The Times They Are A-Changin'


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The winds of change are blowing-and not just through the EContent office. Sure, I've moved my desk into Michelle's old office, gotten a new view, and taken on a whole new set of responsibilities, but that's not what I'm talking about.

No, this past holiday season I headed out to buy an iPod nano as a gift for my brother. I took the tiny device in my hand, looked at the store employee who had handed it to me, and asked, "Do you have any of the old ones still in stock?" Sadly, he did not. I'd already checked the internet, and I could only get the old devices for what seemed like an inflated price.

I looked at the iPod and I wondered how the heck my football-playing brother was supposed to use this device with his giant hands. Was it really necessary to make an already very small device even smaller? Was anyone complaining that the featherweight nano was weighing them down? Probably not. Meanwhile, on the headphone front, earbuds are no longer the rage. Instead, the cool kids want big, heavy, old school headphones.

At times, it seems like some companies make change just for the sake of change-or to facilitate a new marketing campaign. It's like a compulsion. Steve Jobs and the crew at Apple surely lie awake at night wondering how to make their products smaller, lighter, faster, and more integral to our daily lives. When Financial Times named Steve Jobs Person of the Year, it wrote, "More than two thirds of Apple's sales come from products that didn't exist eight years ago. And they come from markets that barely existed, if at all, until Jobs breathed life into them, such as digital media players, touchscreen smartphones and tablet computers."

Meanwhile, other companies-and indeed some industries-seem to stagnate, incapable of making any significant changes. Since I came to EContent more than 2 years ago, I've been wondering how it was possible-with all the services at the disposal of publishing companies big and small-that no one had come up with a mainstream, all-digital publishing model yet. Why hadn't Random House, Inc.; Scholastic, Inc.; or any other major publishing house fully committed to ebooks (even if the companies just devoted an imprint to these new products)?

Even more baffling than the major publishing houses' inability to change was the lack of startups moving into this space. Shortly after I left HarperCollins Publishers for EContent, many of my co-workers were laid off. From publishers to editorial assistants, the publishing industry was hit hard. What did these seasoned professionals do when they found themselves out of a job? They became literary agents.

I was disappointed. These people who had the connections, the know-how, and the staff (I'm guessing an out-of-work editorial assistant would have jumped at the chance to be part of a new movement in the industry) had missed an opportunity. They had failed to see the chance that was in front of them. They had all the expertise needed to run a publishing house and none of the dead weight or legacy costs associated with New York's hallowed halls of publishing greatness.

So it was with great enthusiasm that I dove into a story just after the new year about First One Digital Publishing (www.firstonepublishing.com). Someone from the publishing industry-in this case, journalist and author Karen Hunter-had finally done exactly what I'd been hoping for: She took a calculated risk and used her industry expertise to do something new.

With e-readers' popularity exploding (I can name at least three friends who received one for Christmas), it would seem inevitable-even to the most adept at denial-that publishers will have to make digital delivery more than just an afterthought. The smartest companies are already well on their way to doing so, but it won't be easy.

Established companies have employees, 401(k) plans, long-term leases, and myriad other financial responsibilities keeping them from changing course. These companies are like enormous ships, too heavy and slow-moving to change course before they hit an iceberg. The way I see it, though, digital publishing gives big name publishing houses an opportunity to take chances: chances on new writers, new business models, and new ideas.