Last Friday's crop of online discussions of the digital future left me a bit depressed at first, but then things cheered up.
First, I read a Publishing News report of the (UK?) Publishers Association's International Conference. And I would like to say that I was astonished by the stone-age quality of the thinking on offer, but of course I wasn't. I was irritated, saddened, and disappointed. But not surprised. Why? Because negative, out-of-date thinking is what I've come to expect from the UK book business.
Ideas at this conference were being bandied about as if they were new, when actually they've been commonplace on the web for somewhere between two and five years. For example, one speaker says 'The digital revolution is no longer the future. It's here now.' And actually it's been here quite a while.
'Online content has gone from being a niche phenomenon to mainstream.' So you've noticed? At last.
'Publishers should consider the issues now.' Actually it's a bit late.
'The Net means a global market which means thinking beyond traditional boundaries.' Yes it does, but with a few exceptions the people who can do it don't seem to be working in book publishing.
And the whole tone of the conference, judging by the PN report, seems to have been negative. The emphasis was all on control, prevent, limit, avoid. Not on opportunity, leap in, take advantage, grow.
Fortunately the day improved. Because Publishers Lunch pointed out a couple of blog pieces by Michael Hyatt. Now Hyatt, it turns out, is president and CEO of Thomas Nelson publishers, which is the ninth largest publishing company of any kind. So he is in a position to know what he is talking about.
In any event, the gist of Hyatt's argument is that we are just one technological step away from 'a digital publishing tsunami. Consider what happened when Apple launched the iPod in October of 2001. They provided an end-to-end solution that made downloading music easy, portable, and fun. Now, 30-plus million iPods later, iPods are everywhere.'
In his follow-up article (13 December), prompted by some of the comments he received, Hyatt says: 'Yes, traditional books will be available to bibliophiles for the foreseeable future. All I am arguing is that a shift will occur. A big enough slice of the book-reading public will opt for digital delivery and that will have a significant, disruptive effect on the entire industry. Trust me, it won’t take much. This is not an industry awash in profits. A 5-10 percent reduction in sales would wreak havoc. It’s already happening with newspapers and magazines. On the other hand, publishing companies that anticipate this shift and prepare accordingly will prosper. But this must happen now, not after the shift occurs. By then, it will be too late.'
Now that's a bit more like it. Not brilliant. But better.
And by the way, if you're wondering what the CEO of a major company is doing, using his time to write a blog, the answer is that he's doing exactly what he ought to be doing: thinking.
In 1992 I had the pleasure of publishing Thinking about Management, by R.W. Holder, a book which Sir Kenneth Cork described as the best guide to management that he'd ever read. Holder maintains that if a CEO/managing director is busy, he should be sacked.
What a CEO should be doing is wandering around, talking to people, surfing the web, sniffing the air, and generally trying to figure out the best direction to steer his company in so that it doesn't actually go bust. If more bosses did that, publishing might not be the low-profit enterprise that it demonstrably is (see above).