I've been thinking a lot lately about how how wrenching the changes in media are for publishers and their efforts to adapt to the evolving environment. It's particularly difficult since most in the industry thought there would be a window of (depending on whom you talked with) two to five years to make the adjustments in business models; but the sharp economic decline has accelerated that timetable from 'the intermediate term' to 'now, dammit.' Even the most creative and forward-thinking media companies are struggling to move quickly enough to deal with changing consumer preferences, technological change and near meltdown of the supply chain.
In the book business,we see efforts like Harper Collins' "Harper Studio" and Grand Central's "12" exploring new models, distributors like Perseus adding digital distribution capabilities to their client offerings, and bricks and mortar retailer Barnes & Noble acquiring Fictionwise to try to help accelerate the transition. And you know what? While each of these steps is admirable and may succeed (at least in terms of their relative importance and size in the grand schemes of their respective parent companies), they're unlikely to have the kind of impact that will fundamentally address the systemic and strategic obstacles these players face. It has nothing to do with the competence of the people involved or the quality of products or services that will be forthcoming; it has everything to do with the magnitude of the sea change our industry is undergoing and the fact that mere transition along a (mostly) traditional continuum of progress isn't enough. What's needed is radical transformation and large businesses with legacy systems of all kinds (and more importantly, with legacy thinking) are not particularly good at that kind of radical action in good times, let alone when they're under duress.
I can tell you from experience how difficult (and expensive) it is to make even the most basic changes (such as introducing XML into a traditional publishing workflow) without creating disruptions and delays in editorial, design, layout and production that can delay release dates and risk lost sales. And those changes are only table-stakes. An entire rethinking of marketing and sales strategies, acquisition and development methods and costs, and investments in inventories and distribution must be integrated on the fly. It's just not going to happen, particularly not in the ossified infrastructures of conglomerate publishing.
The new world, in my judgment, will belong to smaller, more nimble publishers who can deliver quality content, to niche (or 'vertical' if you prefer) publishers who provide invaluable services and content to their audiences (think O'Reilly and Harlequin) and who have been leaders in transforming their businesses for years, and to start ups. It's a lot easier (and given the availability and abundance of open source tools and freelance workers) cheaper to build rather than transition or transform. As a result, we see new publishers popping up (OR Books, Roundtable, Quartet) with experimental models that challenge the long-held assumptions of traditional publishers of 'how it works' .
Any or all of these, and the others that will emerge in the coming months, may succeed or they may fail completely, but my instincts are that they have a higher probability of success than do the behemoths who are trying to transition by taking modest steps. Their time is probably up, which is equal parts terrible (because they've brought us wonderful books over the years) and exciting (because of the opportunities it offers smart, aggressive and creative people to bring us even more wonderful books in ways that suit today's consumers' wants and needs).