Publishing’s Digital Disruption Hasn’t Even Started

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

digital disruption ebook publishing Vearsa SinofksyImperceptible, invisible almost, but it was there at the London Book Fair this year—publishers quietly clapping each other on the back and breathing a collective sigh of relief: Phew, thank goodness that ebook thing is over. Now let’s get back to real publishing.

I’m being a little facetious, of course. But this year’s trade show did see a genuine departure from the maelstrom of anxiety and excitement over the rapidly developing digital market that has dominated the last few fairs.

Most publishers seem to believe the worst is now over, that the industry has survived an inconvenient tsunami warning that turned out to be nothing but an unseasonably high tide.

But is the industry blind to the coming tempest? I certainly believe so.

The music industry thought that disruption was over by 2011 when their sales began to recover somewhat. Despite digital units accounting for 64% of music sales, the consensus was that the market had stabilized and was back to business as usual. Then in 2011 a Swedish start-up called Spotify launched in the U.S. After only four years in the mainstream, it now has over 15 million subscribers  and 60 million active users. The Spotify business model has truly disrupted the music industry, with artists now looking at nontraditional ways of generating sales other than records as their staple income.

Any parallels for authors and books here?

That’s admittedly a question publishers are as tired of asking as trying to answer. But the important thing to note is that while a change in format initially affected business models, the streaming element brought about disruption in the music industry that has stubbornly staid put.

Likewise, for anyone to think that the digital disruption book publishing has experienced in the last few years is over or receding would be foolish in the extreme. In almost every other industry that has experienced disruption in recent times it has followed a very distinct pattern.

Perhaps the best example of a disruption process is one put forward by Steven Sinofsky, a former Microsoft President and Andreeson Horowitz board partner and investor. While Sinofsky writes primarily about the disruptive effects of technology on established industries and their incumbents, I think the framework he proposes is instructive for book publishing.

Sinofsky digital disruption

Steven Sinofsky’s Four Stages of Disruption

Here’s how this looks as applied to the book industry:

Phase 1: Disruption of Incumbent is defined as the introduction of “a limited, but different, replacement for some existing, widely used and satisfactory solution.” At this stage, incumbents regard innovations as toys or nice-to-haves but not fundamental to their core business. If you look at both the explosive early growth in ebook and e-reader sales as well as the effective liberation of the self-publishing space, this makes plenty of sense. Publishers were hitherto no longer the gatekeepers.

In our industry publishers either denied or downplayed the impact ebooks would have. This sounds a lot like 2007–2009 to me.

Phase 2: Rapid Linear Evolution describes how after the initial disruption the industry begins to relax and allow the disruptors to develop their ideas. Writes Sinofsky, “The traction in the disruptor camp becomes undeniable.” The incumbent continues as normal but tolerates and begins to incorporate changes into its own business.

The early growth of ebooks certainly piqued publishers’ interest, and they adopted many of the key elements of ebooks without innovating especially boldly themselves. Even today, how many publishers have dedicated budgets or teams dedicated exclusively to digital content? In my experience, surprisingly very few. Digital is still largely seen as an add-on to print, not a separate and very different business.

2010–2013 was the period when publishers adopted this new delivery method of what effectively was the same content, albeit in a digital format.

Phase 3: Appealing Convergence is when the disruptive and incumbent parties come to work together, as according to Sinofsky, “even when technologies are disrupted, the older technologies evolved for a reason, and those reasons are often still valid.” The market begins to stabilize. There is widespread acceptance of the new technology and early adopters mature, allowing the industry to settle in with a harmonious blend of, in our case, print and digital.

This is where I believe publishing sits today in 2015.

For further evidence, look no further than the reported plateauing of ebook sales, the resurgence of print titles in 2014, and the talk of ebooks going “out of fashion.”  Some more reasoned commentators have highlighted that print vs. digital is also not a battle to the death.

The danger here is that complacency sets in, and publishers revert to print cycle–thinking and fail to plan for the future.

Phase 4: Complete Re-imagination is in Sinofsky’s view the “last stage of technology disruption…when a category or technology is re-imagined from the ground up.”

Think of how other industries are being disrupted. Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.

As Sinofsky writes, “Re-imagining a technology or product is a return to first principles. It is about looking at the underlying assumptions and essentially rethinking all of them at once.”

So what is a book? What is reading? How will the millennials and children of the future consume stories? Will they even want to? I don’t think any of us know.

So the publishing industry’s timeline could look something like this:

Gareth Cuddy digital disruption ebooks publishing Vearsa Sinofsky

Whatever emerges from this next phase will surely be a complete departure from what we understand today as an industry. As start-ups and interlopers begin to grasp both the values and deficiencies of contemporary publishing they will engineer radical change.

Will it be too late in 2016 to respond? Will back-slapping turn to hair-pulling?

Sinofsky signs off by noting that “timing is everything.” How are you spending your time? Are you thinking to the future? As I mentioned, very few publishers I know have devoted any significant research and development resources to digital and the real, fundamental analysis of what it will be to be a storyteller or content curator in 2020.

