Dealing with disruption: publishing houses and drug development

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

I currently have about ten books strewn about my apartment, in various stages of being read.  Many I’ve been working through, on and off, for over a year.  And something that people keep asking me as they look around is, why don’t I just get a Kindle?  Part of the reason is that I’m cheap.  Also, I get a lot of my books from the library, and I get real pleasure from walking to the neighborhood library, checking out books, holding them and leafing through them, wandering up and down the aisles and also paying fines.  Lots of fines.  Which is okay, because the libraries need all the help they can get.  Although in counterpoint to that, a recent article from the Seattle Times described how in many ways libraries are still popular, even among younger people.

But I know that one day, probably pretty soon, I’ll succumb like a largemouth bass to the glowing lure of an electronic reader.  It makes too much sense.  I can still go the library, but it may be just for ideas of what I can purchase, or at least obtain electronically through the library’s ebook collection.  This is the literary world that the internet has enabled.  And it’s making life very difficult for the publishing houses.

When we talk about the changes technology enables, we know it’s messy.  There are disruptions, and there are often winners and losers.  Not because anyone is out to get anyone else, but just because environments select and support specific traits, and when those environments change, many of those traits no longer are adaptive.  We don’t have woolly mammoths because a combination of human hunting and warming climates most likely did them in; their environment changed.  The book publishing industry is in the middle of change due to new and different ways of marketing books, and to the rise of ebooks versus physical copies.

I’ve written before in this blog about drug development and how it can find parallels in other industries, and a recent article in WIRED really resonated.  Let me put down some quotes from the article, and see if they sound familiar:

“…awarding huge contracts for books that may not even be written yet creates tremendous risk.”  and “Predicting the success or failure of any given book is impossible.”  Hmm, replace books with “pre-clinical/early clinical stage drugs” and this is a familiar complaint by pharma.

“The publishing houses stay afloat only because the megahits pay for the flops, and there’s generally enough left over for profits.”  Yep, sounds familiar as a business plan.

“In the long term, what publishers have to fear the most may not be Amazon but an idea it has helped engender–that the only truly necessary players in the game are the author and the reader.”  To me, this speaks to the changing dynamic of drug development, where patient groups are using new internet tools to become more active players in the drug development process.

“The recently announced merger of the two biggest of the Big Six, Random House and Penguin, is widely seen as a move to build an entity that can stand up to Amazon’s market power.”  Now where have I seen mergers done as a business ploy before?

Drugs are not just like ebooks (although my post earlier this week did look at the concept of drugs as information). But drug development faces the same crisis of old ways of doing business not being sufficient to tackle new challenges brought about by changing environments.  In the case of drug development, the disruption is coming from the challenge of creating new, more effective drugs despite increasing regulatory requirements.  Can drug development learn anything from the problems the publishing houses are facing?

Unfortunately, as can be seen by the quotes above, so far the publishing industry doesn’t appear to have any new, magic bullet solutions that can teach the pharma business about dealing with disruption to old business models.   I suppose the key lesson, which many pharma and biotech already seem to be taking, is that adaptability is going to be a necessary component of business strategy moving forward.  Another possible lesson is that book publishers are having to ask what they’re really good at, and seeing how that can be adapted to a new world where authors have more power because they have new ways of reaching the reader.  Publishers are touting that they can provide the added value of savvy marketing and crackerjack editing to make themselves attractive to authors.  Even though we talk about social media as removing the need for traditional marketing, successful marketing is a skill however it’s accomplished, and a skill most authors don’t have and many don’t want to learn.

Pharma can similarly look at what they do best–clinical trials, sales and marketing–and possibly move out of the discovery part of things altogether.  It would be a radical change, but ignoring changing external factors and keeping the same business practices is unlikely to work in the long run.

Interestingly, in publishing I think the big winners when the dust settles might be…libraries!  While people want to buy books online, they still like to leaf through them.  You see the same phenomenon, by the way, with places like Best Buy.  People like to go see the physical item before hunching over their smartphone and doing one-click shopping.

This is leading to many bookstores becoming the de facto showroom for Amazon, and subsequently going out of business.  And when there are no neighborhood bookstores, people may turn even more to their local libraries.  There, they can not only see and leaf through books, but also talk to a friendly librarian without guilt and get recommendations.  One of the many things librarians excel at is navigating information and matching you up with the right book.  I wonder if we might eventually see librarians working on a partial commission basis, with you “tipping” them via Square or some other form of electronic money.  If we can download a song on impulse for 99 cents, wouldn’t we be willing to grant our librarians at least that much for helping us find the perfect novel?

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