Trinity University Press

Terra Firma: Trinity University Press blog

Necessity of Disruption

by Tom Payton on

I have a confession: I’m a publishing geek. Many a Saturday night is spent at a coffee shop studying the latest stats on book buying patterns and consumer reading. I consider myself lucky, though; after twenty-six years in the business, I can say I’ve never been more challenged but also excited about the future of books.

I recall my dad’s advice from decades ago, when I was having a moment of teen angst: “Consider yourself lucky if you get what you want in life. Be happy if you get what you want, even if you don’t get it in the ways or in the order you expected.”

That describes much of the book business right now. In other words, from a publisher’s perspective, be careful what you wish for, and know what to do with it when you get it.

It sounds crazy. Be careful what you wish for? Some writers would say that being an author is harder than ever, is in chaos or changing in ways they don’t like.

Every author should ask themselves what they wish for. To be successful? But is success defined as simply getting published, or achieving bestseller status, or in some other way?

I’m interested in the state of the book from three different but related perspectives: the culture of and need for disruption, how we define books today, and our need to focus more on reading and less on books.

You’ve probably heard that we live in an age of disruption. Some don’t know what this means, and others consider it a fad or technology jargon of no relevance to them.

There is change, there is invention, and then there is disruption.

Examples of change in the book business might be the mid-twentieth-century emergence of niche genres like romance or science fiction or chain stores’ impact on the shifting retail model in the 1990s. Examples of invention might be improved printing technology enabling great expansion of the business, the creation of Amazon built on new online capabilities, or the reemergence of ebooks in 2009.

Disruption turns things upside down or inside out, realigning traditional ways of doing things. Sometimes disruption is born of necessity or even survival, and at other times it’s born of perceived opportunity, leading to expansion of profit, audience size, and meaningful engagement, interaction, and even social change.

We need disruption in the book business now more than ever. In some small ways it has already begun, but just barely.

Disruption is ubiquitous in our economic, social, and cultural life, even when we don’t see it. Businesses, industries, and cultural organizations are facing revolutionary changes in how they do what they do, and they face great opportunity if they’re smart about how they do it.

All of this, of course, is rooted in the ways our lives have become digitally driven. I’m not talking about the latest app or website. Disruption runs far deeper.

A core social disruption has been a fundamental shift in how we’re influenced to discover, consume, and engage with the world. This trend has been unfolding for decades, but the spark of digital technology ignited it.

Relative to books, it has become clear that the traditional newspaper, magazine, radio, or television coverage that used to sell books really does not anymore—especially the traditional book review. I’m sorry to say this.

The idea of the critic as authority simply does not carry the same weight with the consumers today. We’re past the tipping point in the social shift to influence based on social interaction. It permeates everything from what shampoo we use to what we do, or read, for entertainment. The disregard for traditional authority can especially be seen in the political arena.

The digital age has fueled a renewed drive to connect with one another, removing “middlemen” when possible—or so it seems, though their profitable presence is still there. While social media and marketing models may aid us in meeting face-to-face, they have also created virtual relationships and communities that many dismiss as “less than.” I believe otherwise.

Consider a few examples of obvious, large yet individually scaled disruptions:

Social media. Facebook has more than a billion users and $17 billion in revenue. It, and others like Instagram and Snapchat, have changed how we interact, share, market, and impact social change. When successfully employed, Facebook has become an extremely effective marketing platform for books and authors. In a major study of so-called “power readers,” 89 percent reported learning of their “next read” via social media—not the newspaper or radio but what their friends told them to read.

Crowdsourcing. The fundraising world is being reshaped by crowdsourcing, which has grown exponentially to represent more than $5 billion a year in the United States and has unleashed the power for each of us to fundraise by appealing more efficiently to large networks of friends and colleagues while allowing small donations to add up to major impact.

Ridesharing. Today the ridesharing concept, which did not exist four years ago, represents more than $2 billion of the local individual transportation economy, with Uber and Lyft together claiming more drivers than the entire taxi industry.

Lodging. Now eight years old, Airbnb lists more than 1.5 million private home lodgings in 34,000 cities, posting $1 billion in revenue last year. It’s just one of many players jumping into this new lodging model.