Ironically, one of publishing’s Achilles’ heels—its supposed inaccessibility or naturally poor fit with innovation—may in fact help slow the impact of disruption. However, it will not stop it.

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

—John F. Kennedy

11 thoughts on “Publishing’s Digital Disruption Hasn’t Even Started

  1. Anthea

    What if it’s not books or reading that are totally re-imagined, but publishing?

    A new publisher today has the option of taking a completely different approach – like Uber for transportation. What about a \publisher\ that focuses on developmental editing, nurturing their authors and building brand/visibility – but instead of giving advances and paying royalties, their services are provided on spec and they get a cut of sales for a specified (limited) term? That would change the incentives of the system significantly, and might attract a lot of authors who don’t like the old limitations and potential for abuse, but who also don’t want to go it entirely on their own.

    There’s also the co-op type approach, like Book View Cafe, which appears to be doing well.

    I think we’re going to see a lot more business innovation in publishing now that the technical innovations are becoming more familiar – but innovation tends to come from outsiders and newcomers, rather than out of the incumbent systems.

  2. Gareth CuddyGareth Cuddy Post author

    Thanks Anthea – I agree with you around new models and innovation coming from outside.
    What worries me is that as an industry we don’t do much to foster or encourage innovation. It’s something we need to invest in collectively and part of that includes actually adhering to standards like ONIX & XML in order to provide an infrastructure for new developments.

  3. Victoria Mixon

    You’re absolutely correct, Anthea, that it’s the quality of the product that suffers in the dog-eat-dog modern publishing industry.

    In the old publishing model, developmental and line editing were part of the value brought to the product (books) by the publisher. However, in the current publishing model, this value-add has been eliminated from the publisher’s budget in an attempt to maximize profits along a corporate–rather than an art-based–model.

    This has thrown the entire traditional publishing model out of balance: agents continue to receive queries for books that would once have held enough promise to be developed and line edited by a publisher, but those agents can’t sell them because publishers no longer do this work, so these promising books are rejected before agents even bring them into the publication process. At the same time, books by famous names that would once have been re-developed or line edited by their publishers are no longer edited at all, so the public receives poorly-developed and unpolished books simply because the authors’ names are famous.

    This is why so many writers and readers are turning to self-publishing. But there, we have no quality controls at all–not even past-quality, as is true of the early works of most famous authors–so the low quality of modern traditionally-published books fosters a parallel climate of low quality in self-publishing.

    Certainly, if we want to restore high standards to the quality of books in our era, developmental and line editing must be restored to the process. Right now aspiring writers are attempting this by hiring independent editors. Unfortunately, editing is expensive and entirely unregulated, so that ‘failed’ writers have begun in the past two years to sell their cut-rate services as ‘editors’ to aspiring writers. What does this mean for those aspiring writers? Simple: they’re paying cut rates for guesswork that they could get free from their writing peers and sometimes for copy editing that is incorrect and frankly wrong. I’ve seen the manuscripts that have passed through these cut-rate ‘editors’ hands. They’re heartbreaking.

    So take heed, writers! Please–do your due diligence. Just because an ‘editor’ is within your price-range does not make them an editor. It’s worse to throw your money away on someone who doesn’t know their job than it is to hang onto that money while you take the time to continue to learn your craft for yourself.

    In the end, it is your love of the work that will determine how good and therefore how worthwhile your writing turns out to be.

    1. Andrea Kingston


      Thank you for so eloquently voicing the concerns that have been nagging at me for years now. So often the new digital publishing models seem to overlook the traditional core role of added value that editing, copyediting, and proofreading bring to published material. Just because many publishers (and other content providers, including self-published authors) are eliminating or minimizing these steps does not mean that they are unnecessary or no longer relevant in a digital model. Nearly instant publication without a focus on some level of quality assurance and improvement and even just the basic value of a review by a second or third pair of eyes does a disservice to readers and authors as well, and will have a long-term effect on our collective heritage of published and preserved knowledge.

  4. Robert Gottlieb

    Trident’s agents have returned from the London Book Fair and can report that sales are strong and publishers around the world are buying author’s works.

    Here is the good news for authors. Demand for content continues to grow no matter the format or the distribution mechanism world wide.

    Robert Gottlieb
    Trident Media Group, LLC
    Literary Agency
    Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

  5. Max Myers

    Victoria, well stated. I run a tiny indie press where I publish my own work and that of other authors. From the submissions I receive, 95% are not edited and if they are, most have been self-edited and yes, the resulting ms is as one might expect. When I suggest that the author will benefit from working with a professional editor, the resulting indignant clamor has become all too common, sadly.

    For that very reason indiepub has been both a boon and a bust. Many talented authors that agents and publishing houses rejected, now have a viable platform to get their work out to the public. Many untalented authors now have a viable platform to get their work out to the public. This has now created a sea of awful books that have clogged the system making it much harder for author’s to be discovered. Cream rises? In milk. Not on Amazon or the publishing world in general. That’s the single biggest challenge facing author’s today. Not just discoverability, but converting those eyeballs in buyers.

