When you stop working for a large corporate and start rubbing shoulders with entrepreneurs and VCs, and talk about launching your own venture, part of you thinks how institutionalised your business brain must appear, how risk averse your attitude compared to the serial gamblers, because you have to be something of a driven maverick to make and lose millions. But you forget at your peril that in any sector, some experience and knowledge of what might stand a chance of working is at least useful. Which is why we cheered when Dan Kieran from Unbound said last year in an interview “ Publishing is really hard…there isn’t a technical thing we’ve all forgotten.”
Category Archives: Startup
I wasn’t able to get to Contec at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, so I missed the discussion Where Would You Place Your Bet, looking into a crystal ball about the future of publishing. But I’ve read the Schilling report, created after consultations with publishers around the world which asked the question “How would they go about it if they had to start all over?”
I know that the Futurebook article on start-ups was a few weeks back, but it has provoked much debate in the whitefox work hub in Euston. It certainly made us think about some of the other start-ups we know (if we’re still allowed to call ourselves a start-up after two years ) and the differences between those who have been successful and those who haven’t.
It might seem like a generalisation, but entrepreneurs on the outside of publishing looking in seem to have a single-minded obsession with raising money on the basis of a silver bullet: a big, transformative, simple, scaleable idea that changes the game. Amazon is an example. But there’s an alternative: creating something that makes money by solving problems. For some, including us, it has taken years to work out what exactly what our business is. This has lead to some unexpected and exciting commercial opportunities which we hadn’t seen when we set out. We thought we had it all sussed. We created our business plan. We marketed our services. We bought and read The Lean Start-Up. But only when we started trading and saying yes to everything did we understand the potential scope. So I guess what we feel we’ve learned is that just because Amazon has disrupted the whole eco-system doesn’t mean you know what customers really want until you actually start doing stuff. And that winning doesn’t happen by pitching to VCs or angel investors with cash flow forecasts but out in the market place itself.
Launch and learn indeed.
So we start 2014 full of optimism and hope with our batteries recharged and our burning desire to create a successful new business within the publishing eco-system undimmed. And at the same time we try to ignore the words of the sainted Barry Humphries on stage at the Palladium as his alter-ego Dame Edna:
“Entrepreneur? That’s French for failure, dear.”
So we won an award. Or at least we have been pronounced amongst the 10 most innovative bods in publishing. Hurrah. And congratulations to all the nominees and winners in the h.Club 100 across all the different categories.
For those of us in attendance at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden last night, it was a ceremony that will live long in the memory, although not necessarily for the right reasons. I love British cynicism as much as the next shortlisted candidate, but the indomitable Laura Dockrill was right to make her point so dramatically during the pronouncements.
Of course David Bowie and Helen Mirren or even Charlie Redmayne were nowhere to be seen. So what? For the individuals or small companies and start-ups who did show it means a lot. A little recognition goes along way.
I had an endearingly frank conversation with an ex-colleague who is close to announcing their own innovative publishing start-up. “The trouble is,” they said:
I worry I don’t have the ego for all of this. If it’s going to work, I’m going to have to try and get as much PR for me and the idea behind the business as I am for the books.”
True. And also true that some of the most valuable attributes of a successful acquiring editor – the nurturing, the ability to listen, the empathy and collaboration in the margins – are not always shared by some of the cults of the personality who tend to suck up the oxygen of publicity in and around our industry.
Then, behold, a few days later, yet more news of possible launches, this time from those who have occupied some of the most senior jobs in traditional legacy publishing, gathering themselves for one last public hurrah. And, in this instance, no shortage of ego, self-belief or (maybe most importantly) funding.
Both conversations lead me back to that entrepreneurial Bible, Eric Ries’s The Lean Start-Up. With the right vision and strategy, and a lean ethic, I don’t see that being slightly reserved and uncomfortable with the limelight has hindered too many of the engineers and programmers who have made money from their successful business ideas in recent years.
But I would beware those ex-corporates who will find it hard to be weaned off their expense accounts, Net-a-Porter office deliveries, need for ‘creative space’ and a massive supporting infrastructure. Smart investors can smell cash eaters, however charismatic, at thirty paces.
