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The Leadership Legend – CEOs, David Petraeus & Marie Antoinette

davidmarie

Zeitgeist has found himself leading projects several times over the past year. The prospect can sometimes be a challenging one, and the received wisdom is that looking to the past can help shed light on the future. Looking at both recent and ancient history, however, says one thing more than anything else; leaders are a victim of circumstances. Any strategy must adapt to context.

As a 20-something Londoner with money to burn, Zeitgeist naturally found himself on Saturday night sitting at home, reading The New Yorker. The fascinating review by Dexter Filkins of recent biographies on David Petraeus, former CIA director and responsible for the execution of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, painted an interesting portrait of what leadership is about. He recognised that the system in place in the early days of Iraq of rounding up countless civilians in order to ferret out insurgents was not an efficient one, nor was it especially effective. Rather, as Filkins points out, “I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over”. Leadership, then, in this case, came in the ability to spot a deficiency, and then building on it by offering a better solution. Petraeus, who liked to say that “money is ammunition”, focused on the civilians they wanted to protect, rather than the enemy they wanted to kill. This was a drastically radical notion at the time in the military. True leadership narratives are often riddled with anecdotes of absolute maverick behaviour of this kind. The fallacy is that, and this is one of Taleb’s main points in his book on uncertainty, Black Swan, the stories of those whose maverick ideas did not work out rarely make for interesting books or films. Few songs will be written about those guys.

Just as Petraeus was able to leverage the time in which he happened to be serving in order to spot something that he could perceive to be at fault and have the opportunity to amend, there is then an element of luck involved too. “I have plenty of clever generals”, Napoleon once said, “Just give me a lucky one”. Petraeus’ luck began with being around at the right time in order to see how things could be different. It continued when he managed to shepherd his idea for the ‘surge’ to fruition. While at the time the idea of deploying an extra 25,000 soldiers to Iraq was greeted with some mixed reactions to the say the least, it can certainly be said to have paid off in large part. It was another example of a maverick move that panned out well. However, as Filkins points out, the timing of it all was what made it such a success. The Awakening, a phrase given to Sunni-orchestrated truces with US troops that began before the surge, was instrumental. Filkins writes, “Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not”. The Awakening most assuredly featured tactically in the execution of the surge, but you can be sure it was never part of the strategy. Perhaps it was the failure to notice this, and the attractiveness of the holistic narrative – another fallacy that Taleb notes in his book – that led to a surge being attempted, with far less success, in Afghanistan. What works in one place at one time, might not work again.

Zeitgeist is also currently wading through the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser. It is quite extraordinary to note how many times the autocratic aristocracy are a victim of circumstances, rather than being able to dictate their own fate through their own policies and leadership. In the long-term, though greeted with warmth at the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette was always treated with a modicum of suspicion by the people of France, hailing from Austria, a country of lukewarm political relations and which culturally left many an ordinary Frenchman cold. It was long-gestating prejudices such as these that helped blacken the Queen’s name. The phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ had been ascribed to various monarchs going back over a century before Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne. In the medium-term, the support France provided in the American war of independence was pivotal. The Treasury spent an enormous amount of money funding the war, which was seen as a proxy battle with England. This action alone nearly bankrupted the country. But, away from finances, there was the ideological lens to consider as well. Landed gentry like Lafayette, who left nobly at the King’s command to support the war, returned not only as lauded heroes, but as heroes who had been fighting with a group of people who yearned to be free of a suppressive, royalist regime. Such thinking proved infectious, and was not forgotten when men like Lafayette returned home. Finally, in the short-term, an absolutely ruinous stroke of weather stunted harvests, creating mass famine across the country in the lead-up to the revolution. All such things were manageable to an extent by the royalty, but truthfully the origins of such influences were out of their hands.

