Is the Internet simply an irresistible “outside context” event for traditional book publishers?
Two interesting articles make it clear that it may be, if wielded aggressively.
The “outside context problem” was described in Iain M. Bank’s book “Excession,” in which a perfect black orb (the Excession) appears suddenly. It is judged to be older than the universe itself. What follows is akin to the outside context problem the Mayans and Aztecs faced when Spanish explorers appeared with ships, guns, and new diseases. Such is the outside context problem — the precipitating event is unforeseen, response isn’t possible, and the outcome is often fatal.
It brings to mind the standard form of introduction the Borg used in Star Trek: The Next Generation:
We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.
In an article in the Nation by Steve Wasserman entitled, “The Amazon Effect,” the outside context problem goes unnamed but clearly at play in his history of the Web retailer’s march across the book publishing landscape:
The death toll tells the tale. Two decades ago, there were about 4,000 independent bookstores in the United States; only about 1,900 remain. And now, even the victors are imperiled. The fate of the two largest US chain bookstores—themselves partly responsible for putting smaller stores to the sword—is instructive: Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011 and closed its several hundred stores across the country, its demise benefiting over the short term its rival Barnes & Noble, which is nonetheless desperately trying to figure out ways to pay the mortgage on the considerable real estate occupied by its 1,332 stores across the nation. It is removing thousands of physical books from stores in order to create nifty digital zones to persuade customers to embrace the Nook e-book readers, the company’s alternative to Amazon’s Kindle. Persistent rumors that B&N’s owners wish to sell regularly sweep the corridors of publishing. . . . The bookstore wars are over. Independents are battered, Borders is dead, Barnes & Noble weakened but still standing and Amazon triumphant.
The outside context problem also involves e-books, the fastest growing part of the book industry these days. It is called out specifically by Eoin Purcell in an excellent cogitation of what Irish bookstores and publishers are facing as e-publishers set their sights on that small island nation:
The Irish publishing industry is fast running into what might be described as some fashion of an ‘Outside Context Problem’ wherein the new arrivals on the scene are vastly superior in terms of abilities, vastly superior in terms of resources and possessed of superior technology. While some of the participants in the market might grasp the nature of the problem and respond as effectively as they can, the truth is that the disparity in attributes makes success unlikely and the new threat is very much an existential one.
Purcell rightly points out that even if e-books — mainly sold via Amazon, but also by Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble — grab only one-third of the market, the effects on everyone else vying for success in a small market will be profound.
The outside context effect is akin in my mind to the Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “black swan theory,” which postulates that an unforeseen event can occur, have significant effects, and only make sense through rationalizations later. However, the outside context notion has a clearer storyline — something superior arrives, naturally dominates, and absorbs or annihilates.
The music industry faced the outside context problem posed by Apple, and failed to respond well. It tried to remain what it was, and that doesn’t address the fact that the context has changed. Hints of response can be seen with “American Idol” and using show business glamor to move songs rather than albums. It’s only a start, but it’s a good start.
Book publishers are facing the outside context problem posed by Amazon. Tremors are frequent and worrisome. Does the presence of an outside context problem mean the game’s up? Perhaps. Maybe the most efficient response is to assimilate. Resistance may be futile after all.