Publishers: About To Make All The Same Mistakes As The Music Biz

This piece, from Susan Piver, originally appeared on her website on 2/11/09.

Hello book publishers. You’re starting to scare me.

I work in publishing but was a record label executive from 1990-2001 and am fascinated by parallels between the two industries. When it comes to the digitization of product and attempts to master/mangle the phenomenon of social media, the publishing business is where the music business was about 10 years ago. And although publishing probably sets its collective IQ (not to mention good manners) as superior to the music business, I can’t find evidence that their reactions to industry sea change are substantially different.

While attending this week’s O’Reilly’s Tools of Change in Publishing conference, I heard a lot of this:

There is still time to change course and we’ve got to do something now—but we don’t know what.

In the meantime, let’s co-opt whatever new trends we see out there by assigning some low-level marketing person to troll Twitter or hiring a social media consultant.

Please, please don’t let us end up like the record business.

If there’s anything to be learned from the recent past, it’s that none of these thoughts are worth pursuing. The “somebody do something” mentality duplicates the kind of hoping-for-the-best attitude espoused by long-time executives in music who simply could not or would not question the viability of the professional cocoons they’d built for themselves. And who can blame them—corporate mega structures are schooled in consolidation as the primary means of growth, not fleet-footed, shape-shifting responsiveness to change. But now we’re in a world where getting bigger is not the answer, getting smaller is.

The question I hoped would be addressed at the conference was: How will publishing avoid being trapped by its own environment? But it never was. Instead, I noticed a lot of talk of waiting and seeing how things are going to work out before making any earth-shaking, world-class responses to a world that has already changed.

At the conference, I was excited for a keynote aimed at comparing the music and publishing industries. Although entertaining, it lacked vision. The speaker talked about how only wimps fear the freedoms of the digital marketplace and attempt to control intellectual property rights and that at least we’re not going to start arresting people like those thugs over at the RIAA. I was disappointed not to hear a more sophisticated dissection, beginning with debunking the idea that digital downloads killed the music business, or could kill publishing.

Downloads did not kill the music business. Shortsightedness and turf-protection on the part of music business executives did. Piracy and changing distribution schema will not kill the publishing industry. Shortsighted infrastructure-protection on the part of publishing houses will.

Read the rest of the post on Susan Piver’s site.