Online retail. One of the original disruptors in a new 1990s Internet age, eBay showed us that selling peer-to-peer was destined to become a core part of the consumer-empowered economy. Hitting a peak $16 billion in revenue, eBay is down to $8 billion today amid explosive growth in alternative peer-to-peer online retail, including Amazon.

None of this is to suggest that peer-to-peer is new. We’re social creatures and have been renting rooms, offering rides, and swapping book recommendations forever. But the technology has enabled the formulation of those social experiences into business models with both a substantive and superficial sense of authenticity, attracting unprecedented business growth, capital investment, and profit.

Of course, most business models operate on relatively thin margins, usually less than 10 percent. Impact that business in an ongoing way and you threaten established business models and perhaps an entire industry. This is why brick-and-mortar retail, hotel, taxi, journalism, music, and other industries are powerfully impacted, facing major reinvestment and structural change in order to survive. And established industries are resistant and slow to change—just look at the book business.

Four core by-products of this seismic disruption are here to stay and directly relevant to what we love—books.

The social element. The digital age has given us tools of great scale and reach at minimal cost. It should be no surprise that people like the way it feels, and even feel energized by it. And this social element is what books are all about. We can embrace it and even redefine it.

An age of consumer empowerment. The digital age has produced a consumer culture with more product options and competitive pricing, and people are beginning to recognize their power. Consumer reading and consumption patterns will drive our industry in ways that undermine our traditional business models, but it doesn’t have to be that way for those on the publisher side of the equation.

An expanded sense of community. The data-driven age has given us the opportunity to identify, analyze, and build relationships directly with readers. Companies at every scale, including book publishers, are refocusing their marketing departments on building in-person and online communities with specialized niche strategies for direct engagement and reader retention.

A redefinition of authenticity of experience. The digital age has, oddly, created new models for sharing meaningful experiences. For books and authors, this means authors must engage socially beyond what might normally be considered marketing and must create supplemental content to give readers a broader experience and sense of relationship.


It’s worthwhile to ask what a book is in the minds of many readers today.

Clearly the book’s fundamental element is the written word, which is critical to recording our history, teaching, telling stories, documenting how to live, and celebrating and entertaining. But that does not preclude changes in the product—the book—as well as its marketing and how we define reader engagement.

Some describe a book in experiential terms—an immersive reading experience with a beginning and end. Is it a book because of a certain editorial style, written structure, or word count? Others describe a book in terms of packaging—printed on paper, bound between boards, made available or distributed in certain ways. But if packaging defines a book, are ebooks not books?

One could argue that the earliest written cave communications or glyphed transcriptions on papyrus rolls were books. Medieval times saw books as manuscripts hand-copied by monks, with a literate population of less than 1 percent. The Gutenberg press and movable type quickly advanced mechanical production of books in the premodern era, fueling literacy rates of 30 to 40 percent. Our modern age has driven mass production, book distribution, and world literacy rates of 70 to 99 percent.

As book people, what we’re about at our core is the written word, not books per se.

At a presentation I recently attended, the speaker argued that the evolutionary stages of the written word are the creation of writing itself, the mechanization of writing or invention of movable type, and the digitization of writing, or hypertext. Each stage is essentially disruption on a massive scale, radically changing the product, the user experience, and the social impact.

Consider the following.

  • There was a time when publishers controlled which books were published. Today the economics of short-run print-on-demand and other digital solutions make many options viable.

  • The once dominant big publishers now produce a shrinking fraction of what is sold, about 35 percent of books published. Self-publishing, in turn, has grown to 20 percent of the overall market, a majority of which is ebooks. There are so many business models and pathways to publishing today that market access is no longer a barrier.

  • After a brief appearance in the late 1990s, the ebook came back strong a decade later, and today it represents about 30 percent of the overall market, ranging from 20 percent for some genres (such as academic books) to 50 percent for fiction and more than 80 percent in other genres. Despite these market shares, big publishers control just 20 percent of the ebook market. Ultra-small press and self-publishing defines much of the remainder.

  • There was a time when almost all books were sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Today about 40 percent of books are bought in bookstores and 41 percent are bought online.