CEOs today are seen as less wizard-like than they were five or ten years ago, when moguls, particularly in the media industry, bestrode the globe, acquiring companies at their whim, creating ‘synergy’ where none really existed in the first place (think AOL Time Warner). The paradigm shift of course has been in the global recession that few – including many a lauded business leader – foresaw. Confidence in such people has been shaken. What these histories tells us about the ways to handle leadership then can be summarised in the following ways: 1. Know your environment. Externalities and trends are likely to influence your business, and not always in obvious ways. 2. Be mindful of context. What works somewhere might not work in the same way again elsewhere. 3. Appearance, rightly or wrongly, counts for a great deal. 4. When you choose to do something can sometimes be as important as the thing you are trying to do itself. 5. A small amount of luck can go a long way.

Beyond the Linear – New ways of entertaining

January 20, 2013 1 comment

Audience-clapping2

The days of P.T. Barnum, and the sense of spectacle an audience received from seeing a live performance have long passed; codified, commodotised, sanitised and made instantly available. Or have they? The way we entertain ourselves nowadays has changed greatly, and keeps changing. But are our tastes evolving or revolving? Is there hope for such seeming anachronisms as the TV, the live performance and even the book?

Two years ago, Zeitgeist wrote a brief article on the nature of contemporary consumption of media. It began with the headline that 8-18 year olds in the US spend a quarter of their media time with multiple devices. Furthermore, almost a quarter of that age group use one other device most of the time while watching television. In 2013, this preference for multiple stimuli has only accelerated. 80% of UK smartphone owners (making up over half the phone-owning population) use their phones while watching the TV. Similar figures were reported in the US, and similar figures were also reported for tablet owners.  Such figures give marketers pause for thought as they begin to approach these complementary devices as ways to extend their brand from the television onto the second screen. JWT Intelligence has a great report on this.

However, it is easy to overstate the arrival of shiny, new devices, and the apparent death of television. The blame for this misconception lies partly with the media itself; journalism is less engaging when it merely reports on the maintenance of the status quo (i.e. ‘people are still watching TV’). Far more interesting to hear about what new objects are showing a bit of ankle at CES, and that us mere mortals might one day dare to dream of owning ourselves, at which point all other material objects become unnecessary. All the more so when the journalistic integrity is compromised by corporate meddling, as was the case with CNET’s reporting this year. It was refreshing then to read TechCrunch’s recent article with the headline, ‘TV still King in Media Consumption’. The article, quoting a recent report by Nielsen, was particularly interesting in noting the prevalence of TV when it referenced that almost half the homes with TVs in the US owned four or more sets. Startling. More startling, the average household spends six days a month watching television, far ahead of other media consumption (using the Internet on a computer, at a little over 28 hours a month, came a distant second). The FT writes,

Over the past decade, despite the proliferation of video content on the web, TV consumption in the UK has remained steady with the average person watching about four hours a day. Almost 80 per cent of this viewing is on the top five channels, virtually unchanged from 10 years ago.

Creative destruction is something Zeitgeist takes an active interest in and has written about several times before on this blog. It takes hold in some industries (and households in this case) more quickly than in others. The same Nielsen study found that over 55% of US homes still had working VCRs. Moreover, despite much editorial to the contrary over recent years, the PC has not yet been wiped out by creative destruction and remains a staple for several reasons in both Western and emerging economies. According to Deloitte’s recent publication, “Technology, Media and Telecoms Predictions 2013″, although the attraction of tablets – and now ‘phablets’ – mean powerful computing and a cheaper cost, allowing the potential for leapfrogging of PCs in emerging markets, qualitative research shows a small but significant demand remains for PC ownership. Moreover, many businesses in the West, currently struggling with the implications of BYO devices, are not about to jettison the PC either. Switching costs, Zeitgeist suspects, are at play here, as with those stubborn VCR owners. Click here for more of our thoughts on switching costs.

VCR owners though will one day cease to be in the majority. New avenues of distribution and consumption are opening up, though not as quickly as first thought in some cases, particularly in that of live, streaming TV, which has faced many regulatory hurdles. Variety elaborates, “Loudly trumpeted efforts have fallen short, victims of poor design decisions, overpriced services and/or confusion about the target audience”. Yet alternatives are there. One of the more interesting streaming TV options in the US currently is that of Dyle, with 90 stations in 35 markets. It is run by a partnership that includes Fox, NBC, Hearst Television and others. The really interesting thing about the service is that it neutralises the problem many smartphone users will have of returning data caps by streaming off a separate network spectrum, which doesn’t impact on data allowances. Nice thinking.

