Connecting the dots - MBA Alumni for the nascent e-book industry Europe?

The digital trade book business in Europe is booming and unlike US doesn’t show any sign of growth deceleration. In Europe, with perhaps the exception of UK, the weight of digital is still so small that the conventional market friction forces aren’t strong enough to absorb the important momentum tied to the digital book rise.

It’s a bit like the first 4 minutes of free fall by Felix Baumgartner, when he jumped from the stratosphere. The speed was continuously increasing and he was able to break the speed of sound, fuelled by the gravity force and by the absence of resistance from the air. As soon as he got relatively close to the atmosphere the speed would decelerate because of air resistance and free fall would stop and turn into a rather controlled fall at almost constant speed (less than 300km/h and way below the record speed of 1340km/h).

It’s way too obvious why the digital book revolution is happening. Progressive digitalization (in 1989 Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web), the rise of digital life habits and styles, and the abundance of e-publishing and e-reading solution. It’s a free rise (free as free fall, not as a free beer!) mostly propelled by exogenous factors. And as any free rise, sooner or later this will finish and turn in to a controlled rise (as it seems happening in US, where the astonishing triple digits growth is turning in to a stellar double digit growth that sooner or later will become a quite normal single digit growth). There is not endless growth or consumption. The population of readers is limited and availability of talented writers even more. In fact, the talent of writers has been barely affected by the availability of technologies.

Success in the publishing industry, both as book publisher and as book seller, is conventionally attributed to two key assets. Book publishers call them authors and readers. Book sellers call them content and consumers. It seems that if you have those two assets you are fine.

We always very openly talk about the latest best-sellers, we measure success based on how many titles make it in to the best seller’s list. We are able to link growth and economic success (if any) to some major author acquisition, marketing initiative, strategic partnership.

Very little is openly said about organizations and competences. Book publishing is a people business. Talents and organizations make the difference. To boast impressive results and stand out from the industry averages, any relevant player in the book publishing industry needs to ensure it has got most suited army of professionals: better competent and equipped than competitors’ ones. Or at least way bigger (at cost of inefficiencies).

What if you have to jump-in in to a “free rise” journey, like the digital trade book business? Well even if the first part of the rise is “free” it’s important to choose the right leader, the right team, the right technology. Even the control room on the earth with a mentor like Joe Kittinger is pivotal to make the “free rise” successful and prepare for the controlled rise with the right speed, the right position and with full control and fitness. Leaving the “free rise” to the fate, without adequate leader, plan, people and resources is going to be an announced disaster.

It’s a challenge that right now European publishers and booksellers are facing. What do organizations do? Do they let the anybody lead the “free rise” or do they carefully select and support the proper leader with an adequate team and resources? If you naively ask this question everybody will say the have the best persons in place. Right... But how did they choose their Felix Baumgartner, their Joe Kittinger (and their competent teams behind) to land on a new blue oceans of tranquility and avoid the red oceans of bloody competition?

I’ve started to realize that number of digital trade book executives with top-notch MBA education is growing. Let’s try to connect some dots…

In Europe there is a relatively high concentration of INSEAD alumni holding key positions in the trade ebook industry, despite the fact such industry is, for the moment being, a very small one. INSEAD is one of the top 5 business school in the world, together with Wharton, Harvard, LBS, and Chicago. According to Bloomberg Business Week, it is #1 MBA school in the world (outside US). One thing that distinguishes INSEAD grads from all the other MBA grads, is the focus on innovation from a business perspective. Both at strategic and execution level. It’s not by chance that the Blue Ocean Strategy canvas have been developed by INSEAD Faculty, Prof Kim and Mauborgne. Among the B-schools, INSEAD stands out for Innovation as Wharton does for Finance.

In Italy, the Kindle Country Manager and I, for Rizzoli, hold an MBA from INSEAD, which is pretty rare. There are only about 1000 people in Italy (over a population of 60 millions) who hold such MBA. In UK Harper Collins’s new Pricing Director holds an MBA from INSEAD. Kindle Director of Europe is an INSEAD Alumnus. Google Play EMEA Director of ebooks is an INSEAD Alumnus too. It’s hardly just a coincidence. In fact there aren’t many big players in Europe that can afford and attract MBA grads from the big 5 B-schools to tap in into a so small yet ebook business. At the moment, perhaps only a dozen of big publishers and largest online ebook sellers can afford MBA Alumni from top-notch B-schools.

Now back to Felix Baumgartner’s metaphor. The “free rise” should prepare for the controlled rise where size and position matter and growth decreases. Who is going to do the right sky-dive and lead the “free rise” phase of digital book business?

Some organizations have made a clear choice (of course not necessarily the right one, the future will tell). And the others? Who knows?

It would be great to learn of other examples and if I missed some other MBA Alumni, from any top-notch B-School, it would be helpful adding them to this statistics… I know there are another couple INSEAD grads holding key positions in the growing European STM ebook industry (Reed Elsevier and Pearson). How about the other side of the Atlantic?

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