On the Subject of Special Snowflakes

Aug 4, 2012 | Opinions

Recent news has lead me to believe that there is something very odd going on in the halls of the major publishers. I think there’s a psychology aspect to their business that hasn’t been explored all that well up to this point – that of industry exceptionalism, or the idea that publishing, in and of itself, is deserving of special treatment when it comes to the online world.

I got thinking about this mostly as a result of reading various articles about the price-fixing scandal still in the works. I had to ask – why did the publishing industry think this was justified? They must have known it was illegal.

In the Beginning…

Let’s jump back a bit. The printing press was invented in 1440. Scribes have been around for much longer, obviously. Publishers have been around for at least as long as the press, meaning you’re talking about an industry that’s (a) responsible for a big chunk of human history, and (b) hundreds of years old, minimum. Compare this to the movie, music and TV industries, which are barely pushing a hundred years.

Are they right to think of themselves as being exceptional? As being too vital to allow their business to be ruined by the Internet? Possibly. Unfortunately for them, the Internet doesn’t really care.

Special Snowflake Meets Flamethrower

The lists of failed companies are littered with the corpses of those who thought that they were special, that the Internet couldn’t touch them. Kodak comes to mind immediately, as well as the various record labels who didn’t survive and had to be absorbed by the larger corporation-backed ones. The digital world is not kind, in that respect.

The record labels are actually a case in point. As Techdirt is so fond of pointing out, the record labels were not in the business of selling music – they were in the business of selling plastic discs. Their whole money-making model revolved around the sale of discs that just happened to have music on them, and they got away with it because there was no other real way to get the music apart from buying the plastic disc. The Internet, of course, makes that whole aspect of their operation completely irrelevant – people can get the music as a stream of data, no matter how hard the labels try to stop them. Apple dragged them kicking and screaming into the digital world – otherwise, the labels would have stagnated and continued to deny reality.

Book publishers are not in the business of selling literature. They’re in the business of selling books – physical, paper books. They’re not concerned about the contents of said books as long as they sell; hence why they’re happy to sign contracts for a biography of Justin Bieber (age 16 at the time). They get away with it, again, because for hundreds of years there was no other convenient way of delivering a story or information to a large audience. And again, the Internet makes it completely irrelevant; people can access facts and information for free, shared by other people in other parts of the world, and they can read stories delivered directly from the author. What’s worse, the people who normally sell their work to publishers can make more money and develop their career without any input at all from them.

The problem in both cases is the same. The industry was not orientated around what they were selling. They were orientated around the method of selling it, such that the method eclipsed everything else. No small wonder, then, that their whole business is threatened by a new, more efficient method of selling… and it’s a shame that the publishers still struggle against this instead of taking advantage of it.

There really isn’t any way out. The Internet will not disappear. Amazon will not disappear. As long as authors can get a better deal elsewhere, and the tools to self-publish are becoming more and more simplified, then publishers will be in danger of simply dying a slow death for a lack of relevancy. Movies, TV and music take a certain level of skill and investment to pull off well. They have costs that are a barrier to entry for some. Books have no such restriction; anyone can write and publish, for better or worse. While the other content industries can maintain their relevancy simply because they can afford those initial costs and invest in new technology, the traditional publishing industry has no such advantage.

Business does not respect tradition. It certainly doesn’t respect those who try to hold back the marketplace for selfish reasons. I fear that the big publishers thought themselves special enough to break the law in order to maintain the status quo in their favor – but I also know that, in the long run, it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference. The Internet is a great leveler – and it’s also a great flamethrower when it comes to special snowflakes.