Is the increasing popularity of streaming, and the content they prefer to watch over such a channel, already beginning to effect the types of films being produced?

Is the increasing popularity of streaming, and the content viewers prefer to watch over such a channel, already beginning to effect the types of films being produced?

Though new technology has not created new tastes in content or viewing habits, it has undeniably acted as a catalyst to desires already present. Zeitgeist remembers hearing a LoveFilm representative speak last year at AdTech in London about the increasing share streaming films took in the marketplace. Nothing too extraordinary in that statement, especially from a purveyor of streaming content. The rub came when he went on to elaborate that people tend to stream films when they are in the mood for instant gratification, in the form usually of an action film or romantic comedy. The increasing popularity of streaming, and therefore the increasing popularity of these particular genres, means the way the medium is distributed may very likely have a very significant influence on the type of content in the future that is commissioned. It was no surprise then to see, on a recent cinema trip, trailers for three films that neatly fit into that category for instant gratification (see above). Zeitgeist wrote at length on the need for film studios to address arbitrary platform release windows at the end of last year. Our article was mentioned in the lead editorial of entertainment trade paper Variety. Part of our argument is beginning to be addressed already. The FT recently published news that studios had managed to stem the six year decline in home viewing figures for films last year. The article elaborates that this is in part due to the strength of digital downloads, with films sometimes being available for digital distribution before they were available on DVD. Taken 2, a superb candidate for streaming given the previous statement by LoveFilm, was released Christmas Day in the US on digital platforms, “weeks before its release on DVD”. Such thinking goes hand-in-hand with the new UltraViolet format, to which several studios are subscribing. This allows those purchasing a movie on DVD – such as the recent Dark Knight Rises – to watch it with ease on multiple platforms. Mashable carried an article last week stating that several electronics firms have now also signed up to the UltraViolet partnership. Consumers will receive ten free movies when they sign up to the service, as incentive.

The example of Netflix is an interesting one in trying to understand the balance between consumers’ desire for multiple media and instantly-accessible content, and content owners desires to drive maximum revenue from their product. The company has been making a bigger push into providing TV shows of late, and is being rewarded for it, particularly with regard to older shows. A cultural trend many a pundit has put their finger on since the credit crunch began to bite back in 2008, nostalgia has manifested itself in consumers’ desire for old shows, including Midsomer Murders and Rising Damp, reports the FT. This long tail effect is turning a tidy profit for Netflix, as well as the original broadcaster, ITV. As a complement to this, the company is also fostering new partnerships, first with Disney in December, giving it “exclusive rights from 2016 to movies from Disney, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios, and Disneynature”. Then, at the beginning of this year, it inked a deal with Warner Brothers, to show new and old TV shows from the studio. It should be noted however, as with all these new deals and technological developments and marches into previously uncharted territory, regulatory wranglings have ensued, in this case with sister company Time Warner Cable. The problem in this situation is not perhaps so much that Netflix is trying hard to push its availability into lateral markets, but that it is not trying hard enough to create a cohesive platform that is available across all complementary platforms and devices.

AccentureDevicesReport2013

Research from Accenture illustrates a declining demand for single-use devices

One thing which Netflix will want desperately to escape being accused of – and it has done so with much success thus far – is being a niche provider of content. Sadly, the days of the point-and-shoot camera, the dedicated games console, etc., are numbered, according to a recent report by Accenture. It is evidently with such a strategic outlook in mind that Disney have recently announced their Infinity gaming platform. Variety describes it as an “online treasure chest”, featuring a plethora of Disney characters from over the years that can be interacted with over multiple platforms, whether on mobile or on videogame consoles. Importantly, the concept is designed to be an iterative, one that will grow and add characters over time, presumably as new IP is created. It certainly pays heed to the second screen phenomenon by recognising the need for multiple device access. It also plays off the trend started by the game ‘Skylanders’, which involves both physical toys and digital interaction. The same principle will apply with new toys developed for Infinity, which can then be used to create unique stories and drive narratives. The idea of having disparate characters from different Disney franchises is potentially a frightening one for those in charge of the individual brand essences of said titles, but the potential for success can be found by looking no further than the Toy Story films, which feature an assortment of different genre toys that mix well in situ.

