By Sramana Mitra and guest author Shaloo Shalini
SM: What percentage of books today are being sold by Amazon and online retailers?
PW: I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, but I know that it more than tripled in a year in terms of our share. Well, we have a very small amount of the overall sales through Amazon, but that is now tripling. Trade [books, or books that are intended for the general public] are probably about 5% of our business as Mifflin Harcourt, so it doesn’t always get a lot of mind share, I guess; the numbers don’t stick with me as some of the K-12 [numbers] do.
SM: Right! One thing I would say after listening to you, and given the business you are in and what is happening from a technology point of view, it seems to me that it would be very much to your advantage to welcome more technology entrepreneurs into your fold and start innovating with them. Maybe you could become kind of a facilitator to help those entrepreneurs go to market through your channels, because if you don’t, this innovation is going to happen anyway, and a lot of the expertise on this kind of technology is outside of your company. You are going to get disrupted; am I right?
PW: Correct, and that is a good point. It is 186 years of traditional business; progress is oftentimes slow to come.
SM: Yes. Part of the expertise you have in that 186-year-old company is book publishing, and now the game is changing and you need to add to that expertise to produce the kind of content we are talking about. That does not necessarily sit inside of your company today.
PW: Another thing is that our legacy business processes are centered on the traditional flow of creating and publishing books. We have taken great strides to change that, but it’s publishing, which is not always a very dynamic business. So, yes, it is a challenge, and a great place for innovators to be.
It is also somewhat of a scary place for content providers because the more you expose your content to Google or Apple or whatever, the more you stand a chance of commoditizing it. Then it becomes like any other piece of content that you find on the Web today. It is difficult to I guess commercialize that in a way that captures long-term revenue flow, as a book program does when you put it in schools.
SM: Well, if you think about it, when you work with all these assumptions such as it needs to be compliant with the school districts and so forth, then you also bring in all the technical expertise of doing something such as educational games. There is a lot of expertise in that, especially in Silicon Valley, where I am based. You could marry your expertise in publishing and education with the gaming industry; this could be very powerful.
PW: Oh, absolutely. It’s an interesting idea indeed. Back in 2001 when then-Universal purchased Houghton Mifflin, that was their core premise for the purchase. The basis for their purchase was to take great educational content and merge it with the gaming concept to create the edutainment market, if you would.
SM: But you know, I think the infrastructure for and expertise in gaming has improved quite a lot since those days. Also, the entrepreneurial ecosystem has improved, there are a lot more entrepreneurs operating now. I think if you apply those principles today, you will see a lot more entrepreneurial and innovative developments on that front.
PW: The other phenomenon that is occurring is traditionally, teachers have not been very technology savvy, but has been huge turnover in the past year and half that will continue for the next four years. There will be a lot of people who have been educators for more than 20 years who will be retiring, with people who tend to be more technologically savvy, who are used to social media interaction and are more like the kids they are serving, as teachers.
SM: Exactly. This was an excellent discussion; I am glad that we had a chance to talk. Thank you, Paul.
PW: Thanks, Sramana.