by Florrie Binford Kichler
Of Penguins, Publishers, and Change
After 35 months of doing my best to be relevant, reasonably entertaining, and somewhat educational in these columns, it’s time for the big finish—the final column that will sum up the sometimes chaotic, always rewarding, and constantly challenging experience of leading IBPA for the past three years.
I could talk about a time unprecedented in our association’s history, marked by the passing of our long-time executive director, Jan Nathan, and a transition to new leadership, by a new name to reflect our growing association, and by the onset of an economic environment that some are likening to the Great Depression.
I could talk about the creation for the first time of a strategic plan and a business plan, providing your association with a road map to your future.
I could talk about the growth of the online and offline education programs to help you cross the digital divide, and the member benefits that continue to expand on your behalf.
I could talk about the ways we have advocated for you, the independent publishing community, in our industry.
I could talk about major initiatives in the marketing and distribution programs that you will be learning more about in the months to come.
But I won’t.
Instead, I’d like to tell you a story (not mine—read on for attribution).
Once upon a time there was a colony of penguins who had lived on a large iceberg in Antarctica for many years. Governed by a leadership council of 10 birds, the penguin community dwelt in relative harmony with plenty of food and water and shelter from winter’s snowstorms. They loved their iceberg home, were comfortable in their penguin daily-life routines, and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
But one day, a member of their colony, who had made it his business to observe climatic change, gathered enough evidence to suggest that their iceberg was in jeopardy—indeed, it was slowly melting. At first the leadership council refused to believe this upstart bird, but the evidence was irrefutable. The iceberg was melting, and the penguins would have to find a new home.
Convincing the entire penguin community of the urgency of the problem, getting their buy-in to the initially unpopular solution of leaving their safe, comfortable home, and creating a strategy for coping with such a drastic change were the three major challenges for the penguin leadership team.
Those of you who have read John Kotter’s Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions will recognize my abbreviated version of his classic business fable featuring penguins faced with a disaster of epic proportions—the loss not just of their home but of their whole way of life. How they deal with the calamity has become a metaphor for leading and surviving change in any community.
I think penguins and publishers have something in common.
Is Our Industry Iceberg Melting?
Consider behavior that has traditionally been characteristic of our publishing colony:
We project sales volumes large enough to justify printing in quantities that will bring unit costs down to a “profitable” level.
We pay advances to authors and hope that they “earn out.”
We send expensive review copies to newspapers and magazines.
We market to the book trade through distributors and wholesalers.
Now think about how our environment is changing:
Technology that enables short-run and one-off printing allows publishers to cost-effectively test-market new titles, keep slower-selling backlist titles in print, and in some situations print only what they actually sell. The result: less waste, less resource consumption, lower up-front investment.
Authors are becoming equal partners with publishers—sharing the risk by taking lower (or no) advances and sharing the reward with higher royalties.
Migration of media from print to online editions and the explosive growth of social networking are turning book reviewing and promotion on their ears, as newspapers and magazines other than our trade publications eliminate or drastically cut book review sections and online peer reviews and bloggers become the new influencers. IBPA is addressing this sea change as we work to adjust our Books for Review marketing program to reflect today’s reviewing realities.
Independent bookstores are struggling for survival, and the chains aren’t much better off. Amazon’s profits rose 18 percent during the first quarter of 2009 in the midst of an unprecedented economic downturn. Consumers are buying direct in increasing numbers. What are the implications for the historical book-trade model: publisher —> wholesaler/distributor —> retailer —> consumer?
Digital sales and distribution are increasing exponentially. What does this new frontier of “content delivery” mean to readers . . . and to you, as publisher?
Are You “Adaptable to Change”?
Said Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
I began this column with a laundry list of topics I could have discussed but didn’t. Or did I? All those items represent your association’s efforts on your behalf not just to meet but to stay out in front of the challenges of our ever-changing business environment.
It has been my honor and privilege for the past three years to work with your dedicated board of directors and staff as IBPA continues to move from the safe and comfortable territory of traditional publishing to an environment in constant flux.
Some may say our association has changed too fast, others that it has not changed fast enough. In Kotter’s fable, the penguins’ lives depended on successful change marked by adapting to an environment over which they had little control. They made some mistakes along the way but never gave up searching for a solution.
Sounds a little too familiar. But remember that the difference between penguins and publishers is that you do determine the fate of your own business.
Independent publishers’ agility, flexibility, and creativity in going beyond the trade to discover new markets has always served us well in uncertain times. Take a hard look at your publishing company. Are you doing business the same way you’ve always done it in an industry that is passing you by? Is your iceberg melting? What are you going to do about it?
Thank you for allowing me to share this space, and yours, for the past three years. It has been an honor, a privilege, and the most rewarding experience of my professional life.
Congratulations to my successor, Carlene Sippola of Whole Person Associates, a visionary leader who will guide IBPA toward a bright future.
A huge thank-you to every hard-working and dedicated member of the board of directors over the past three years; to the countless member volunteers who generously donate their time and effort; to Judith Appelbaum, whose editorial skills are exceeded only by her Independent vision; and to Terry Nathan, Lisa Krebs Magno, Teresa Fogarty, and the office staff who are the backbone of IBPA.
With best wishes for your publishing success,