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

Identifying publishing innovators

Some thoughts on publishing innovation, largely based on Clayton Christensen’s writing on innovation in the tech industry and personally informed by being a part of the software industry.

Raw notes. Shitty first draft. Etc. You have been warned.

Part of my effort to find my path forward, both in my personal life and in my career, I’ve spent some time thinking about what an innovative publisher would look like. Identifying some characteristics of an innovative publisher is a first step, a thought exercise to try and create a conceptual image of something that I don’t believe exists yet.

And if this mythical beast does roam in the wild, publishing a description is probably the best way to have it pointed out to you.

As such, these notes, random as they are, lean heavily on Clayton Christensen’s writing on innovation, specifically on his notion that the innovator is targeting a group of customers that have been overshot by the incumbents.

The idea is as follows: The incumbents, through years of development and quality control, have built up a set of processes and products. The innovator undershoots the incumbent by targeting an undesirable (to the incumbent) audience (to cheap or not interested in the incumbent’s over-engineered product) or is believed to be non-existent (nobody’ll buy that or tolerate it). The innovators develop newer processes, new distribution channels and new products that target this product segment and then builds upwards, growing market share. By the time the incumbents see what is happening they cannot respond and often don’t want to — a common reaction is to cede market share and flee to a higher margin segment.

The publishing industry is being transformed as we speak, but I don’t think we have any true innovators yet.

The incumbents are following the incumbent playbook to the letter. Their attempts at entering the ebook markets consists solely of integrating ebook technology into their already over-engineered, over-costly product development processes, and the few times they put any unique effort into their ebook developments they go straight for the high-margin, high-perceived value ‘enhanced’ and ‘expanded’ market.

If this is the incumbent playbook, what would the innovator’s look like?

Publish first, correct later

In a world where both the Kindle and Apple’s iBooks allow the reader to re-download an ebook, the innovator avoids hiring copy editors or proof readers, instead relying on a small group of beta testers/readers. Whatever errors and mistakes that slip past the beta readers are corrected when found or pointed out and the ebook re-uploaded.

Unlike the incumbent’s the innovator’s ebook is likely to be published with more errors. Unlike the incumbent’s the innovator’s ebook will be corrected throughout its available lifetime and the corrections will almost entirely just be those the ebook’s audience values, while the incumbent strives to do, beforehand, all of the corrections the audience is perceived to value. The innovator promises updates and follows through on those updates. They include a notice and a link in the ebook that gives the reader the opportunity to subscribe to e-mail notices of when the book is updated (even if they then go to the Kindle or iBook to do the actual update).

Over the lifetime of the ebook, the one published by the innovator will be a closer match to the quality expectations of the innovator’s market segment while the incumbent’s will overshoot the expectations of most of their market segment while still failing to meet the demands of the high-margin, high-revenue audience it is trying to flee towards.

Digital only

At the margins and prices the innovator targets print publishing is simply not an option except in special edge cases. The dual-track process of developing a book for both print and e- will not only be seen as unfeasible by the innovator but as border-line insane and the idea met with the same kind of incredulity as a suggestion to a hamburger stand owner that he should expand into serve Kobi Sirloin Steaks alongside their cheap, greasy, post-pub-crawl-special heart-attack hamburgers.

The innovator only does print as a special edge case and doesn’t develop any in house processes or overhead to manage its development. This enables the innovator to keep prices low.

Low, low prices

The prices set by the innovator are so low, the incumbent fervently believes that they are either sold at a loss or subsidised by some other revenue source. The incumbent simply does not believe that an acceptable product can be made for that prices with any process. The low prices, enabled by simpler, fewer processes, enables the innovator to reach a market segment despised by the incumbents as either too stingy or too greedy. The incumbent is likely to believe that catering to this market is not only unfeasible but threatens to destroy the viability of the entire industry (because they don’t believe it can be addressed sustainably). They don’t see the innovators as competitors but as saboteurs, huns at the gates, barbarians, savages without reason or sense.

Template-driven designs

Innovators will embrace the path taken by the web industries and base their entire work-flow on template-driven web technologies. Rather than giving each book a custom design, each line of books has a programmatic design template. Some innovators will base their entire publishing pipelines on the epub export output from Apple Pages without ever touching anything more complicated or involved.

The covers will harken back to the tradition of Penguin paperbacks, grid-driven, stylised and standardised covers designed first and foremost to be seen at the small icon-like sizes seen in the book listings in the reading applications. The first innovator to hire a good software icon designer do develop a company-wide cover template will be seen as a pioneer and hated for debasing the industry.

Diverse marketing

Each innovator is an explorer of their particular segment of the market, one size does not fit all, and the innovator marketing processes will be as diverse as there will be innovators. Each innovator will develop and build up specific processes that are effective at reaching their market.


Where the incumbent spends a small fortune to develop an interactive book application or, if that ever becomes possible, an equally expensive scripted and dancing HTML5 epub, the innovator uses the plain old hyperlink to shunt all interactivity and dynamic behaviour to where it belongs and is more cheaply developed: on the web. When scripting is available the innovator will use it simply and functionally, always preferring to put interactive components on the web rather than in the book where it complicates the testing and expense by an order of magnitude. The innovator embraces the anti-design characteristics of the ebook market and saves their aesthetic energies for the cover design and illustrations.

The writer’s voice, crap as it may be

Innovators publishes the writer’s text mostly as given, preserving the idiosyncrasies of the writers voice. Mistakes, stylistic errors — even what most publishing incumbents would call bad writing — that the writer doesn’t care about and the readers don’t complain about, should not be fixed. They let crap writing pass in blockbuster books anyway. Quality should be determined solely by the writer’s ambition and efforts and the readers’ demands.

That’s all I can come up with so far in this shitty first draft.

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