Ford is often credited as the father of the assembly line (he was probably more its godfather). Despite developing mass assembly factories that used interchangeable parts, he was an individualist. He was also blunt, pragmatic and optimistic--all qualities that appeal to me a great deal.
I can usually find a Ford quote to suit any occasion. Today's quote:
History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present . . .I was reminded of that quote when I read an article in last Wednesday's New York Times here with the depressing title of "Book Sales Are Down, Despite Push."
The story focussed on the disappointing sales of blockbuster titles like Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, the late Ted Kennedy's True Compass and Audrey Niffenegger's new book after The Time Traveler’s Wife.
The Times went on to say: "And over all, according to BookScan, book sales were down about 4 percent compared with the same week last year . . ."
Henry Ford, where are you?
We all know publishing is first and foremost a business. Corporate heads roll with depressing frequency. Last Monday, Publishers Marketplace reported:
"After just five months as chief executive at the Headline group in the UK [owned by Hachette Livre, which also owns Grand Central Publishing], Kate Wilson has left the company by 'mutual agreement' according to a brief statement . . . Wilson was supposed to be taking over from Martin Neild as he prepared to retire from the company in 2010."Two weeks before that, Steve Rubin--whose position as president and publisher of Doubleday was eliminated in December--announced he'd be leaving Random House, the parent company of Doubleday, after 25 years.
With these kind of examples, you can understand why New York is risk-adverse and very focussed on the bottom line. The problem is that this reluctance to take risks has publishers placing large bets on a small group of celebrities and best-selling authors.
Thinking that well-known names are more likely to sell than unknown names, the New York houses compete at auction, offering huge advances to obtain the rights to a few releases they hope will become blockbusters.
You can see the problem. In an effort to avoid risk, publishers gamble millions of dollars. If it works out . . . fine, they can relax next summer at that rental in the Hamptons. But if it doesn't work out . . . splat!
Because all of them follow the same (supposedly conservative) strategy, they are inadvertently contributing to greater risk for all by bidding up the price of books. Instead of offering more safety, this herd mentality is actually increasing the risk.
Last December here, I talked about the Boston Matrix as a model for assessing product lines. The problem publishing faces is that they are pouring too much money into their "cash cows" rather than investing money into up-and-coming writers who could become "stars."
While I'm at it, I also take issue with the way media reports book sales, including that New York Times quote about sales being down four percent compared to the same period last year.
According to a June, 2008 article in the New York Times, Nielsen's BookScan "usually tracks about 70 percent of sales." BookScan collects information from over 12,000 locations weekly, including bookstores (like B&N, Borders and college bookstores); discount stores (like Amazon.com and Target) and non-traditional stores (like Kroger and Starbucks). While they are working toward making their results more meaningful (they added the non-traditional category just last year), BookScan misses segments of the market. As examples, they don't capture either Wal-Mart's sales or e-book sales.
Even the Census Bureau, which releases retail sales each month, doesn't include used book sales. The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) reported that 8.3% of all books sold in 2004 (one out of every twelve) was a used book. They anticipated that number would be one out of every eleven by 2010.
Consider. Rather than overall book sales being down, perhaps consumers are shifting venues. It's possible in this slow economy the reading public is purchasing used books or shopping for new books at Wal-Mart where they can get a deeper discount.
I'd also argue that it's possible consumers are buying e-books instead of hardcovers.
I've said it before. The publishing industry needs to pay more attention to their consumers . . . and their consumers' reading and buying habits.
And, of course, Henry Ford has a quote for that, too.
It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It is the customer who pays the wages.