Leading others through change isn’t for the weak. Here are five encouragements for dealing with resistance to your creative innovations, taken from the rise of the paperback book in the mid-20th century.
The best selling film in history opened in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 15, 1939. A ticket to Gone with the Wind that day cost 20 cents. By comparison, the hardbound book on which it was based cost $2.75.
Adjusted for inflation, that’s a choice between a $10 movie ticket or a $150 book.
Not many people bought books in 1939.
That all changed when Robert de Graff released the first paperback book. Like any revolutionary change, it seems simple in retrospect. But the entrepreneurial de Graff pulled off a minor miracle by overturning publishing business plans that seemed cased in stone.
Maybe you’re planning on launching something innovative and potentially revolutionary. If so, pay careful attention to and be encouraged by these five lessons on how innovation works and the resistance you will encounter.
1. Status quo keepers seldom see the new until long after it’s established
Prior to 1939, book buyers shopped at boutique literary stores in major cities like New York. de Graff’s paperback book plan depended on selling books “in newsstands, subway stations, drugstores, and other outlets to reach the suburban and rural populace.”
That was crazy talk. Nobody believed suburban and rural audiences wanted books. As it turns out, they did. Everyone relied on conventional wisdom, which said these audiences were uneducated. Nobody had ever seriously investigated the possibility.
2. Old methods don’t lead to new audiences
Hardbound books prior to this publishing revolution had “stately, color-coded covers … which lacked graphics other than the publishers’ logos.”
de Graff believed that slightly less literary audiences could be aided by graphics and color. While keeping the text the same, he presented paperbacks with visual appeal.
He was right — his audience was literary enough to read but appreciated illustrations and images.
As de Graff’s pocket-sized paperback books took off, competitors got in the game. One such businessman stuck with plain covers, trying to maintain the traditional style in the new arena. He believed there was a market for literary yet frugal buyers. He failed miserably.
3. Naysayers will initially ignore you, but their resistance means you’re succeeding
After the war, the paperback business took to the stratosphere. Hardcover publishers watched but did little as these new publishers chipped away at their market share.
Prior to the advent of paperbacks, a successful, nationally released hardbound book might sell 10,000 copies. Bantam Books started in 1945 and specialized in reprints of hardbound books such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. Print runs of initial titles were often 200,000 or more, and almost every title sold out. They released one title every week.
In spite of this success, many of the traditional publishers turned their nose down at the thought of moving down the food chain on purpose. One traditional publisher wrote to another,
The general intention of the covers is to attract Americans, who, more elementary than the Britishers, are schooled from infancy to disdain even the best product unless it is smoothly packaged and merchandised.
They failed to ask, if someone with a less advantaged history discovers Shakespeare for the first time, what trouble is it that the cover is low brow or if it has a few illustrations? It’s hard to argue with the overall increase in literacy America experienced with the flood of new books into the market.
(Tip: Some people will worry about what your innovation will do to their apple cart. Tell them, your creative thinking will survive on its own merits if it’s worthwhile.)
4. For lasting innovation, look beyond the first generation of the new, which usually imitates the old
Most early paperbacks were almost exclusively reprints of existing hardbound books.
Without a license agreement to reprint, competitor Fawcett Publications was forced to innovate to survive. Their solution? Original paperbacks and new authors. Publishers again scoffed, including this time fellow paperback publishers. They said, business plans won’t support the higher cost of goods that author royalties would create.
The funny thing is, the same thing happened during the rise of the printing press 500 years prior. In the latter half of the 15th century, most new books were reprints of monastic scrolls. Most printers saw no market with anything else. It wasn’t until the 16th century, as the reprint business waned, that the resulting market need created an environment for entrepreneurs to invent the new concept of an “author.”
5. Have faith that the new will eventually gain legitimacy
For a time, original paperbacks were stigmatized. “Dime store books,” genre westerns, and romances were shunned by serious writers. But again, innovation found a way. Over time, “trade paperbacks” found a middle niche between traditional, highbrow hard bounds and the newer, lowbrow paperbacks.
Generally, change starts at the bottom and moves up. It doesn’t matter what the industry is: books, music, technology, business, education, church. Consider: The organ was a bar instrument long before it was a sacred instrument. The first mass market automobile, the model T, was considered unreliable. Fans booed Bob Dylan on electric guitar. The first social network was mySpace.
As large scale innovation assimilates, it moves up the socio-economic scale. Change starts on the fringes and eventually moves to the middle.
(Tip: Those with the least investment in the old thing are the most free to create the new thing. Work with people whose livelihood isn’t tied to prepetuating the status quo.)
What creative project do you find encouragement for in the history of paperback books?