    Additionally the publishing industry has gone the way of the film business in that agents are now only interested in representing brands. The old days of an agent or publisher taking the time to develop an author’s voice are as dead as the Dodo bird.

    Yes, as the industry changes, we have to find new innovative ways to move forward and bring potential buyers onto our books. How I’m going to do, I don’t know yet, but I’m giving it a lot of thought.

  6. Cathryn Cade


    Thanks for the great article. As a small business owner with no training in the business end, I always appreciate people like you who explain economics in ways I can grasp.

    IMHO, the infrastructure for change from trad pub is already in place. It’s called Indie Publishing, and includes all the indie writer/publishers who are using the big sales sites to sell our products. We’re contracting out for services to make sure our product is professionally edited, formatted and packaged. We’re joining coops like WindTree Press to get international distribution for our ebooks.

    We’ve learned to compete with trad pubs to the extent that some of the very highest quality popular fiction is coming from indies. Nearly every top sales list includes indie books. So I disagree with another commenter who said self-publishing has ‘lowered the quality’ of books available. I’ve read some poorly written and edited trad pub books too. Yes, there are more of them in the indie ocean, but those are easy to weed out with a quick sample. .

    I think the next wave of change is going to be the growth of the subscription model for delivering stories. So far Amazon is doing so with some degree of success. Altho they’ve driven away many indie authors who don’t like the exclusivity clause, they’ve also managed to draw readers to the service en masse, and away from out-right ebook purchasing. How many other sales sites will move to this model, and how will author/publishers and bookstores react? How will it affect our ability to make a living at our craft?

    As the old curse says, ‘May you live in interesting times!’ We certainly do. But I still believe it’s the best time to be a writer, don’t you?

  7. Ernie Zelinski

    This just sounds very much like an ad for your editing services.

    I am both a traditional and mainly self-published author whose books have sold over 875,000 copies worldwide. I hired an editor who charged $350 and did a much better job than some editors who would charge $2,000 or $3,000 for the same project.

    Also, I have had a cover for one of my books designed for $45 that was as good as one that would have cost $2,500 by cover designers claiming to be more \professional.\ When I showed this $45 cover at one of the sessions at the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, everyone was surprised by how good it is. Incidentally, the cover for my \How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free\ cost me $500 and is much better than many covers that cost $3,000. This ten-year-old self-published book has now sold over 250,000 copies and has made me around $1 million in pretax profits. There is a good chance that it will eventually sell over 500,000 copies given that it had its best year ever in 2014 with over 45,000 copies sold.

    In short, when I hear that statement, \You get what you pay for,\ I say, \B.S.\ Fact is, I can give 50 examples where this is not true. Someday I will post all these examples on one of those blog posts that try to intimidate people into using higher priced services when lower priced services offer just as good quality — and sometimes greater quality!

    Regarding the change happening in the publishing industry, opportunity can’t reward you with its many gifts if you fail to recognize it and act on it. What most people don’t seem to realize is that there is just as much money to be made from the wreckage of a civilization as from the start of a new one. Let the good times roll.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    \Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free\
    Author of the Bestseller \How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free\
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller \The Joy of Not Working\
    (Over 280,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  8. Yoav Lorch

    Gareth –
    Many thanks for your article.
    I admit, rarely have I agreed with an article more. The publishing world is ripe for disruption, and in my biased and humble opinion, I believe I know what this disruption will be.
    Books are made to be read. Publishing a book is a necessary station on the way, not the goal. Neither is selling a book. If we center the industry on ‘reading books’ and not on ‘selling books’ It’s going to look like this:
    — All books always available to all users, no questions asked. Readers have absolute freedom to download any title to their personal devices – at no cost. The question ‘to buy or not to buy’ a book becomes superfluous and ceases to exist.
    — As readers read they are paying for the content that actually engages them, and publishers and authors are being rewarded for their ability to engage those readers.
    In essence its a move to ‘Radical Freedom’ – access any book any time, and ‘Radical Fairness’, payments incurred for actual value received.

    This change will not only increase reading (and revenues), it will instigate the next wave of digital readers. Those that have stayed with printed books because they prefer the format, will move to digital books for the love the freedom, the universal access, and the powerful value proposition.


    A LITTLE facetious? VERY facetious indeed! Click-baiting, straw-man facetious. From an e-book promoter. Nonetheless I will point out the unmentioned obvious. Paper books have NEVER had any equivalent in music or movies or TV. They remain unique, requiring no machine to enjoy. If they did not exist now would be a good time to invent them.

  10. Polina Pekova

    Thanks, Gareth, for voicing the concerns that many of the connected to publishing companies have.
    I believe, we have a good story for you to tell. It is connected with the an absolutle new model of digital distribution. It is a meeting point for publishers and distributors, a platform that connects publishers to the distributors and helps to move the publishers digital content that they do not know how to sell. Basically, even if the publisher is creating digital content they have no tools to sell it widely. This is where Aggregion comes in.

    I’ll be happy to tell you more about it. Please feel free to contact me.

    Best regards,
    Polina Pekova

    Marketing Director

    Mobile: +7 926 311 04 11



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