Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Frequently in adventure movies, the heroes find themselves locked in a small room that is rapidly filling with water, or a gas chamber, or [insert-peril-here]. Sometimes in this scenario, one of the characters says something desperate that is along the lines of “Well, what tools do we have?”, and the main character pulls something ridiculous, like a pen knife and gum wrapper, out of his pocket. And then there’s that moment of silence.
Sometimes, I feel like publishers are in that moment of silence. They’re backed up against a wall and they’re all out of tricks. All they have left are the proverbial pen knife and gum wrapper, and there is no way that they are going to be able to continue business as usual unless they start looking at things differently. (Because, darn it, that pen knife and gum wrapper have no choice but to save the day.)
I started thinking about the way we look at things after reading an article earlier this week about the phone company Ericsson. The article speaks at length about the failure of this company because it had sold off its mobile handsets—its direct-to-consumer products. The writer led his audience to assume that Ericsson, with the failure of its cell phone hardware, was a failure as a company.
And I was happy enough to swallow that until I read through the comments at the end of the article, where one person had noted (I paraphrase): “While they may not do handsets, Ericsson has one of the most successful mobile network infrastructures in the world.”
That gave me pause. Because, like most other people reading that article, I was focused on the part of the cell phone industry that directly affects me: the handset. I was completely ignoring the greater bulk of the proverbial iceberg that is the telephone industry.
To some extent, the same thing happens in publishing. We get so distracted by the books and media that companies produce that we forget that the publishing industry is more than just editorial and design. We either ignore or are ignorant of the complex and invisible systems of production, warehousing, distribution, etc., that form the skeleton of a successful, far-reaching publishing company. These arms are the pen knife and gum wrapper in our pockets as we back against the wall saying, “how are we going to get out of this one?”
Smart publishing companies are already jumping on board with this idea. In November 2011, Matty Goldberg, vice president of sales and marketing at Perseus Books, was a guest speaker in a class I was enrolled in. Part of his presentation was talking about the ways that Perseus had leveraged the extra space in their warehouses (an increasing space as ebook sales increase and drive down print runs for new books) to create a new revenue stream for the company: Perseus Distribution.
In fact, when companies like Perseus decide to use their infrastructure as revenue generators, everyone wins. Smaller publishing companies that can’t justify or can’t afford to own their own warehouse space have the option to lease space in a warehouse that was built to deal with books. And the same goes for other aspects of infrastructure. When large companies open these paths for smaller companies to purchase access to, they’re allowing those smaller companies to invest their limited personnel and resources into creating quality final products: the books that we are all passionate about.
So here’s to you, pen knives and gum wrappers of the industry. May you live long and prosper—so that we can benefit from the exciting new books, ideas, and innovations that you help enable.