Book Army was based on sound strategic logic. At a time when publishers would think nothing of spending multiple six figure sums on new company websites, but few consumers could identify the logo on the spine of the book they were currently reading, a UK-based social networking site for book lovers felt a more relevant way to drive consumer purchasing and ad revenue. And Book Army was publisher agnostic. If you wanted to recommend a book not published by HarperCollins, so be it. It was a soft rather than a hard sell.
Authonomy, on the other hand, was born to solve an editorial conundrum. Surely it was counterintuitive to declare on a publisher’s website that it did not accept unsolicited manuscripts? It effectively sent out the signal that a publisher did not believe it had the innate ability to discern what should be commissioned, and that somehow it needed agents to filter the slush pile for them. So one editor came up with the idea of crowdsourcing submissions through a site, which allowed writers to upload a manuscript and submit it for peer review.
But five years is a long time in publishing. After half a decade, which one worked and which one fell flat on its face?
Book Army closed after two years. Just because it was a good, strategically sound idea (as Goodreads would show) didn’t mean you could force it to work. In retrospect, a publisher was in some ways in the worst place to start up an initiative like that. There were too many other strategic objectives in play. Authonomy, however, is still going strong. It was, at the time, a unique solution to a problem that helped define the organisation. It grew organically into something that created top-ten bestsellers and an ad revenue stream.
At the time, the publisher’s digital team was more centralised than it is today. Authonomy was probably seen as too niche to make money. Book Army was a much bigger potential play. But maybe that’s the point. Trade publishers take for granted the things they have always been able to do: to help find entertaining content that lots and lots of people will enjoy. You can’t force a publisher to be a social network recommendation engine. But you can enhance the ability to publish what people want to read.
Reading the engaging, if patchy, The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong (yes, it is the US edition), I’m reminded again of our friend and trusted Digital Advisor, Peter Collingridge. When Peter left to live in California last year, my youngest daughter gave him a picture she’d made with a quote from the film Moneyball. The part where the owner of the Red Sox says to Billy Beane,
I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always.
I think about Peter, about his Bookseer analytics and his endless rounds of meetings with publishers a lot. Why? Because every week more and more writers who want to self-publish are contacting whitefox. They might want a broad service from us or just to cherry pick specific elements. They might be planning something ambitious or simply uploading their manuscript to KDP. But what most want is a way of knowing how effective any potential marketing and PR will be on their behalf given their limited budgets. And there’s no space in these conversations for the fudge and filler which publishers have made their stock in trade over the years. The overuse of the words ‘quantifiable’, ‘brand’, ‘target’, ‘attempt to’, ‘submit’ or ‘pitch for x slots’, or even floppy old ‘hopefully’. There’s every space to talk ROI and how do I know (as opposed to the channels and platforms) what to do and when to do it to get the biggest bang for my dollar.
Budding authors, what you really need is Bookseer; a tool which will help you sell more books but which no publisher saw fit to invest in. Amen.
So, more hustling and pitching and waving our little whitefox tushes out there this week. Stressful, soul-sapping, exhilarating; a proverbial roller coaster. Great to remember it took four months and 60 meetings for Jeff Bezos to drum up the initial investment for Amazon. And even then, most of it came from his parents. Who asked him one question: “what’s the internet?”.
There was, so I am told, a time when a set of leather elbow patches and a love of yellowing paperbacks was enough for a successful career in publishing. In those halcyon days, things worked as it was deemed they should, with the extent of your local independent bookstore’s customer base matched only by the length of the lunches enjoyed in this most genteel of industries.
Nowadays things are different and someone with even the most casual of interests in the world of books will tell you that the industry faces a set of unprecedented challenges. As such, your average Contemporary American Literature graduate can now expect to see a look somewhere between disbelief and panic on their parents’ faces when they tell them they intend to climb aboard what most consider to be sinking ship.
But an industry in flux is not an industry in decline; there is another way of seeing things. These changes constitute an unprecedented opportunity for those wanting to get into publishing. An opportunity for innovation and dynamism. Some of the startups exploiting this current liminal state were featured in the showcase at the recent TOC conference, and I got a similar impression talking to people at Bookmachine unplugged. So our apocryphal graduate need not worry. With no preconceptions about how things should be done, he is climbing aboard exactly the right ship.