Publishing is War: the Art of Wrestling at Chess

In a weeks old (print) copy of The Week, an article on ‘Russia’s secret game plan’ strikes me as an apt lesson in publishing.

“Russia’s campaign to destabilize Ukraine, and the rest of Eastern Europe, is turning conventional military thinking on its head,” the summary states, going on to explain that, though war has not been declared, it’s clear that one is happening. Why has it been so difficult to deal with the Russian tactics? “Because Russia’s tactics fly in the face of the idea of an increasingly civilized, rules-based world. ‘We’ve spent nearly 200 years defining rules about conflict,’ says Dr Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute…’ And “Russia’s hybrid war is also unprecedented in its scale and sophistication, using everything from state controlled media to internet viruses,” explains the summary.

Here’s my favorite quote: “It’s like you’re trying to play chess and the other side starts wrestling,” an Estonian security official told The Guardian.

This of course is not at all new. Yawn. History repeats itself. As a South Africa, I’ve been entertained by many an Afrikaner and the war stories of his forefather ‘boers’ who developed guerrilla warfare tactics, hiding in the hills in camouflage and picking off the red-coated English filing prominently across the open veld on horseback. To those ‘red necks’, camouflage and snipering were just not the way war was done, old chap. The boers were eventually defeated, but not before ensuring the greatest number of casualties by the British in any conflict pre WW1. And the only way they did win was via some lateral thinking of their own: round up the women and children into concentration camps, and use a ‘Scorched Earth Policy’ to raze the farms that supplied the boer fighters with their food and sustenance.

Sounds a lot like publishing to me.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen’s oft- (and aptly-) quoted book, applies. The old dogs seem only to learn the new tricks very late in the game. They’ve been so focussed on their defining and honing of the rules of engagement that they aren’t looking up to see the new approaching at warp speed.

Publishers are still not using long-tail methodologies. And Chris Anderson wrote THAT book seemingly centuries ago (like in 2006), didn’t he? They still don’t get it? They still haven’t read it? (Should we send them a video link?)
This means:
1. They think just putting the paper product into e-ink makes it an e-book. That SHOULD be an epic fail. (Unfortunately it’s not, since readers have such low expectations, they’re still impressed. “Hey, wow, it knows where I stopped reading last time!”) Or they think a few hyperlinks and cross-references qualify this as an “enhanced” book.
2. They’re still using the old media silos: this is a book, that there is a video.
3. They’re still using the same pricing models, just joyous they don’t have to pay for print.
4. They’re still working to find the mainstream big hit. Using an ‘us and them’ approach to marketing. Forgetting that the readers, the fan base, are the best marketers. Or that an author with a database and following is possibly bringing more to the party than the publisher’s relatively meagre capital investment is really worth.
5. They’re still trumpeting their in-house and inherent publishing expertise. Forgetting that the best and brightest publishing knowledge might be freelance, bought in for the job on an ad hoc basis. And that the in-house expertise might not be hungry enough to keep up with what’s really happening in the big bad world out there.

And, to my mind, far worse is the fact that distributors are really not encouraging innovation themselves:  Overly small maximum file sizes, severe limitations on formats, and the old definitions of what constitutes a book or a video. iBookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble… None delivers all that InDesign is perfectly capable of outputting.

Like the boer fighters, the new publishing warrior class just doesn’t buy into the rules that they don’t even know about, or that weren’t created in their best interests. They’re exploring, reacting quickly, and galloping forward at high speed. They’re using lean startup principles initially because lean is all they have, and then sticking to them because these principles work.

Most importantly of all: they don’t want to be at war. They just want what’s rightfully theirs. This is a battle for resources: for ground, for gold, for access.
With today’s announcement of a deal finally being struck – a truce in the war of words and resources – between Amazon and Hachette, it’s a good time to remember that “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

And I love that.


  1. Chris Marais
    November 14, 2014

    Great blog! And so on the money, Dominique. The Karoo Space Freelance Regiment salutes you from Cradock.

    • justdominique
      November 14, 2014

      Chris and Jules, what strategies we devised, what battles we fought together. Been such a pleasure to watch you outmanoeuvre the big guns!


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