As someone who has now attended three decades of conferences in the book, photo, and consumer electronics industries, I have noticed one constant across them all: denial of the speed and depth of the coming changes.
This conference had many feel-good moments of “print is not dead” and “print will always be here” and one excellent speaker used an analogy I had not heard before: “Just look down at your shirt buttons, which have been around since the earliest times. The same will be true for the printed book.”
I dutifully looked down at my shirt and did indeed notice many buttons (all buttoned thank goodness!) but then continued downwards to my pants where I encountered a zipper and metal clasp. Hmm…I thought…plus geez I hope no one is looking at that strange balding dude up front.
The point of these changes is not about “going away forever” but how the companies making the buttons of their time adapt to weird things like Velcro, metal clasps, and zippers, which reduce the number of buttons they sell.
So I did a little button research and came upon this fascinating excerpt about the dawn of the zipper:
“In 1913, Sundback revised and introduced a new model, which had interlocking oval scoops (instead of the previously used hooks) that could be joined together tightly by a slider in one movement or swoop. This final model is recognized as the modern zipper, which took many months to find success in the industrial market. Retailers, who were prone to sticking with traditional materials and design methods, were slow to purchase the product.” (Source: Wikipedia, whatever that is!)
And then I started thinking about the great wooden boat builders here in my state of Maine and how they “totally missed the boat” when the rest of the world moved on into the age of metal. And indeed you can find some of the best wooden boat builders in the world still operating in Maine, but most ship builders who did not move forward are gone.
A direct mail guru once told me the reason people open sealed envelopes at a higher rate than wafer-sealed self-mailers is because this sacrosanct item dates back to the time of Charlemagne and is therefore deeply encoded in our DNA in signifying something important is inside. (He also had some important “ins” with a 6 x9 envelope vendor needing to dump excess inventory. Would I like to purchase 1.5 million today?)
The only thing that comes sealed in my mail is a treasured invitation to go see the newest Volvo S60. The important messages I receive are happening in email, text messaging, or on Facebook. And my missing a wedding invitation could be the best thing to happen to that lucky couple getting married.
The old photo industry denials were truly tough to fathom. “People love their prints, they will never give them up!” “You cannot match the quality of a printed photo with digital!” “Yes, things are shifting but we will be fine for the next 10-15 years and then I can retire.” (As in screw the younger people.) Well 15 years later the number of prints produced has dropped to a whole new scale and stalwarts like Kodak, Sony, and Polaroid are forever changed. And the number of photos being captured and shared has never been higher.
And what about those old paper mapping atlas denials? “People will always want a printed atlas,” the Rand McNally man is so certain, it guarantees he must be wrong. Funny but a woman sitting next to me at the Book Conference commented that her teenage son could not figure out how to use a paper atlas recently, where you have to go from page 14 to page 37 to connect to the north but page 17 to connect to the east and so on. Plus you cannot even see where you are on the page. “Jeez, Mom, I can figure that all out in a few seconds using my phone.” (Guess who never figured out how to penetrate the GPS market…yup, Rand McNally.)
Older people will lament the loss of map-reading skills and a few teenagers will probably die in the woods unnecessarily. But how many more will show up on time for their college interview? Will get into North Dakota State because they actually showed up in the correct town?
I think Sony had it right even though they have lost so much over the years. “Disrupt yourself before someone unexpected does it to you.” Many of the changes come with comforting but deceptive downward plateaus, where you get to catch your breath. But you are still in a stepping-down trend that becomes more and more problematic as key volume thresholds are passed. Retailers need to sell “x” amount. When it falls to the “g” amount, they need to ask you to leave the shelves. And depending on how smart they are in staying current (Staples does an excellent job with this) the stores themselves close. CompUSA, Borders, and Circuit City were not so smart apparently.
The hardest part is managing the profitability slides from print to digital with all those fixed overheads (e.g., human beings with kids to feed), but this control is not actually in the manufacturer’s hands. New competition comes along and baits you into eroding what you have. You follow you lose. You don’t you lose. But change was going to erode and alter everything anyway so why not figure it out yourself while you still can? Continuous innovation. Kodak did not. Palm did not. The list is very long.
And I imagine many button manufacturers who continued to supply the risk-averse retailers who confidently dictated what products they should make (do NOT go there) failed to survive as clasps and zippers and Velcro reduced their volumes. I will zip it now. Or button it?