Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Slippery Slope

More than any other revolution in the course of human history, the digital revolution is changing the fabric of society.

Here in South Africa, we had a dramatic government change in 1995. Regime changes are major society changing events but even so the changes on the ground were not immediate. It took at least a decade for the changes at the top to change how we live our everyday lives.

The digital revolution, on the other hand, has started on the ground and is filtering upwards in a reverse direction - and the changes are immediate. As one of my favourite bloggers, Bob Mayer, has been banging on about for some time now, you either lead, follow or get out of the way.
Adapt or die.

This was driven home for me by the recent news that Eastman Kodak has filed for bankruptcy. Their demise signals the end of an era in film-making.

Just two years ago almost every television commercial I worked on was shot on film, using Kodak film stock. 2011? Not one. Two years ago, we still insured Arri 16mm SR3 cameras for millions. Today, you can buy them online used for $10,000. That’s two years from hero to zero.

Every industry affected in any way by the digital revolution needs to sit up and take stock. [Psst ... that means all of us]. For those of us in publishing, from the authors on the ground to the big publishing houses at the top, we have to adapt or die. Publishing is by nature slower moving than the film industry, so the publishing giants - and us authors - might be slower to topple than Kodak, but if we do not adapt, we will die.

The writing is on the wall.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. For those who lead the way (Amazon, anyone?) the future is very bright indeed.

Arri has manufactured film cameras since 1924, but even though film cameras are no longer in frequent use, they’re not filing for bankruptcy. Why? I’m no expert, but I see two reasons: first, they diversified. They not only manufacture cameras, they also manufacture film lights. Second, they adapted. Their Arri Alexa digital camera is now our most popular choice for shooting TV ads.

We authors also need to take stock and decide whether these changes in society are going to affect us, and if so, what are we going to do about it? Will it help us to diversify? How can we adapt?

A year ago I would not have encouraged anyone to self-publish without long, hard thought. Today, I’m considering it myself.

But we also need to take care that we don’t throw out the good with the bad. Self-publishing doesn’t mean we need to stop traditional publishing. Arri didn’t stop making film equipment. They continued to sell lights and cameras, but they worked out which of their product range was no longer in demand, and they changed those products to suit their customers' needs. The Alexa’s popularity is because its images so closely resemble film quality. They took what they knew, and adapted it. And most importantly, they made the changes in enough time that they were ready with the new product just as it was needed. They lead.

Diversity might not be for everyone. Budweiser still only makes beer. Making chocolate isn’t on their agenda. We don’t have to change what we’re doing, just find ways to ensure our product still sells.

As long as readers are still buying printed books, eBooks aren't the only way to go (Here in South Africa print books still vastly outweigh eBooks in popularity). As long as traditional publishers are still buying and successfully selling books, we shouldn't wish them away. They still have a valid place in the publishing eco-system. But diversity means investigating all avenues. eBooks and print, traditional and self-publishing, and probably dozens of other permutations I haven't mentioned.

Which brings me to my final point: the last lesson we creative types can learn from Big Industry: we mustn’t stagnate. Do you think Arri is sitting back and enjoying a well-deserved rest now that the Alexa is on the market? No, you can bet they’re already developing the next generation of cutting edge film cameras and lights, and they’re finding new ways to market what they already manufacture.

In the same way, we (a global ‘we’ including authors and publishers) need to constantly up our game. We need to develop new and better content, and find better ways to deliver that content to our customers, the readers... because they are the ones ultimately driving the changes.

So what can we authors take from this? And would you buy Budweiser chocolate? Share your thoughts (and arguments, if you have them) in the comments section.


  1. Wonderfully insightful post, Romy. And absolutely right. What worked last year or even last month doesn't necessarily work any more and we definitely need to adapt so we don't get left behind.

    *kicks being scared to change into touch*

  2. Very good post, Romy. I totally agree with your points raised, and think it's important to consider all of the options for getting into print, both traditional and self published. It's a very fast moving, changing world in so many ways that we live in, and the cleverest thing that every author can do is read up and learn about what's happening NOW, and from that, try to work out a plan for the immediate future!

  3. Great post Romy.

    We have to be ready and flexible to move with the changing times or risk being left behind.