Books: change or die

006088689701_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v49814327_Smart article on the face-off between Google and the publishing business by Sarah Weiman on Mediabistro this morning. Coming on top of Jeffrey Toobin's equally good New Yorker piece ("Google's Moon Shot") this week on the same subject, it's obvious that what Weinman describes as the "Publishers Dilemma" will become one of the most bitterly fought public relations battles of 2007.

It's a confrontation that starkly delineates the differences between the traditional and digital media businesses. On one side are Google and the open source crowd, on the other the traditional publishing business. Google wants to create a universal digital library in which books can be downloaded for free and authors earn their living through lectures and consulting; the publishers want to maintain the value of the book by restricting its IP and selling its content.

"Change or die." That's what Google and its digital allies are telling the traditional publishing business. As Seth Godin, one of Google's open source ideological henchman, told Mediabistro.

"The publishing industry has becoming increasingly irrelevant.They need to stop thinking about selling paper, when the last big changes to that model took place over sixty years ago with the popularization of the paperback."

For book lovers like myself, Weinman ends on a particularly bleak note:

"There's no clear sense of the future for publishing, and many questions remain. Uppermost in the industry's mind is whether Google will prevail in its quest to make the world's backlist fully searchable, but the larger issue is whether the publishing industry's embracing of the digital world arrives too little, too late. Because when it comes to change, those in the midst of it are often the last to know, and the slowest to react."

"Change or die" is what Weinman is saying to the publishing industry. Digitalize (ie: give away your content for free) or-- like the music business -- become a victim of the overwhelming tsunami in searchable free digital content.

Having digested Weiman's piece, I did an afterTV interview with Alan Deutschman, whose lively new book Change or Die has just been published by the now deceased Regan imprint of Harper Collins. Most of us, according to Deutschman, don't know how to change our lives, even when confronted with death. Deutschman's book is made up of case studies -- IBM, the Delancy Street program, Toyota -- where companies and individuals have learnt to rebrand and reorganize themselves, thereby cheating death.

So what's the model for the publishing business? How does it learn to change some of its less efficient practices without destroying its identity or its core business model (the "selling of paper")?

Seth Godin is completely wrong about the "irrelevance" of the multi billion dollar publishing business. What he fails to understand is that the physical book -- in contrast with the vinyl record or the CD -- has been a viable consumer product for five hundred years. It doesn't need changing. The fact that  there hasn't had a major innovation in sixty years is evidence of economic strength rather than weakness. What the publishing business needs to do is fight back against Google's brilliantly slick marketing. They need to remind everyone (including themselves) of the intrinsic sexiness of the book.

No, the physical book doesn't need to be unbound. Instead, it requires rebranding. Just like milk, advocados or Californian cheese, the book needs a multi million dollar marketing campaign to remind everyone of its central place -- in the past, present and future -- in Western economic and cultural life. My advice is for the senior guys at Harper Collins and Random House to pool their resources and go to some smart marketers (like the guys at BAM) who can outmarket Google and their evangelizing Web 2.0 chorus.

The challenge is to convince the world that the book is just as futuristic as the search engine. The challenge is to make the case that it will be the concreteness of the physical book, and not abstraction of the digital universe, which will dominate our culture in 2020.

Close your eyes. Imagine Google's universal library -- a world without physical books, where authors are transformed into power-point wielding consultants and intellectual clowns. A nightmare, right?

It's us, the reader, who need to change (or die). As John Updike said, in response to the Google threat, books are "intrinsic to our human identity". They are what make us what we are.