How to Survive the Death of the Book

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Inkling digital publishing start-ups innovationAs founder and CEO of Inkling, I’ve spent nearly six years working across the publishing industry at every level. In this three-part series, I’ll share my tech-centric perspective on the industry. This first post addresses the changes I’ve seen in the book market and the key trends driving them. Second, I’ll discuss the challenges I’ve observed while working within publishers at every level. And finally, I’ll recount the strategies I’ve seen some companies employ that seem to be working.

Founders don’t start companies to fight their future competitors. They start companies to fix something that they recognize—to an extent untrue of most others—as frustratingly broken. Indeed, an entrepreneur’s obsession is so myopic that most early-stage investors struggle to get founders to name their competitors. “We don’t have any,” says everyone ever.

Cute. But virtually every need is served today in some way. Horses provided transportation before the car, encyclopedias worked well before Wikipedia, and I’m confident root canals will seem perfectly sensible until there’s a pill for that. In similar (but less painful) ways, the book was a very sensible solution to a lot of problems for a long time, until it wasn’t. Today it increasingly isn’t. And many entrepreneurs are finding niches ‘without competitors.’

Getting a degree? Use a textbook. Looking up a word? Grab a dictionary. Traveling? Buy a travel guide. Want to be whisked away to another universe for a few hours? A novel, printed in a book. What an amazingly versatile device! Yet in spite of this homogeneity of format, publishing’s problem isn’t a single competitive technology. Rather, it’s the hundreds of small software companies that rise from the cracks to nibble on the feast of available problems to which the book is no longer the best possible solution. It is (ahem) death by a thousand paper cuts.

Examples abound. Tripadvisor reset customer expectations by providing comprehensive coverage of the world’s hotels and attractions with up-to-the-minute information in an easily searchable database. A book simply cannot compete. On a less grand but nonetheless impressive scale, displaced swaths of learning books. This year, the company was acquired for $1.5 billion by one of the world’s great upstart publishers, LinkedIn.

It looks like the software industry is eating publishing for breakfast. To survive, every publisher must find its path to reinvention as a software company or else decline into irrelevance. If you once sold books to customers to help them solve problems like getting a degree, to entertain them or to help them do their job better, you now had better find a way to do it ten times more effectively with software. Otherwise someone else will. The flaccid argument that software companies don’t understand content is mere hubris.

Of course, this isn’t new news. But the software landscape, and what’s possible within it, is in a perpetual state of ‘new.’ It expands every year, which makes ‘becoming a software company’ a notoriously difficult thing. New technologies haven’t changed the publishers, they’ve changed the customers. And those fast-changing customer expectations set the rules, not the start-ups themselves. After all, the start-ups don’t have any competitors, remember?

So what’s new? Over the last five years, software products have become increasingly integrated and narrower in scope. They’ve moved entirely to a subscription model, and they’re mobile-first from the start.

Integrated and Narrow

Customers increasingly expect single-purpose, end-to-end solutions instead of general purpose, jack-of-all-trades software. Microsoft Excel is a powerful tool, but dozens of companies have sprung up to do a better job of enterprise planning, customer relationship management and data visualization (Anaplan, and Tableau spring to mind.)

Put another way, successful software products increasingly obsess over very narrow customer problems and solve those problems comprehensively. It’s much harder to develop tools to solve entire classes of ‘similar’ problems. From any given customer’s perspective, your halfway solution will pale in comparison to the narrowly focused solution by the ten-person start-up down the street. (Astrophysics solutions will sell to astrophysics professors far more quickly than ‘science’ platforms will.)

Subscribed to, Not Bought

For a time, we perpetuated the physical-world model of ‘buying’ a book into the digital world. It happened in music for a while, too: iTunes was once the de facto standard for music, back when people bought tracks. Today, it has been rendered far less relevant by the likes of Spotify, which provides a superior experience through an unlimited subscription.

This is a well-understood phenomenon. Time and again, from cell phone minutes to cable TV, markets have shown that products with zero marginal cost (like digital copies of content) ultimately become subscription markets. This will be true of virtually all markets with digital services as products. People no longer want to buy digital goods, but they’ll subscribe to your service in order to get them.

Mobile Is the First Screen

Talk about things that change fast: In just five years, we’ve gone from mobile phones as disruptive ‘second screens’ to being the first, and sometimes only, screen in users’ lives. It goes without saying that software products must work well on smartphones. For novels, that challenge is quite simple. But if you seek to entertain with media, to educate with interactivity or to empower with reference and search, the mobile screen is a tougher beast to satisfy. Alas, customer expectations do not yield to technical complexity.

Accelerator or Albatross

Publishers have solved a thousand problems for a thousand kinds of customers by building products on the same powerful device—the book. But that convenient grouping is coming undone as software products of different kinds solve those same problems in powerful new ways.