We’ve discussed the changing models of consumption for most of the article, but it is worth noting briefly how our cultural tastes are also changing, brought on by technology (again), but also globalisation. Pundits are often quick to point out nowadays that there is a substantial demand for the live experience. Yet if we look at music, one of the most profound things to experience live, recent figures showed attendance to concerts had dipped. At the end of last year, in an insightful roundtable, The New York Times interviewed several talking heads, asking them to round up their thoughts on 2012 in the music industry. One of the more interesting points repeatedly made was that of the abundant opportunity that the Internet now provides for musical talent. Moreover, the Internet at large has become just as viable – if not a more viable – starting place for an emerging artist than signing with a record label:

“Now this year something’s been proven: Pop performers can become truly famous by building their careers themselves online, maybe more efficiently and faster than a major company can help them to do.

… you look at the first-week sales numbers of someone like Kendrick Lamar, who had an independent album that was digital only and is now on [the major-label] Interscope, but basically has no major radio hits, even if he is well-liked by mainstream hip-hop. He comes out and sells about 240,000 in his first week. A couple weeks later Rihanna comes out — not her first album and at the height of her pop fame — and sells a few thousand less than Kendrick did.”

The other trend, globalisation, has meant that voices increasingly other than those that are Western, are more easily heard. The irrepressible Psy had the honour of being the performer in the first YouTube video to cross one billion views. Conversely, in his home country of South Korea, ‘Gangnam Style’ has accrued a pitiful “$50,000 from CD sales and $61,000 from 3.6m downloads”. The point remains, however, that the fallacy of the West as the cradle of pop culture is being exposed. Christopher Caldwell illustrates this masterfully, writing for the FT in December.

Boston Consulting Group digital services 2015

Zeitgeist has written before about the upheaval new trends and preferences for media consumption – impacted significantly by the arrival of the Internet – have wrought on financial growth in the media and entertainment sector. Digital, in the form of Napster and its myrmidons in particular, has a lot to answer for. There was some relief then that at the beginning of the year when UK digital sales topped GBP1 billion for the first time (though still failing to off-set the physical media decline). Moreover, Boston Consulting Group predicted last month – in an excellent report entitled Changing Engines in Midflight: The 2012 TMT Value Creators Report – that by 2015 the digital services ecosystem will reach $1 trillion by 2015 (see above).

It is interesting to see where the ownership of content starts and ends across layers, and how content owners are trying to monetise these platforms and grab as much market share as possible from their competitors. Amazon recently began offering digital downloads of any CD you have purchased from them since 1998. It would be a great surprise to see if they do the same for books anytime soon. Fortunately, reading still constitutes an avenue of entertainment, for those of all ages. A recent piece by The New York Times reported that digital reading was on the rise for children. The article notes the numbers give some room for discrepancy, but states “about one-fourth of the boys who had read an e-book said they were reading more books for fun”, which is a desperately important emotional connection to maintain. While e-reading is a commendable past-time, is there any merit in pushing further, and advocating for interacting with a medium that does not involve a digital display? Such a turn of events, perhaps aided by the trend for nostalgia mentioned earlier, is presenting itself in the luxury hotel market, with physical libraries returning to shelves. It has been termed ‘rematerialism’.

