Sunday, 25 April 2010

Once upon a time in a time and space far distant from our own, I used to work for 3M, a company famed far and wide for its innovation.

Inside 3M we were far less convinced of 3M's innovative capabilities than seemingly those who had read the publicity, but it was clear that 3M in its first 75 years had been ground-breaking, commercialising one landmark innovation after the other in a relentless, if never smooth, sequence.

The insight that 3M had from around 1920 was that all landmark innovation is not a risk, but a gamble. The chances of success cannot be calculated. However, there is a formula which 3M used. Identify a whole bunch of crazies, fire them up, tell them to break every rule, and taunt them with the idea that their obsessively cherished baby of an invention will never, ever be born unless they go through hell and back again.

That really gets the manic juices going.

The truth is, though, that while a small-to-medium sized company can handle a bunch of out-and-out whackos, it is untenable for a massive mega-corporation to do the same with 70,000 employees, which is why those sorts of companies nearly always buy in landmark innovations from elsewhere.

So, the old 3M innovation model was:

1. Darwinian - send a thousand baby turtles scurrying for the sea - some will evade the swooping skewers and grow to become big, fat turtles

2. the future and the success of any one project are unknowable, but you have to take a position regardless

I believe that this is the only way for any company to become truly innovative - to be 'the house' in gambling terms, to encourage thousands of punters to place their bets and to be assured that overall you will win, without knowing which individual gamblers will win or lose against you.

At the moment, the whole of the publishing industry is a roulette wheel which can fudamentally pay out on odd or even numbers.

The 'odd' will be that it follows the 'paper market paradigm'. Since the 1970s, everybody has been foretelling the collapse of the paper industry in that it should by all logic be virtually replaced by digitisation and yet, every year up to the last time I looked, the paper market grew in overall size. Far from depressing the demand for paper, digitisation has actually accelerated it.

According to the 'odd' scenario, therefore, paperbacks are here to stay and may become even more popular overall.

The 'even' paradigm is that of audio / video / photography whereby despite all the fond assurances of many experts that analogue musical tones were 'warmer' than cold digitital ones, that digital images were less nuanced than photographic ones, and that we all yearned to hold a photograph in our hands and onscreen viewing just wouldn't wash, the original vinyl, VHS and photographic paper markets have tumbled in the face of CDs, DVDs and digital photography.

According to the 'even' scenario, in 3-5 years' time e-tablets in combination with portable computing systems will rule the world (and may even merge), and bookshops will be but a nice place to drink coffee and to try to remember what paperbacks used to look like.

While the experts are hesitating between these two positions, declaring it is all too early to be sure which of the odd and even scenarios will play out, commercial operators have to place their bets.

And three little-known niche market players already have - Amazon, Google and Apple.

You may not have heard of these three, but you will one day.

All three have definitively decided that the paperback is fundamentally dead. Google has been digitising books for years, Apple now has the iPad which is a serious e-tablet platform, and Amazon is hailing every passerby to persuade him or her to invest in a Kindle.

My guess is that if these three digital giants are determined to make this revolution happen, the heads of the ancien regime will surely roll.

The big enticement here is not the digitisation of the erstwhile paperwork in the humble written word. That is merely the first step. The biggie is multi-media publishing.

Within a very short period, books will read, sing and dance - and it is tough to do all that in paperback.

Take bird books as I was discussing them with my twitcher brother-in-law Steve the other day. Currently you have a bird watcher's book whereby you have beautifully rendered plates of a bird in a limited number of static positions with some sage words to describe how wonderful it is. Happily, the real bird doesn't have such a limited repertoire and the vast majority of them have been known to fly, and to sing. Indeed, real ornithologists rely on a bird's call more than on its visual appearance to identify its presence. So, the ideal book for a serious bird watcher is not in any paper form that exists today, but a digital book which blends static shots, words, the moving image, sound and links to further sources of information or even live webcams - watch the birds on XYZ wetland now! Given developments in intelligent CCTV technology, that could save pampered bird watchers from suffering some very cold days in the field and take the more enterprising ones around the world in seconds at the flick of a switch, or less. Oh, and by the way, a tip from Steve - expert bird watchers are only interested in brown birds. Don't embarrass yourself by declaring loudly "Oh look at the astonishing plumage on that one" while the anorak at your side is thinking "Tart!".

All this is but a mere preamble to where Bruce Essar and I are taking Night Reading / Publishing. Bruce is infallible even if I am not, but our gamblers' bet is that the digitisation of books is the only likely future and that bookshops will become literary-chic caf├ęs anytime soon. When that happens, the classic book marketing strategy of pouring money into the hands of bookshops to muscle in on their window displays and instore facings will be over. The only way forward will be to market books via social network media and book review bloggers.

So that is where we are headed and, in that vein, we are pleased to announce that all our future books will appear on the three key publishing platforms - paperback (initially via Amazon's CreateSpace), e-tablets (Amazon's Kindle / iPad / the Sony eReader) and e-books (Smashwords). Fortunately, all three platforms are relatively painless to access.

We have also nearly completed loading our backlog onto these platforms as well. To take a look, click on the magic words here:

'Get Some', by Daniel Birch - CreateSpace - Kindle - Smashwords
'Missio', by Tim Roux - CreateSpace - Kindle - Smashwords
'Buenos Aires: a train ride over the rainbow', by Paul Perry - CreateSpace - Kindle - Smashwords
'.... at last!', various - CreateSpace - Kindle - Smashwords

Stephen Sangirardi's runaway 'Monday Afternoon' is next.


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