  • There was a time when the number of books published was quite limited, and access to them through bookstores was even more limited. Today more than 1 million books are published annually in the United States and Google reports more than 129 million books published overall.

  • There was a time when books did not fully represent the cultural diversity of the human experience. Though improvement is still needed, today the range of the human experience is documented and more widely available.

This is all revolutionary and recent change.

Some still ask if book sales are down. This begs honest assessment.

  • Gross book unit sales in general are down slightly but far less than much of the general public believes them to be—down overall by 30 percent, higher in some genres.

  • Gross book dollar sales and profit margins have been more seriously impacted given demand for lower consumer price pressures, high book component (paper) costs, and a culture of retail discounting as the norm.

  • Ebook sales, around 30 percent of the market, conceivably make up for some loss in print, but the differences in product economics and profit margins drive lower net dollar volume.

Are print books better than digital, publishers and authors ask. Should books be bought in brick-and-mortar stores or online? Which genres are most worthy of attention?

If we’re honest, the debate is a waste of time and resources. We’re ignoring more concerning trends and avoiding decisions about strategies in our immediate best interests—both writers and publishers.

What we do depends on a literate and engaged reading public, but there are realities about our reading culture that we do not honestly embrace, potentially at our own demise. For example,

  • the population overall is reading fewer books

  • almost one-third of the population does not read one book in a year, up from less than 10 percent over the past three decades

  • we read less immersively, and the time we spend reading books has decreased 20 percent over the past fifteen years to less than twenty minutes a day on average

  • reading is increasingly defined by income and education level

Let’s take a moment to dispel some myths and share some highlights.

  • The number of books read annually by those labeled millennial curiously read on average the same number of books a year today (9) as they did prior to the age of digital distraction. 80 percent of millennials report reading books in the last year, higher than the overall population.

  • 72 percent of the general population reads books, but only 20 percent are so-called power readers who read at least one book a month.

  • Those in suburban areas read slightly fewer books a year (11) than those in urban and rural areas (13 and 14 respectively).

  • African Americans and whites read the same number of books a year on average; Hispanics lag by approximately 40 percent.

  • Gender continues to be a defining issue in book sales and reading, with 77 percent of women and 67 percent of men reading books; men read ebooks at a higher than expected rate, likely due to the privacy this offers.

I started off by saying be careful what you wish for.

Perhaps we publishers and authors are our own worst enemy, asking the wrong questions, maybe even publishing the wrong way. People read differently today, and that will not change. They discover what to read in ways that do not align with how publishers spend time and money marketing, and that will not change. They move from print to screen and back again, and that will not change.

Why are publishers wed to a limited plate of retail and distribution models, with minute geographic availability? Is our failure to provide a more meaningful experience beyond the book, to expand our audience and market, to transform how we help customers find our books—part of the problem?

We say that the pie of readership is limited, that we’re stuck fighting over larger and smaller pieces of that pie. We complain that there is no data to tell us which marketing strategies drive book sales.

But in a digital age we can access the data to know our customers and build relationships with them. We’re able to sell direct and control our own retail, format, and pricing. We can craft targeted campaigns to build communities around our editorial niches or author “brands.” I could go on. My point is the readership pie is capable of growing.

Our industry needs disruption!

Despite corporate attempts to control the Internet, this is an age of digital democratization. Our goal should be to ensure that people engage with what we write and publish. If we’re sincere in that, once the writing is done our job is to make sure the work is available whenever readers want it, wherever they are, however they want to read it. (Yes, all while addressing issues of intellectual property protection and piracy.) This means being better students of where readers hang out and how to find them.

At our core, we are in the word business—that is, the written word business. Ultimately, how the text is edited, crafted, published, packaged, priced, and promoted may matter to us, but much of that is no longer under our control or doesn’t matter to consumers. We must be package, platform, publicity, and sales agnostic.

If people read, books will be fine. If people are reading less, then no discussion we can have will fundamentally “save” books.

We all need to begin a fundamentally disruptive discussion about how to rejuvenate a reading culture. We need to redirect much of our energy toward expanding reading and literacy. That is the true critical challenge.

If we can disrupt in these areas, books—however they are defined and whoever defines them—will be just fine.

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