So what does this all mean for consumer entertainment? There are evidently lots of new technologies being released, from smart TVs to new gaming devices, that will attempt to capture eyeballs. These devices, far from having to think of their natural competitors, still have the common television – and, as we have seen, even VCRs – to compete with and overthrow first. TV commands such a huge slice of viewing time, but it is under threat from distracted viewers who are now very comfortable – and more importantly socially accepting – of using a tablet, laptop or phone during a show. There are also regulatory implications t consider, which will most likely be shaped, ex-post, along the way. Taking consumers on a journey across multiple platforms and media in a seamless way will be key. Disney’s Infinity platform, when it is released, will hopefully serve as an excellent example to others of how to combine physical and digital entertainment.

Game Change – How TV stole Film’s Spotlight

In a belated – and very un-zeitgeisty – move, Zeitgeist only got around to seeing HBO’s Game Change this past weekend. The film, which first aired in the US in March, is based on the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. While the film has attracted its fair share of controversy, it has been deemed “very accurate” by those on the campaign trail at the time. Zeitgeist thoroughly enjoyed it; HBO had done it again.

HBO have had a remarkable run of success, producing some of the most daring, innovative and enjoyable TV shows of the past 20 years, from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Dexter to Sex and the City, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. HBO has created a brand halo effect for television, a medium once dismissed by serious actors and directors whose natural home was in movies. Now those professionals, such as Dustin Hoffman, flock to television. Speaking recently with the FT, he commented,

‘The big studios were making films that are only being done outside the studio system today. It used to be you would never do TV.’ That stigma has gone, he says; these days the only creative risks being taken are in low-budget independent films and on well-financed pay TV networks… ‘HBO leave you alone and there’s no censorship. You do the work you want to do.’

The real game change then is in the drift in creativity from the big screen to the small. The world of film is increasingly deemed to be suffering, bombarded as we have been for several years now with iteration after iteration of superhero from DC and Marvel. To rub salt into the wound, The Avengers yesterday passed the $1bn box office threshold after just 19 days, joining Avatar in its speed at reaching said gross. Last month’s Vanity Fair editorial elaborated on the malaise that is slowly descending on film. Graydon Carter notes,

Television offers a range and scope, and a degree of creativity and daring, that the bottom-line, global-audience-obsessed, brand-driven movie industry just can’t compete with… the superiority of television goes beyond drama. Comedy on TV is undergoing a renaissance, far outpacing the bromances that the film business falls back on so much.

Within this shift in TV’s prominence, a microcosm of change is also taking place. Ten or fifteen years ago, all the best US programming was being produced by the major networks – NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC – and garnering many a golden statuette at award ceremonies, with cable left to function as auxillary provider of repeats of said programming. This situation has now changed, as cable networks like HBO, FX, Showtime and AMC debut their own quality shows. The New York Times reported on this ‘cable envy’, and how the majors are trying to fight back. It seems a seachange has occurred as the glut of ‘reality’ shows has made way for higher quality programming.

Of course, the other massive shift occurring in the TV landscape at the moment is the way in which we consume television. This has to influence both the quantity and type of media that we consume. Social TV and the ‘second screen’ trend are making the TV-watching experience even more engaging. VentureBeat feature a great infographic of how said landscape has changed.

Check us out

February 14, 2011 1 comment

As we celebrate our first anniversary and approach our 150th post, please join us in celebrating our 30,000th hit.

Over the past year, we’ve written on a variety of subjects. Some articles have commented on whole industries or cultural movements, some on incidents of spectacular successes or dismal failures.

We’ve written on the changing face of masculinity, and how men shop in the second decade of the 21st century. We examined why England lost it’s World Cup bid, and what the World Cup meant for the world as a whole, and the businesses that aim to profit from it.

We talked about the future of content; what it means to own something that only exists as a file on a computer, but you still have to pay for, as bookshops and videostores fade to dust and intellectual property rights evolve along an uncertain path.

How social media is used for good, for ill, for Gatorade and for Conan O’Brien.

We’ve ruminated on leadership, on how luxury justifies itself post-recession, and how antique brands like Louis Vuitton attempt to keep themselves fresh, as well as ultra-premium.

We’ve talked about how movie studios win by marketing their product, and how auction houses lost out to the pitfalls of behavioural economics.

