Digital Uber Alles?


Richard Mollet, 15th June 2015 

Sitting in the back seat of an Uber cab in New York, on the way to a discussion about digital disruption in publishing at Book Expo America last month, it was impossible not to be struck by the clear parallels between the market conditions for taxis and books.  That Uber is now a major challenge to the established order can be in no doubt.   The company is gouging into the registered taxi market in the major cities across the US and their presence has already been noted – and protested – by London’s black cab drivers.

This all leads to the inevitable question as to whether there is going to be an “Uber moment” in the book world (a welcome alternative to the by now thoroughly tedious question of “where is publishing’s Spotify?”)  Is there going to be a service, like Uber, which successfully disrupts, undermines and even displaces the established order in publishing?

Some people would answer “inevitably”.  Certain techerati commentators take a perverse delight in predicting a disaster around every corner; as if for a business model to have existed in the last century means its demise is inevitable in this.  Such people shake their heads sagely and intone that “In The Future” everything will be different.  But these predictions often owe more to wishful thinking than careful analysis.

The interesting thing about Uber is that it is disrupting both the supply and demand of the cab equation.  First, passengers are making the switch from yellow-cabs because the Uber cabs are infinitely more comfortable (the typical Uber car has air-con and suspension – both hugely appreciated in New York’s muggy and surprisingly pot-holed streets), and mainly more convenient (saving people from the trauma of competitive hailing on busy junctions).  But perhaps as importantly, drivers are making the switch to Uber too.  A great many of New York’s Uber drivers are apparently former cabbies, who prefer the greater operational and contractual freedom, compared with that imposed by the City authorities for their cab-medallion ownership.

In this sense Uber can be seen as analogous to a self-publishing platform, through which the driver/author gains more autonomy, as the passenger/reader utterly disengages from their usual provider.

To this extent, we can say that publishing is already living through its Uber moment.  In fact, it got to it way before taxis.  But the reason why publishing is not being knocked out of the park by self-publishing in the way that Uber threatens to destroy the yellow-cab market is because of the quality of the incumbent service.  New York cabs were ripe for picking off because the service is inferior to that of the new challenger.

In publishing this is not the case.  Authors have, by and large, stuck with the incumbent model as have readers.  Self-publishing is providing an additional market, not a substitute one.  There is nothing in the world of self-publishing which – so far – looks to have the same clear operational advantage.  In fact, one could almost argue that by making thousands of new works available but not so easily discoverable, that self-publishing platforms are clearly less efficient than the publisher-reader model.  And whilst the odd excellent title does emerge through self-publishing, it is difficult to find many people who are ready to argue that in the main the quality of the product is superior to that published in the mainstream.

The real test of which way the analogy works will be London – will black cabs be as badly affected should Uber ever get a full licence to operate.  London cabs are way better than their NYC counterparts and the self-employed status of drivers gives them greater freedom of a manoeuvre (and the ability to use bus lanes a useful competitive advantage which doesn’t exist over there).  I suspect they will not be so badly affected, as the service provided by licenced operators and their vehicles is on balance an immensely good one.

Uber then is not so radically innovative as is often claimed.  It is really just a better way of doing the same thing as taxis (connecting drivers with passengers), but it does it more efficiently and with a better car.  The real innovation will come in the middle distance future with driverless cars.  They really will shake the market up as the supply side calculations will be thrown into turmoil.  By analogy, authorless books are surely beyond the realms of all possibility….