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The biggest problem facing book publishing

April 15, 2012
by seth godin

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…has nothing to do with the Justice Department or agency pricing.

No, the challenge the big book publishers are facing is that a perfect industry is being replaced by one filled with chaos and opportunity.

Perfect?

Limited shelf space plus limited competitors plus well-understood cost of creation and production meant that stability reigned. The industry was polished and understood.

For three hundred years or so, book publishing had nothing in common with technology businesses where the underlying economics of the business were questioned regularly. That meant that just about all of the creative energy in the business went into finding new content, not new business models.

Yesterday, I wrote about a short film online called Caine’s Arcade. It’s worth noting that more people have spent ten minutes watching this film in the last week than have read all but a handful of books over the same period of time. And even more profoundly, that this short film has raised almost $200,000 for the star’s college fund without really trying.

Conceptually, this is a book.

Of course there’s no paper and there’s no store and there’s no sale. Which is why people in the book industry won’t see it as a book. That’s because they grew up in an industry that never worried about technology changing what they do or how they do it.

[As I read this, I'm worried that some may think I meant that Caine's Arcade ought to be turned into a book, written down and printed. Yikes. No, I meant that the act of finding Caine, of investing in a short film, of bringing that idea to the public--it's stuff like that that publishers are actually quite good at--the format and the economics will change, but the risky act of bringing ideas to the public is what publishers do.]

Revolutions enable the impossible at the same time they destroy the perfect. There’s entirely too much handwringing about how the perfect book industry is no more. That’s true. It’s no longer perfect. What’s happening now, though, is the impossible.

If the companies (and the people who work for them) are going to be in this business just five years from now, they will only thrive if they understand that an entirely new business model will have to be built and understood. And it will have nothing whatsoever to do with paper. It will be about ideas.

Which is what book publishing was supposed to be about all along, right?

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