We’ve debriefed you on our visit to the UK’s Google HQ, while waxing lyrical on Nintendo as it moves from taking on Sega to taking on Apple.  We’ve asked what it means for the future of TV when everyone has Sky+ and a broadband connection. And we’ve looked at several examples of superb brand activation.

Lastly, we’ve tried in vain to present the glory of Roger Federer.

Stick around and have a browse, we’re not going anywhere.

White sky in the morning, profits warning!

January 10, 2011 2 comments

How will the snow affect the UK retail landscape?

While the news at the time focused on stranded air passengers, a crippled transport network and the need for some inventive parenting to explain why Father Christmas was unable to deliver presents on time, the after-effects of December’s heavy snowfall are now being felt strongly on the UK high streets and shopping centres.

With the tinsel and fairy lights still in full view, it has been a far from Happy New Year for the number of retailers forced to announce that their sales were lower than expected with the consquences ranging from store closures and job losses to profits warnings. Many cited the unwelcome cold snap as compounding difficulties brought about by the economic crisis, changing consumer habits and threats appearing from non-traditional competitors.

First to register concern were HMV, who admitted in an unscheduled trading statement, that like-for-like sales across its UK and Ireland outlets had plunged by 13.6% in December. Having seen other music and entertainment retailers, including Zavvi, Our Price, Tower Records and even Woolworths bite the dust in recent years it isn’t surprising that the entertainment specialist is feeling the heat while the rest of us freeze.

Zeitgeist has already touched on how ‘In some industries, the concept of owning something tangibly has become redundant;‘, with music and film sitting high on that list. More worryingly for HMV as the owner of Waterstones bookshops is Amazon‘s online dominance of the category and the rise of devices like the Kindle and regular smartphones that are likely to eat into book sales in the coming years.

Deeper Problems

While the sub-zero temperatures may have kept shoppers out of their stores the weather can’t take all of the blame. This weekend, this half of Zeitgeist bought a CD as a friends birthday present. A quick look online showed the item retailing on HMV.com at £8.99, however in-store I was obliged to pay £17.99. The Sales Assistant helpfully told me that the difference was because online sales are shipped from Guernsey. I rather suspect that the lower price has more to do with the fact that other online stores such as Amazon.co.uk and Play.com are also selling the item for £8.99 than where the item is shipped from.

It’s not hard to see why the bricks-and-mortar stores are in so much trouble when they have to sell items for nearly double the online price to cover their overheads. In this instance the extra cost doubles as a ‘Failure to Plan‘ tax for me, but increasingly shoppers will go online for their entertainment needs rather than paying a premium for the convenience of getting it immediately on the high street. Alternatively they’ll simply download or stream it and do away with the need for any physical material purchase.

This final option shows how behaviour change can be brought about with the right motivations. For years now, we have been encouraged to reduce unnecessary waste and raw materials to help the environment. However, it is the convenience of having music, film, games and books stored digitally, rather on discs in plastic boxes or paper, that has proved more of a driver than any desire to save the planet.

Others Affected

Another retailer to be affected by how we now spend our leisure time is Games Workshop who issued a profits warning of their own soon after.

Two other retailers who also issued a now on-trend profits warning are greeting cards merchants Clinton Cards and maternity and babyware retailer Mothercare.

For Clintons this is the second such warning in six months and time will tell whether ‘strategic intiatives‘ taken by the board will have the desired effect or whether as a nation, a new generation is growing up to wish ‘Happy Birthdays’ and ‘Merry Chistmases’ via text message or social media sites.

Encroachment on their traditional market by the major multiples hasn’t helped Mothercare and brokers Seymour Pierce have questioned quite how much of their problems are down to the snow.

With the Christmas period so crucial for many retailers there may be more similar statements being prepared in boardrooms up and down the land. The slightly milder weather in early January may help ‘The Sales’ boost some bottom lines, but with a number of retailers choosing to delay exposing shoppers to the increase in VAT the bargain hunters may not spend enough to make up the shortfall, particularly if they are saving for a more expensive 2011. If a handful of retailers do go under it begs the question, ‘Who will take over their retail space and what will the retail landscape look like in a couple of years from now?’.

