Startups and Publishers: It Ain’t Easy

Why startups and publishers have a hard time working together

Any startup company trying to work with book publishers will tell you tales of woe and frustration. Big publishers and small publishers (I’ve worked with both) pose different sets of problems for startups, but the end result is a disconnect.

If you sell a product publishers don’t want, who is to “blame”?

Start-ups tend to blame “slow-moving legacy publishers” … but blame lies as much on startups misunderstanding of publisher needs as on publishers being slow. This is a classic “customer development” problem for startups. The reason things don’t work is not that “publishers are too dumb to see how they should change, and choose me to help them,” but rather that the pains publishers are suffering, and solutions startups are offering, are probably not well matched, for a few kinds of reasons:

a) the pain startups are trying to solve is not acute enough for the publishers (yet?)
b) the cost (in time or dollars) to adopt startup solutions is too high (for now?)
c) startups are trying to solve the wrong pain (for today?)
d) startups are addressing their products at the wrong customers

Solutions to solve future problems

In my particular case, I’ve recognized that the PressBooks pitch ends up being something like:

“Eventually you’ll need to embrace solutions like PressBooks because solutions like PressBooks will radically transform this market flooding the publishing market with more books than you ever imagined” …

That is … we (and others like us) are trying to solve for publishers problems that we are helping create, and which aren’t quite here yet on a scale that is visible to the day-to-day operations of a publishing company. (Certainly these big/catastrophic problems are coming, and soon… but still, it’s a future problem, not a present problem).

Where to next?

So, as a startup, you have to choose what direction to go in:

a) try to solve the pain that traditional publishers have right now, which is felt acutely enough


b) (in our case) try to expand the market by helping millions of new publishers exist…thereby helping create the problems traditional publishers will have to face in the coming years

I like b) as a direction, but in the end it’s not so surprising that existing publishers aren’t falling all over themselves to embrace solutions for problems that aren’t quite here yet.

The risk of ceding the future to other players

Still, there is a case to be made that a publisher with a vision of the future you should be out-front of the changing market. As a fellow-traveller in startup frustration, Andrew Rhomberg at Jellybooks says:

Publishing has been – technically speaking – an amazingly stable industry for a very long time. In defense of publishers: it is going through a transition from analogue to digital AND online faster than any other media industry before it. But by not partnering, publishers are ceding influence over how this industry will be shaped.

And that’s the problem for both startups and publishers … most publishing startups are trying to solve problems that will come because of innovations in the future; most publishers are worried about solving the problems of a radically transforming industry right now.

Brian O’Leary once suggested creating a kind of Manhattan Project funded by publishers that would invest in new technologies, models and thinking. It’s an admirable idea, though evidence from some such initiatives in publishing hasn’t been promising.

In the end, readers will drive the change

Change is coming though, there is no doubt, and we will know it is here when big numbers of readers start to choose new solutions over existing solutions (see: ebooks). These solutions will come from a mix of startups, of old publishers and new publishers, and crucially, from the big four tech giants: Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook (and possibly others).

In the end, it’s readers who will choose the future, which will follow their eyes, minds and wallets. And for all of us — new players and old — our task now is to present readers with different kinds of futures, and see which ones stick.

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