Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Disruptive crap

That isn’t to say that they will exit the book market or the content industry, just that they will migrate towards higher margin businesses such as publishing services and more wide-ranging content development.

In other words, stop publishing.

This development won’t be caused by Amazon’s bullying or Apple’s egomania, not directly. The primary driver of big publishing’s eventual demise is that their competitors are willing to sell their products for much lower prices.

It’s not Amazon that’s driving prices down, if it were, they wouldn’t limit their 70% royalty rate to ebooks priced over $2.99.

Now, one of the big counterarguments is that these micropublishers can’t take over the market because they publish crap.

Their books look bland; don’t come even close to the typography and design of big publishing’s print books.

Their covers are often atrocious; no investment in the often magnificent covers that decorate the print industry’s output.

Their books aren’t edited; stories that waffle on, sentences with odd punctuation, a quirky interpretation of grammar.

Their research is non-existent; historical texts full of anachronisms, both in language and in setting.

In comparison, big publishing’s primary output, printed books, look like the over-engineered, angular, supermodels that dominate the fashion industry: A benchmark for artificial beauty.

What people don’t realise is that no sane person wants to date a supermodel. The ebook innovators, compared to the industry’s traditional output, publish crap and that’s why they will win in the long run.

The big publishing houses see these books as too rubbish to be publishable ant that’s why they will lose win in the long run.


Most of my ideas here are based on Clayton Christensen’s theories on disruptive innovations.

A good overview of his ideas can be found here: Understanding How The Innovator’s Dilemma Affects You.

Clayton Christensen outlines some of the process himself here: The Innovator’s Battle Plan.

This 110 minute lecture is one of the best crash courses in his ideas I’ve found: Capturing the Upside.

The Theory

My present theory on the publishing industry is this: Big publishers have overshot the quality requirements of most fiction readers.

This overshoot is the fundamental cause of the disruptors’s ability to undercut big publishing in price.

The quality overshoot is, as I see it, twofold:

  • The print format dramatically exceeds the reader’s needs in terms of design, typography, durability, and resolution.
  • The publishing process dramatically exceeds the reader’s needs in terms of book length, attention to linguistic detail, and editorial micro-management.

Furthermore, the split process of delivering both a printed book and an ebook from the same source material compromises the publisher’s quality control on issues that the reader does care about: Formatting, readability, and not omitting major parts of the text. (All issues that frequently dogged major ebook releases in 2011.)

The format overshoot

Delivering a book to that fulfils the aesthetic standards set by big publishers is expensive.

These books are laid out in Indesign, a nightmarishly expensive piece of software to begin with, by designers who often pore over every letter in every word in every sentence on every page to make sure that the text is just right.

The typographic detail that Indesign and a printed book are capable of delivering is generations ahead of anything the web can make, let alone ebooks who steadily remain a few years behind the web in design capabilities.

This is also detail that most fiction readers don’t care about at all. Most of them are satisfied as long as the choice of typeface doesn’t alienate them. A decent embedded font and good XHTML/CSS templates for the book’s contents and you will have exceeded the requirements of every buyer you are capable of reaching. (‘Capable of reaching’ is a key phrase here. Make note of it because I won’t explain it.)

Covers are the printed book’s public face. A cover sells a book, identifies it, burns it into memory, promotes it—a printed book lives or dies by its cover.

Ebook covers are icons. They are multi-resolution signifiers that need to serve as symbolic proxies for the book in various contexts. An ebook reader rarely sees the cover fullscreen; it exists almost solely as an organisational thumbnail in searches and app interfaces. An ebook cover fulfils a different purpose and relies on different disciplines than a print cover. An ebook is badly served by repurposing the print cover.

Most printed books last much too long as objects. Of course, I want my favourite translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to last several lifetimes so that it can be handed down for generations, but most fiction writers don’t – as we say in Iceland – even reach Dante’s heels with their toes2 when it comes to writing. A crime yarn is, after you’ve read it a couple of times, clutter.

Most avid readers have piles and piles of books that are just in the way once read. The space saving aspect of ebooks is, for many, a big selling point. The smaller the average flat and the more often people move, the bigger a point it is. (I don’t think, for example, many Americans appreciate how much smaller living spaces are on average here in the UK.)

The quality overshoot

The print publishing process has resulted in a very standardised, almost uniform, cultural artefact. The mainstream book is 350-500 pages long, often structurally micro-managed, and polished to an artificial standard of grammar and syntax,

This grammar, pushed by the publishing industry and bildungsphilister, is an artificial construct. The english language is a wilder beast than that. Just because you dislike another person’s use of language, it doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be an arsehole about it.

(See “Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings About Language” for a good starter on the subject. And, no, I’m not saying that bad writing is fine. I’m saying that polishing everything to fit the standardised grammar of the publishing industry is very expensive.)

Not only do most readers have laxer ‘standards’ on grammar than your average line editor, but they are also often disproportionally receptive to seeing their own language styles used in the texts they read.

In other words, don’t polish the charm away.

The uniform length is the clearest example of how big publishing has left a large market unaddressed. (One of the early things that romance publishers did, once they got into ebooks, was to offer a variety of book lengths because they realised that sometimes you want a story that will only last an hour.)

The structural micromanagement is admittedly my pet peeve, because that level of structural obsession isn’t backed by any of the psychological research that has been done into enjoyment and pleasure.3 It simply isn’t an effective way of affecting people emotionally or intellectually. A textbook example of diminishing returns.

The undershoot

The disruptors, self-publishers and micropublishers, still manage to undershoot the reader’s requirements on a regular basis.

They are getting better. A network of services has built up around them: editorial, cover design, proofreading, formatting.

They build up the quality controls they can, around the low prices they have settled on. Over time there will be consolidations of one sort or another, and bigger publishers will grow out of the vibrant mulch that dominates the lower price points of the ebook market.

But, their margins will never be as big as that of our current big publishers.

Which brings us to the big publisher’s dilemma:

  • They can’t compete on price because they’d have to decimate their own companies to manage it and they’d have to deliver a product that their every instinct tells them is utter rubbish.

  • They can’t compete on quality because, even though they presently dominate in terms of revenue, the new entrants are steadily taking over in terms of unit sales. The reader doesn’t care that much about the quality a big publisher can deliver.

Their only solution is to get out of publishing, get into services, multi-faceted ‘content’ development, and licensing. It’s the only way they can maintain their margins and continue to deliver value to their shareholders.

Publishers are going to have to stop publishing, because crap is too disruptive.

  1. In reverse-chronological order: A few future sources of ebook innovation, Futurebook 2011 Impressions: New publisher business models, The publishing animal, What a publisher does, Convert or engage, Hypotheses and testing, On quality in publishing, and Identifying publishing innovators. ↩

  2. Að komast ekki með tærnar þar sem að annar hefur hælana. It’s an Icelandic idiom that roughly translates as not reaching with your toes where somebody else has his heels. It’s a way of saying that somebody else is far ahead of you. ↩

  3. Some of the basic theories on emotions, off the top of my head: The Peak-End theory. The Gottman ratio and here. Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow. There’s also the two-factor theory of emotion, but that one’s probably not relevant to publishing. ↩

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