Publishing’s Kodak Moment


Remember when “pulling an OJ” meant sprinting through the airport to catch a plane (with the former running back shown in that Hertz commercial)? In the same way, a “Kodak moment” used to mean snapping a photo to capture a memory. But not any more.

As you likely know, Kodak declared bankruptcy. Kodak’s behavior or response to the market forces of “digital shift” over the last 10 years allowed their products to get less and less relevant as they maintained the status quo and operated off of a plan that assumed most (or enough?) people wanted to keep using film and film cameras. At first, it looked as if they didn’t have a play at all for digital, as start ups and plenty of legacy film camera companies managed to effectively transition to digital product lines. Kodak underestimated the scope, scale and speed of the digital shift in the photography industry. It’s almost as if they had a weak levee expecting it to hold back an unstoppable tide surge. Perhaps they were behind the scenes making plans or deliberating what to do, because eventually they made digital cameras and photo frames, but they probably made too little change, too late.

I think the right play is to plan for “creative destruction,” and be the best at your legacy business while having a vision for what the “preferable future” is for consumers, and get there too. I want to be like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, who knew he was going to crash after all those birds flew into his engines, but made a controlled landing of his plane full of passengers by safely skimming across the surface of the Hudson river.

I’ve worked in a variety of diverse media and have only come into print publishing in the last seven years, and I find it curious that publishing is the oldest medium and yet is last medium to face the digital shift, even though words are the easiest thing to pirate over the Internet (because of books small file size as compared to music and video file sizes). Sure there were people and sites illegally swapping book content back in the days of Napster but nobody really cared to read more on their computers after a day of staring at them at work. It was only after the Kindle and then the iPad came along that consumers had options for an elegant portable reading experience, and by then we had iTunes, etc to look at as a model for giving consumers a great value proposition (for reading) that helped curtail piracy in publishing.

It’s my belief that some people will always still want to buy and own printed books. Many take pride in displaying their library on the shelf in their office or den. Maybe “throwaway fiction” or anything that finds itself in small paperback bindings will continue to have an increasing percentage of sales in digital, but perhaps the genres people do want in print they will want in extra gorgeous fine bindings. In the music industry, audiophiles are going back to vinyl, and those records are now twice the thickness and weight, all in the name of quality improvement in response to the relatively stale, clinical digital music files. I believe some consumers still want both print and digital formats. I know I do. And I’m willing to pay for both if there’s a “buy both and save” deal, but by and large, retailers just aren’t doing regular bundling yet, due primarily to the operational headaches involved.

One of publishers’ biggest problems will be scale on obscure books, if too large of a percentage of consumers want digital instead of print. But I believe we’ll continue to see more and more improvements in print-on-demand, to the point where every independent book store (or coffee shop?) could choose to have a printer/binder right on site, instantly carrying every frontlist and backlist title ever published by any publishing house or individual ever. And consumers could then buy any frontlist and backlist title ever published by any publishing house or individual ever, virtually anywhere. And that’s the ultimate judo move that helps brick and mortar booksellers exist (if not thrive!) in an era of increasingly online book sales of even print books. Some proprietors may just elect to invest in putting print-on-demand vending machines at airports, etc, just like Best Buy has done, even as this number one electronics retailer is closing 100 big box stores this year.

Now that would be a company that doesn’t have it’s head in the sand. What observations or ideas do you have for coping with the digital shift?



  1. As customers get more “app-oriented” they are going to want experience even more. Consequently publishers looking to produce “term-paper” products without function or design will begin to fall by the wayside.
    There’s also the enhancement approach. The physical book and give you readily available information and the app can give you multimedia and a QR code (or whatever is coming down the pike) in the book can take you to a website for another experience and opportunity to learn, grow, know more. So, in a sense publishers will need to look at packages of products, not just one or the other.
    Last idea is community. Products will need to include community elements and ways of attracting fans together. The product array can be a catalyst to broader discussion, new connections and a host of learning and discussion (even small group or book club) activity that’s international.

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