e-Books: Another Innovation Diffusion Problem

Regular readers of this blog have probably realised that I read a fair number of books. The good news for book publishers is that I buy nearly all of these books (and the others are either legally free, or from the library). The interesting news for book publishers is that the format I use is changing.

I’m reading a lot more on my iPad. I still prefer real books for things I use in my research – they just fit with my workflow better. But for things that I just read straight through from start to finish, e-books are great.

I’m not too unusual here either. Check out the great series from Findings called How We Will Read. Reading is changing, and books are changing. And it’s not really one driving the other – they’re co-evolving.

Which leads to an important question: where does this leave publishers?

One way or another, they need to adapt to e-books. However, they are having innovation diffusion curve problems, just like Kodak. Frédéric Filloux shows why in an interesting post on e-books:

I’m an ebook convert. … This leads to this thought about the coming ebook disruption: We’ve seen nothing yet. Eighteen months ago, I was asked to run an ebooks roundtable for the Forum d’Avignon (an ultra-elitist cultural gathering judiciously set in the Palais des Papes). Preparing for the event, I visited most of the French publishers and came to realize how blind they were to the looming earthquake. They viewed their ability to line-up great authors as a seawall against the digital tsunami. In their minds, they might, at some point, have to make a deal with Amazon or Apple in order to channel digital distribution of their oeuvres to geeks like me. But the bulk of their production would sagely remain stacked on bookstores shelves. Too many publishing industry professionals still hope for a soft transition.

You can see this diagram in Filloux’s post. eBooks have actually been around for quite a while now, and there has been quite a bit of hype about them. The hype leads people to expect their adoption curve to look like curve A.

But no innovations diffuse like curve A. They follow an S-Curve. And the time it takes to get to the tipping point is much longer than we expect.

The length of time X lulls incumbents into a false sense of security. They start to believe that the disruptive innovation will diffuse along curve C (I think Jonathan Franzen is probably the only person left who thinks that e-books are a fad that will follow curve B).

This appears to be exactly how Filloux’s publishers are thinking.

The result of this is that if you believe that the transition will be slow, you will not experiment enough. To the publishers, this makes good financial sense. Why imperil revenue from physical books if you have time to manage the transition in an orderly manner?

The problem here is that we need publishers, so it doesn’t do booklovers much good if they put themselves out of business. The excellent author Cat Valente explains all of the services that publishers provide to authors. Importantly, this defense of publishing comes from an author who has actually run a couple of very successful digital experiments – she’s no luddite.

Craig Mod has written a must-read essay on the future of books. He says:

In reality, the book worth considering consists only of relationships. Relationships between ideas and recipients. Between writer and reader. Between readers and other readers — all as writ over time.

For those of us looking to shape the future of books and publishing, where do we begin? Simply, these are our truths:

The way books are written has changed.
The canvas for books has changed.
The post-published life of a book has changed.

To think about the future of the book is to understand the links between these changes. To think about the future of the book is to think about the future of all content. So intertwined are our words and images and platforms, that to consider individual parts of the publishing process in isolation is to miss transformative connections.

For me, this gets at the critical issue here. The publishers that Filloux interviewed are thinking of books as physical things. But they are not. As Mod says, they are connections between ideas.

Thinking about them this way gives some guidance on how to proceed. The primary point of a book has always been to connect people with ideas. Digital distribution gives us opportunities to do this in new ways.

One of the critical roles of publishers has always been filtering. If you break down the publishing value chain, this is where a huge amount of value is created. We can’t read everything. We can’t even read the merest scintilla of everything.

So we must filter.

This is why it is critical to think about aggregating, filtering and connecting as key parts of your business model. These are the things that publishers need to focus on. If they can continue to provide these services, then they will stick around.

The thing that concerns me is that they’re not doing this, and they’re not experimenting. That leaves it to the authors, if they’re motivated to try new things like Valente has. Or it leaves it to the smaller players in the market, like O’Reilly – who are experimenting like crazy.

If you misunderstand the nature of the innovation diffusion curve, you will not respond to changes in time. We saw it with Kodak, and we might be seeing it now with book publishers.

The publishers have to get it figured out, though, because one way or another, I need to keep getting my book fix!

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “e-Books: Another Innovation Diffusion Problem

  1. Having an tendency to always be looking to what might happen just beyond what will happen next (unfortunately often at the expense of having little focus on the here and now), I wonder about what disruptive technologies might revolutionise the E-book.

    Just as E-books themselves have disrupted traditional publishing, perhaps something will come along soon that will upset the S-curve….