number of years ago, publishers have found the lower price point for e-books to be non-viable, and responded by attempting to dictate prices to retailers.  Relations with large retailers like Amazon soured as a result.

To really adapt, nay, thrive, in this new market, simply attempting to sell more e-books for more money would be shortsighted.  In truth, what is really revolutionary about the digital age is that content is now divorced from form.  That is, authors no longer need to produce a physical book to be successful.  Effectively, they can now function as their own publishers, making publishing houses largely unnecessary.  Call it the ’50 Shades’ phenomenon: self-publishing is no longer simply in the ascendant, it’s now acutely appealing.

If publishers are to maintain their dominance, they need to re-examine the ways in which they bring value to the creative process. If I may take a moment to speak to the entire industry, it seems essential to reconceive of who, exactly, constitutes the ‘customer’ being served by publishers.  Consider this: the main competitive advantage any one house possesses that cannot easily be duplicated by competitors is it’s stable of successful authors, and it seems to me that the only way to ensure that it’s sustained to find a way to incentivize traditional methods of publishing.

I advocated a transition away from contract-based business models in which authors are ‘bought’ to one that functions more like a service that facilitates the distribution of material, as opposed to controlling it completely. Smaller, more agile publishers have already begun to put this business model into practice by unbundling the marketing, editing, and distribution functions they already performed, and creating packages of ‘services’ for authors.

The popularity of e-readers and e-book will not necessarily sound the death knell for traditional books.  It will however, usher in the need for a different kind of publisher, namely, one that recognizes that their industry is slowly becoming service-based, and is able to offer something of value to prospective writers.

The full version of my research paper is available as a free download on the iBookstore.  Search “The New Schism: Digitization in the Publishing Industry, and the Disintermediation of Publishing Houses.”


Darcy Brooks is a recent MBA graduate, with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Philosophy from McGill University. She currently works as a writer in the Office of the VP Research and Innovation at Ryerson University, and as a freelance writer for a number of business magazines in her spare time.


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