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Why It's Both Easier And Harder to Be in the Book Business
Yesterday, Seth Godin announced that the Domino Project had released its last hardcover.
An understated point within the post was: "The ebook is a change agent like none the book business has ever seen."
As you may recall, I've been on a book-writing journey for a good while now. In my last post on the subject, I wrote about how we're crazy about books and confused about ebooks. I believe Seth means what I call kindlebooks as opposed to the pretty PDF "ebooks" that are popular in online business sites, but the point for our purposes here still stands.
While the disruption in the book publishing industry is but a part of a larger trend, it's particularly fascinating as a case study on its own. Given our long-standing craziness about books, any major disruption around books shows a significant shift in perceptions, expectations, and value that's causing a lot of tension. As I wrote in The Ecology of Ideas the tension is who shares ideas, how they share them, and how we determine what’s worth keeping and what isn’t.
The legacy of Gutenberg transcended the creation of books precisely because it shifted who was allowed to create what in the sacred artifact of a book. In short, it opened up the floodgates for a whole new breed of change agents. But it was limited because the means of mass producing books was necessarily bound by the huge amount of space, money, and effort it takes to produce books en masse. Before Gutenberg, the church or state owned the process of change via books; after Gutenberg, it shifted to the mass capitalists who owned the presses that published books.
This new disruption changes that once again. No longer do you need a physical press and its related industry ecology to get involved in the process of change via books. While the technology around ebooks is in its infancy, the social experience and acceptance is also in its infancy. Again, from the "Ecology of Ideas": technological change precedes social change.
The pain from this disruption is that we'll see more and more "books" published ever faster; as highlighted in Here Comes Everybody, we'll experience much more mediocrity at the same time that we'll see more truly breakthrough ideas. That's only a piece of the discomfort for creators and change agents, though.
Creators and change agents now face considerably more options about how to ship their ideas. Whereas it used to be just books, then was books and magazines, then was books, magazines, and blogs, now it's books, magazines, blogs, ebooks, webinars, and a whole host of options that would stretch this already long sentence into its own post.
Not only does the medium change the message, but the medium changes the marketing, as well. The people interested in a webinar about an idea have a different psychography than the people browsing a bookstore with that same idea on their mind, even when it's the same person. A change in medium precipitates a change in expectations. (Consider the shift from physical musical media to digital musical media.)
At the same time that it's easier to get involved in change via books, it's harder to thrive in the environment. The barrier to entry is low; the barrier to success is astronomically higher. As the barrier to entry gets lower every day, the barrier to success gets higher at what's probably an exponential rate due to a combination of network effects and scarcity of attention.
As hard as it might be to get a grip on what's really going on now, it's even harder to know where this is all going. It took a while for the dust to settle after Gutenberg enough for people to make sense of it; those were simpler times with people with a much broader view than we often make the space for. It would be hubris to think we know better given the global and accelerated nature of such changes.
It's going to continue to be a bumpy ride. Whether you buckle up during this rebirth in entrepreneurialism is up to you.