Such gloomy announcements from household names will do little to help the economy and improve consumer confidence, particularly once the seemingly permanent VAT rise comes into effect everywhere.

In the meantime we’ll have to wait and see what legacy the snow is going to leave in other sectors such as insurance, utilities and travel. Either way, it might be an idea to start saving now for those premiums and gas bills.

Noble in defeat

Part of the Zeitgeist entity once had the enormous privilege of lunching at the Friar’s Club in New York while sitting between the publisher of the The New Yorker and the CEO of the Barnes and Noble book empire. Zeitgeist begged the latter to bring the stores to the UK, but he said it wasn’t something they were looking to do. Archrival Borders did make the leap across the Atlantic, with unfortunate results. Now Barnes and Noble – which this week The Economist called “the world’s leading bookstore” is suffering a similar fate Stateside and is now up for sale, as Brandchannel reported this week,

Despite an aggressive move to compete with Amazon’s Kindle by launching its own e-book reader, the Nook, with branded e-boutiques in every Barnes & Noble store, the news that B&N is itself for sale may sound the death knell for physical bookstores of any size. Bittersweet, ironic revenge for Meg Ryan’s You’ve Got Mail character?

Zeitgeist has previously mentioned an excellent article written recently in The New Yorker that details the hopes and dreams the publishing industry is putting on the iPad. For booksellers, however, the matter is altogether different. Barnes & Noble has, like Borders and even Waterstone’s, slowly lost ground to its online peers – just as the retail ground of the stores was increasingly lost to magazines, music and DVDs – where people can either buy books through places like Amazon, or read equivalent content for free (the newspaper industry has suffered from similar conflicts). OgilvyIntel tweeted recently that Amazon sold more e-reader books than “real” hardcover books in the last 3 months.

Independent bookshops will seek to benefit from the fall of these giants, but it was giant discount chains like Tesco in the UK and Costco in the US that also helped contribute to their demise. BN has a history of innovation according to The Economist, “advertising books on television, discounting the price of bestsellers and forging partnerships with… Starbucks”. Continuing to survive will requite more innovation. But turning bookstores in entertainment hubs equivalent to an HMV has turned away the truly dedicated bibliophiles that kept those bricks-and-mortar stores going in the first place. As an unspoken rule, 20% of your customers account for 80% of your revenue generation. Barnes & Noble, like others, lost its core audience in a desperate chase for the masses, leading to brand dilution. And though magazine publications are very happy with the impressions and revenue they are receiving from the soft copy versions of their content currently appearing on many an iPad, for booksellers it only makes the situation murkier, as Brandchannel concludes,

[T]he very definition of what constitutes a “book” is redefining business models — and eliminating some businesses altogether — as a cultural and technological shift occurs right in front of our eyes.

Wow! What a difference!

When was the last time you visited Blockbuster video? Thought so. Zeitgeist remembers being very excited when he first saw ads akin to that of above; a magical destination for access to many, many films. Of course, the problem was that one had to drive to the store in hope that the film that had just come out that weekend had not already sold out. Then along came Netflix et al. (not to mention Torrents), and Blockbuster, like some listless Neanderthal, was far too slow in catching up. Today it is sagged with a $1b debt. Reuters have an interesting (though mostly anecdotal) article about the demise of the retail giant. Unfortunately, Blockbuster – once a destination space – failed to anticipate the digital revolution of both choice (the availability and range of films online exceeds that of a bricks and mortar store) and convenience (why leave home to rent a movie you can just as easily have mailed / streamed to you online?).

Another industry currently in the throes of potentially significant change is the book industry. The Economist recently featured a couple of excellent articles on what the iPad – and its inevitable successors and imitators – will mean for books and bookstores, for better or worse. When almost 1 in 5 books sold in North America come from Amazon.com, what does that mean for the independent book store? Zeitgeist believes that such shops, like the wonderful Heywood Hill in Mayfair, will have to rely increasingly on their provenance and their eccentrically niche position in the market, organising arcane events and readings to enhance this view.

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