What Publishing Industry Can Learn from the Four Horsemen

Tapas attended the Digital Book World conference earlier last week. We met with the most brilliant minds pioneering the digital/mobile publishing space especially those present at the Launchpad session.

Despite DBW being an a fantastic event, it wasn’t exactly what I had expected as a first time attendee. Given the name of the conference, I was imagining a cross between a tech conference and a book conference. Let’s say the publishing industry’s version of Techcrunch Disrupt, if you will.

It was interesting to spot subtle undertones of a cautionary stance — or even “fear” — towards digital technology at the conference. Phrases like “the four horsemen of apocalypse” (Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple) and “[the publishing industry] getting Facebook’ed” (meaning their business being decimated by Facebook) were heard throughout.

I’ve spent most of my career in the online/mobile tech industry and am now trying to help innovate the publishing industry with Tapas. As a relative outsider to the publishing world, I couldn’t help but think: instead of fearing the four horsemen, why not try to learn from them? Obviously these companies are immensely successful and that means there are many lessons to be learned. Among them, these low hanging fruits can be the good starting points.

Look outward and be aggressive

One thing the four horsemen companies have in common is even after becoming hugely successful, they never stop innovating. Publishing companies should stop looking inwards and stop obsessing over how to keep whatever is left of the print book’s market share. Instead, they should think about how to self-innovate and self-disrupt.

As they say, the best defense is a good offense. Publishers need to get out of a defensive mindset and start keying on the offense. Set up moonshot goals and try to deliver on them. How can the publishing industry grow 5x in the next 10 years? (We know smartphone users might grow 5x in that time span). How can reading be an integral experience for passengers of self-driving cars?

Find and embrace the next “toy”

Any type of technology that brings major, fundamental disruption to an industry usually starts out as something resembling a toy. Facebook was a toy, Twitter was a toy, Farmville was a toy, and the list goes on. Publishing is a very established industry; its history in years is measured in the hundreds! As such, it’s very easy to dismiss something new as a toy — something that people will never use.

The horsemen companies often make early moves that some people might scratch their heads over. People didn’t really get it when Facebook paid $2 billion for Occulus or when Amazon started offering Amazon Web Service, but these turned out to be brilliant, prescient moves.

So what are the publishing industry’s toys that we see today?

Embrace Silicon Valley

All four companies have a major presence in Silicon Valley. Three of them started in the Valley, with Amazon subsequently establishing a large research presence there. Sure, Silicon Valley is known for drinking its own kool-aid and being “out there”, to the point where even HBO has a hard time keeping up. But Silicon Valley is also the epicenter of technological innovation, which some people have called “the modern day Florence” (an homage to the city’s role during the Renaissance).

Software and mobile technology are “eating the world.” And when we refer to “the world”, it certainly includes the publishing industry. So, I’d like to encourage the publishing industry to have more of a presence in Silicon Valley. Organize meetups in the bay area. Start a conference and ask for ideas about how the publishing world can use Silicon Valley’s innovative technologies to totally revamp itself. Who knows — the horsemen companies might “pay it forward” and sponsor a conference!

Reinvent the business

The horsemen companies built huge empires in very different business sectors. Google is the new Microsoft, and Facebook is the new Google, and so on. It’s worth noting that Google didn’t build a better Windows (instead, they built an internet search engine and contextual advertisements). Likewise, Facebook didn’t build a better search engine, but instead built a massive social network. See a pattern here? If the publishing industry is paranoid about something potentially coming in and totally undermining them, such a thing will likely come totally out of the left field (in other words, a toy — see above). It won’t be a better version of publishing. It will be something completely new.

Think about how to completely reinvent the business while preserving the essence of the industry. No other industry has better connections to the world’s best writers and storytellers than the publishing industry. Leverage this competitive advantage and reinvent.

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