London Book Fair Report: The Great Debate
For the fourth consecutive year The Great Debate was held at the London Book Fair. On Tuesday industry leaders from both sides of the pond debated this year's proposition: "It's all about size. Bigger is always better."
The debaters dissected whether only book industry giants could survive or prosper, as typified by the dominance of Amazon and Penguin Random House, or if small, agile, independents have a tactical advantage in the digital- and social-driven future of the industry.
Supporting the big is better proposition was Ken Brooks, SVP of global supply chain management at McGraw Hill Education and Mike Shatzkin of The Idea Logical Company. Opposing the proposition was Stephen Page, CEO of Faber & Faber and Scott Waxman of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency and Diversion Books. Susan Danziger, founder and CEO of Ziggeo and Michael Healy, executive director of international relations at the Copyright Clearance Center moderated the debate.
While this kind of debate isn't intended to provide any form of resolution, it did serve to be thought provoking and illuminate how size can yield advantages and disadvantages. Following is a brief sketch of the arguments and few candid thoughts on what might be the takeaway.
Big is Better: Mike Shatzkin & Ken Brooks
Perhaps the most entertaining of the participants, Mike Shatzkin argued on the side of size, saying that always hardly exists in our world, but as he defines size it is most definitely "better." To that point, Shatzkin does not define better in qualitative terms of the craft of publishing (editing, illustrations, binding, etc.) but as better suited to survive and control one's own destiny, and better positioned to make life difficult for rivals. Being able to expand and have the resources to do so is a "huge" competitive advantage, says Shatzkin.
For Shatzkin, it's all about scale "The reason that large publishers buy small publishers is because they can get more dollars out of the assets." And as an indication of superiority, "every big company in our business has a component that has services for those that can't provide scale. If smaller is better, why do small presses need bigger companies?" asks Shatzkin. "Just about all small companies are dependent on larger companies."
Small publishers may have relative power within their niches, but how many small publishers could have grown and survived without Amazon as a distribution partner?
Also on the side of size was Ken Brooks of McGraw Hill Education. Brooks slyly defined large size as a byproduct of sustained success, which is hard to argue with. All big companies started as small companies, says Brooks: Random House. Amazon, Ingram, Twitter. "Being successful in your market leads to size."
Brooks also pointed out that innovation is often erroneously credited to small companies -- a misconception supported by the fact that we rarely hear of the thousands of failures of startups that quickly disappear into the ether. But the successful startups you know.
"The interesting thing about innovation is when it's done right, it leads to size. The Ebook didn't work until Amazon," says Brooks. Conversely: "Anyone that is small who is successful has plans to grow or sell to someone larger. And anyone who doesn't is a very odd entrepreneur."
Brooks summed his side's position up by saying that size matters, it matters in the digital world as much as ever, and a bid for a larger percentage of a small pie is not a long-term strategy. Bigger is better for stakeholder profits, customer access to content, career opportunities for employees, and resources for authors.
Small is Better: Stephen Page & Scott Waxman
On the other side of the argument -- in the friendly sense of the word -- was Stephen Page, CEO of Faber & Faber. "Scale does not matter anymore in the digital age," says Page. Rather what matters most is taste and the ability to communicate with authors and readers on a human-to-human level.
Page believes that the publishing world has changed. Where the old world was all about control of distribution and access to mass market accounts, intimacy and taste are the heart of publishing and the true differentiators -- and the reason so many large publishers have "hoovered up" small publishers. They must import what they don't have. Page went so far as to say it's an "obsession" on the part of large publishers. "Big companies have so many imprints because they want to emulate being small," says Page.
For Page, the top-down, curatorial (dare, dictatorial) model of publishing is over -- mimicking the large publishers: "We don't want too much diversity in the market. We want them to like the voices we decide on."
The times-they-are-a-changing, argues Scott Waxman of Diversion Books: "Bigger is always slower and in a fast-changing industry, maneuverability is crucial. The little vessel reacts faster than the large one."
Waxman lamented the risk-aversion of corporate managers. Evidence of their turgid immobility is the fact that they are looking so much to learn from self-publishers and small-publishers. "What we have here is a model that is very attractive to authors," says Waxman.
Small publishers are flexible, innovative, and swift, serving audiences in a very direct way, says Waxman. On top of that, legacy publishing is a deteriorating market and the old whales are weighed down by a print model they struggle to detach themselves from, says Waxman.
My takeaway from The Great Debate is that both big and small publishers have much to learn from each other. Though small companies can't by mere will have greater resources or a massive distribution mechanism, as they grow they should strive to retain those characteristics that allowed them to thrive in the first place. Not always but often, as companies grow, agility is traded for momentum, depth for breadth, intimacy for anonymity, common sense for corporate policy.
The debaters on the side of small publishers maligned the large publishers for emulating small publishers with indie-looking imprints and for paying lip service to what it means to be small. And they're right: large publishers should aim to embody rather than just emulate.
Meanwhile, small publishers should seek the efficiencies and policies that make large publishers streamlined machines without losing their personalities. As publishers grow, eventually more emphasis is put on the mechanics of business. Corporate mission statements aside, they tend to serve the mechanism more than the product and the end-user, and that is not something readers can't identify with.
But like it or hate it, great small publishers don't remain so for long.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.