January 10, 2012

When innovation backfires


Modern times...

Patrick B. Pexton, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, wrote an intriguing article for the Post wondering if “there’s just a bit too much innovation, too fast.” While acknowledging that “innovation is important, even necessary, in this new media environment” and that he’s “heartened” by the “tremendous amount of innovation going on” he cites a few complaints and problems as evidence of innovation overload.

Readers complained that the paper’s new @MotionMachine pop-up was just ”one more thing to clutter a Web site that already takes forever to download” and another worried that the new features had led to a decline in journalistic quality: “Why do all the new gewgaws, bells, whistles and features when The Post can’t even get the basics right?” Pexton admits that content is being produced at a rapid rate: “Staffers point out that The Post has 108 blogs; the New York Times has only 62 but with a much larger staff to fill them.”

He concludes: “I want The Post to continue to innovate. It’s important for the publication’s survival….But there’s a time to press on the accelerator, and a time to ease off.”

Pexton’s piece could easily have been written about the book publishing industry, a world that has seen such dramatic shifts in technology, distribution, and content that market analyst Michael Wolf recently wrote: “Of all the markets I’ve followed in my decade-plus as a consumer analyst, I’ve never seen a market changing faster than the digital publishing market of today…”

As in the newspaper world, innovation is clearly required for survival for publishers large and small, and booksellers of all shapes and sizes. Still, the desire for change can sometimes undermine critical and valuable aspects of a product. If the Post’s new website leads to low-quality journalism, that’s hardly an innovation to be excited about.

All innovation is not an improvement, just as resistance to innovation is not wisdom. Finding the innovation “sweet spot” requires an open mind about fundamental change, while also realizing the essential values of existing ideas. This is a conversation we have almost daily at Melville House. As we enter 2012, I’d be curious to hear what MobyLives readers what innovation are most necessary for the publishing industry… and what innovations might risk hurting the essential value of literature.