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August 27, 1994

Skinny Down and Hang On

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Lane Hutchins stuck her head in her son’s bedroom doorway and said hi.
Fifteen-year-old Ryan quickly minimized the screen on his computer. The look on his face spelled guilt.
Uh-oh. Lane stepped into the room at once to investigate. Was her son viewing porn? Chatting with some nefarious character? Playing a forbidden video game?
Lane brought up the screen he’d been looking at.
Amazon.
Ryan had been buying the latest in his favorite series of sports novels.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” said the boy. “I know you don’t like us to buy books anywhere except from a store. But it’s just so much cheaper and easier, you know?”
Lane sighed. Even her own flesh and blood.
That night, as she tossed and turned as inconspicuously as she could beside her husband, she rehearsed the problems digitalization had brought to her beloved industry. Book publishing had always been an iffy enterprise, kept alive by romantics and idealists who had been born lacking the greed gene. But now, to the owner of a publishing company like herself, digitalization had introduced so many more disruptions. Was a profit-making business plan even possible anymore?
The way that online sales giants had shriveled publishing’s former symbiotic partner—the brick-and-mortar bookstore—was just the beginning of it. Books themselves were going digital, and the public had shown a marked aversion for paying any price for an e-book that didn’t return change from a ten-dollar bill. Worst was, you couldn’t completely switch to e-books, because too many people still demanded paper books. You had to publish in, and somehow make money in, both channels—all while the total number of Americans interested in reading books of any kind or format was on a downward bend. Print-on-demand technology was a solution, far from the solution. The conferences on the future of digital publishing that Lane had been going to had convinced her that there was no obvious solution.
Lane had to make a choice for Ripe Pickings Press, her gardening and hobby books publishing company.
For one thing, she could overcome her personal resistance to electronic publishing and choose to innovate and invest. But innovate how? Invest in what, exactly? Just maybe, she and her department heads could come up with a solution that would position the company splendidly for the future; what that would look like, though, she couldn’t even guess right now.
Or she could cut costs and hope that the situation resolved itself—the get-skinny-and-hang-on approach. In other words, wait it out while letting the bigger players figure out how to thrive in the age of electronic publishing. She knew getting skinny was hardly a prescription for long-term success. But in the shorter term it might give her company a chance to survive until she saw how to master the digital intruder.
This was a more appealing option to Lane at the moment. But it left many questions in her mind. Could Ripe Pickings tread water and still hold on to customer loyalty? Which employees and which initiatives would she have to let go, and which should she retain? How lean would be lean enough? How long would they have to stay on the diet?
Lane sighed. She’d been sighing a lot lately.
And she sure wasn’t sleeping.
Maybe she should slip down to the den and read something. She remembered how her best friend had raved about a new history of King Henry VIII’s wives—that book sounded great. Too bad she didn’t have a copy. Of course, if she ordered it on Amazon, she could get a discount and have it in two days.
She stopped herself. No, no, no!

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