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What publishing can learn from tech startups

Todd Sattersten on how a startup mentality applies to the publishing world.

Todd Sattersten (@toddsattersten), founder of BizBookLab, argues in his new book “Every Book Is a Startup” that authors and publishers need to be more entrepreneurial and treat each book like a startup business. His conviction on this point is so strong that he’s using the startup model itself to publish his new title. In the interview below, I talk with Todd about the specifics of the model and how he’s applying it.

What parts of the traditional publishing model are limiting opportunities?

ToddSattersten.jpgTodd Sattersten: There are several things that limit opportunities. Most traditional books take two years to write, publish, and distribute, and risk increases with time. Editors ask themselves more often today, “Will the point of view presented still be applicable and relevant?”

Additionally, product marketing as a business practice has evolved, while books continue to be published as a singular product without regard for alternate use cases and price points. For example, only the biggest of bestsellers warrants a premium edition. Enormous opportunity lies in versioning.

Your personal definition for a “book” can limit your opportunities as well. If you limit that definition to, say, 224 pages of paper in a 6-inch-by-9-inch trim size, you just made your world a pretty small one.

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How does your book map out the new publishing model?

Todd Sattersten: My argument starts with the idea that entrepreneurship needs to be brought back to book publishing. As an industry, we introduced over 3 million new products to the marketplace in 2010. Each one of those books start in the same place: in search of an audience. Startups face the same problem.

The core set of ideas I plan to present will look familiar to people who work in publishing. The way I approach them will be very different. I dispel some myths and identify some trends that are important to understand as we search for new business models.

What kinds of tech startup concepts can be applied to publishing practices?

Todd Sattersten: Publishing uses what the technology folks call the waterfall method of development. The process starts with a set of requirements. The functions are stacked next to each other, and the work is handed off in a serial fashion until the requirements are complete and the project is ready to be launched. In the world of books, this starts with the proposal and ends with the finished book on the shelf.

The startup community has abandoned the waterfall method for a different process called agile development. The process starts with direct feedback from the customer about what they want. Work is released over the course of weeks or even days. And most importantly, the team collaborates through the iterative process with product managers, programmers, testers and operation folks all at the table throughout.

For a startup, the first iteration of the agile process is the minimum viable product. What is the absolute smallest feature set that can be introduced to the market so that the company can gather feedback from real customers? The initial release emphasizes learning and iterating, adding what is needed as the customer base grows.

I am not going to suggest that every book can follow this path, but there are plenty of examples where it works. How many books start as magazine articles or short stories? Chris Anderson’s cover stories in Wired magazine preceded by two years “The Long Tail,” “Free,” and his upcoming book “The New Industrial Revolution.” Vanessa Veselka’s new book “Zazen” was serialized twice — on her blog and then in Arthur Magazine — before being published by Richard Nash’s new publishing company Red Lemonade. When the work is released into the world, readers have the opportunity to interact with it. Holding onto an idea only increases the risk that no one will be there when it is finally released.

SatterstenBookCover.gifHow are you applying startup techniques to your book launch?

Todd Sattersten: We are using the minimum viable product concept with this project. The initial release of the book comes with two core ideas — “Black Swans and Long Tails” and “Help the Heroes.” At the end of the current release, I ask the readers to give us feedback on the quality of the material and what they would like to see next. I have set up a site at Get Satisfaction to let everyone contribute and interact with the evolution of the book.

We are also using a dynamic pricing structure for the book. The initial price is $4.99, and we will raise the price as more material is added. What is particularly interesting is that once a reader buys it, he or she will get all future updates at no additional cost. So, the sooner you buy, the more value you get and the more opportunity you get to shape future releases.

I love that we are taking the very ideas that we talk about in the book and applying them to the business model of the project itself. We need to be trying more experiments like this in publishing.

Are there aspects of a tech startup that don’t apply to the publishing side?

Todd Sattersten: Yes — first, a book has a limited life cycle. The majority of revenue is earned in the first three to five years. There would be a weak business case for enlisting angels and venture capitalists to invest capital in exchange for equity. Startups have longer runways and higher revenue potential.

Startups also normally have more than one founder, and they focus on different aspects of making their fledgling business successful. Books lack this strength in numbers, as most are written by one person with expertise in their subject area, not the inner workings of book publishing. This inexperience forces them to find their own way and their own market, and it limits the potential of many books.

Finally, startups can change their business models and pivot toward more successful configurations. The business model for a book is defined when the contract is signed — the product is largely defined, revenue splits are determined, and the distribution capability is known.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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  • FMS

    Two points: One, the vast majority of tech startups are selling gadgets, tools, strings of code that can do things. Look at all the startups who’ve piggybacked on Twitter’s success by making little gadgets that extend and refine the use of Twitter. Educational materials in general, and textbooks in particular, have a responsibility for representing, sometimes, entire fields of human endeavor. You could argue against the consolidation and say that it’s creepy that half a generation learns Astronomy from the big Prentice-Hall book, for example. You could argue with for dispensing with textbooks. But you can’t argue that the little gadgets tech startups tend to build are endeavors as substantial nor with as much societal responsibility as are educational media. Two, fine, but 99% of tech startups fail, too, in terms of business. So if the problem is that publishing is failing, it’s no prescription to tell it to behave like another sector the vast majority of whose members fail, too. In fact, many of the presumed successes in the world of technology are actually investment-burners. They seem successful ’cause vast sums of money get behind them. But only a small proportion of the successes (in terms of getting investment and getting known) follow up with success in terms of basic market economics – ie, customers actually paying for something they want.

    A practical consequence of these two disconnects between tech startup and educational media is that you can’t easily go out and sell what a tech person would call a minimum viable product to the schools. Of course in business terms you try to develop and MVP, but again, for something which is going to be used by perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions of students and relied upon by tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of educators, that MVP might indeed take two or three years to develop properly.

    Just as for-profit business models are increasingly held out as the model to save education, the high-flying, high-tech, high-burn-rate world of tech gadgetry is held out as the model for businesses in other sectors, and those analogies are questionable.

    I do believe that tech holds great promise for education – that’s what I’m working on – and I do believe that the cross-pollination of business models and processes is a useful focus (I operate both a for-profit and a non-profit) but I also urge people to think harder about taking action based on rough analogical thinking.