Friday, June 04, 2010

Retro, Baby, Retro

A narrow viewpoint is sometimes comical and at other times frightening. Thinking that everything happening today has never happened before also stifles the chances of competing in an age that is not much different from times passed.

Looking backward teaches us humility and also reminds us of the fact that not everything is new. For instance, does anyone realize that in the early 20th century Americans could buy just about anything while never setting foot outside their front doors? Much like today, a family could fill their home with purchased merchandise while sitting comfortably at their dining room table. A farmer living in remote Nebraska could order a new plow or even baby chickens while eating breakfast, and have it, or them, delivered to his farm in less than a week. No, they didn’t have the Internet in the early 1900’s. They had Sears and Roebuck.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Sears sold houses and even automobiles. They were successful because they were innovative risk takers. Daring and adventurous, they were the first to try a relatively new concept at that time called catalog merchandising. Before other merchants became aware of this new way of selling things, Sear and Roebuck controlled the direct catalog mailing/ merchandising world. Others came after them, but no one could match bold, innovative Sears.

The point here is that not many things under the sun are actually brand new. Amazon became the Internet’s Sears and Roebuck and, like Sears, realized that one trick ponies seldom win the race, let alone sustain profitability forever. Barnes & Noble and Borders are now recognizing this fact and are scrambling to catch up. To survive, they too will have to copy the Amazon business model. Ironically, Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader was challenged by other e-book readers but then computer giant Apple beat everyone to the next logical step—why not combine features of the IPhone, e-book reader and computer? Does this mean that no one can challenge Apple and survive? Does this mean with virtually millions of IPads being sold that it’s only a matter of time before Kindle becomes a thing of the past to be forgotten like Sears and Roebuck and catalog sales?

Innovation is never new. It’s just a natural extension of existing technology, and that’s really what all the hoopla is about, isn’t it? After all, the e-book is still a book. In this current sea of change, the book remains constant. When the dust finally clears, books will still be books and will still be written by very human authors. The only thing changing is that possibly there won’t be as many trees killed or as many landfills cluttered with discarded tomes. The only possible loser in this battle is the reader, as he or she will now have to pay for the presentation media AND the book. However, to some, it will be worth it. That’s up to the reader to decide. Imagine that. The reader has a say in something. Hmmmm. Now THAT’S innovative. Or maybe not. .

It actually seemed, for a while, that readers might catch a break. There seemed for a few dim moments back there that publishers might share some profit with readers. After all, if you eliminate printers and shippers and brick and mortar bookstores, doesn’t that mean that loads of cost of production has been eliminated? However, like the music lovers before them, when it comes to sharing a reduction in manufacturing costs, greed takes precedence over common sense or consideration of one’s target demographic.

It now looks like a repeat of what happened with digital music and the CD is happening with books. Publishers should think about what has been eliminated and what readers have to buy to enjoy the e-books. Isn’t the reader now being asked to forgo lettuce, tomato, mustard, catchup and the bun, to cook the burger themselves and pay the same price for their sandwich? Publishers should also realize that in a digital world, writers no longer need them to reach their audience. They have the means through the Internet now to go direct and do what Sears and Roebuck did a century ago. Now that’s what I call REAL innovation.