To survive, publishers must identify the customer problem they’re uniquely suited to solve and build software to solve it better than anyone else in the world. If they’re lucky, publishers’ existing skills in content curation, along with their content assets, will serve as accelerators to new product development, rather than become their albatross.

What stands in the way of this inside-out reinvention? In my next post, I’ll explore the structural and cultural obstacles publishers must overcome in order to succeed. In my third and final post, I’ll turn to the strategies I’ve seen work as some publishers have turned a corner in their internal reinvention.

Related: Matt MacInnis on What Drives Innovation (and What Doesn’t)

3 thoughts on “How to Survive the Death of the Book

  1. thinkdisruptive

    While I agree with almost everything you say here, it’s a little extreme to suggest that books are dying or will die. The form may not persist, or remain dominant (two very different outcomes) but then leather-bound illuminated manuscripts are almost never created today (except as art projects), but we still call their common replacement (paperbacks) books. Even when those paperbacks abandon the traditional printing process, and go ‘print-on-demand’, we still call them books. And, even in electronic form, there is a essence to the content of a book that is different from a whitepaper or an academic journal or a newsmagazine.

    Moreover, whether something dies, or simply becomes relegated to niche product status is dependent on why the consumer chooses one solution or the other. A printed book, for many, is still more portable, familiar, readable, durable (try throwing your iPad at the cockroach running across the floor) and comfortable. And some just like the smell. It addresses a different though similar job-to-be-done than an ebook or some new form such as Wikipedia — a compendium of knowledge that updates itself in virtual real time. It’s clear that there is less demand for printed books than alternatives today (we don’t print encyclopedias anymore), but there is still a deep-seated need that some consumers feel for the printed book, and my prediction is that they will survive for a long time, just as a much smaller market than what was traditionally considered a book.

    Business models don’t define the product, although they can and do create new markets and more convenient ways to consume the value for different jobs-to-be-done. To use your example, some people will clearly prefer to subscribe to content — that is a need that hasn’t been easy to serve historically when the only way to get a book was to buy a hardcopy. However, that doesn’t obsolete other peoples’ need or desire to own (there are still lots of people purchasing music, for a variety of reasons). I want my most important reference and business books on the shelves of my credenza within easy reach, and those books are full of handwritten scribbles and notes applied over time. Not easily replaced by a subscription model, nor does the pricing of a subscription suit me.

    You conclude with a question about the survival of publishers, which is a very different question than the survival of books. Theoretically, each of us could become our own publisher, even of hardcopy books, as the traditional vertical integration of the industry breaks down and the tools become more accessible. Publishers are working very hard to make themselves irrelevant by cutting costs, not adding value to the writer, but still taking the majority of sales royalties. In parallel, self-publishing is increasingly seen as viable and just as professional, with the possibility of authors earning more, even if they sell less. The publishing industry’s response to disruption will only accelerate their race to extinction.

    And that is where I most agree with you — publishers need to understand what value they offer that authors can’t get any other way, and do more of it, not less. They need to understand what the public gets from a publisher and what the author gets, and balance those things to remain relevant. Otherwise, they will simply die a well-deserved death. But, that doesn’t mean that books will die.

  2. Matt MacInnis

    You’re right: the book will not die. The headline was, I will admit, selected more for its stopping power than its representative accuracy. I’m not really interested in the book, per se. I am interested in the industries that serve human communication in its most important forms and how it (or they) will evolve.

    And, for what it’s worth, I have thrown an iPad at a cockroach, and it worked. But the battle was a fairer match than with a book. In the end, the cockroach did as much damage to the iPad as the iPad did to the bug. 🙂

  3. christy

    You raise the question of what value publishers provide. As a consumer – I am not a publishing insider but an avid reader – here’s what I want from publishers: good editing of authors’ works, and curation. Reliable curation and helpful connection to what I’m interested in. Since I know that writers rarely edit themselves well, I appreciate the difference a publisher’s editors make. Then, of course I don’t want to pay \full price\. So, while I’m interested in the author and have tried to buy a book from the publisher’s website, I’m stymied by things like paying shipping costs and paying full retail price – to the publisher! Personally I don’t mind paying for quality, etc., but add even more value to that full price tag if you’re going to charge it (\you\ being the publishers). Publishers kind of break the circle of connection when I subscribe to their email list, click on a link to the book, look up the author – and then either find little to no additional information and very limited options to buy/respond/connect/learn more/ whatever. It’s like I suddenly hit a wall and slide back to Amazon or another discounter.

    Maybe publishers should downsource or spin off their promotional offices to function as more nimble entities so they can fully realize the need to truly engage with their customers and create a well rounded customer experience. Somehow this rarely happens, or not enough to overcome the cost differential.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *