One of the things I’ve noticed about conferences is how unexpected phrases emerge and become the unofficial themes – or memes – of the conference. Sometimes they even pass into the industry vernacular on a widespread basis (Brian O’Leary’s Context not Containers being the best example, but there are many others).
There’s another one I’ve heard bandied around from time to time, and every time I hear it, my hackles rise and my inner voice goes “oh no it’s not”. So in my best pre-Christmas Ebenezer Scrooge-like mode, I’m going to vent that thought. The offending phrase is Every New Book is a Start-Up. To which my reply is, nice try publishing world, but really, no.
I wrote recently of being struck by how so much is fluid and flexible in Shoreditch’s start-up ecosystem. A product can be a long way into development well before price point, or even pricing mechanism, is finalised. What matters is that the market exists, is well researched and hungry: if there’s a market to satisfy, there is a solution to the problem and a business to build. It’s all a sharp contrast to my early days at Batsford in the late 80′s when everything hinged around fixed 4.5x or 5x multiples of unit cost* and if you couldn’t bash that square peg of a project into that round hole of a business model, it didn’t happen. The fundamental business model of print publishing is remarkably simple, if up-front-cost-heavy, and has not much changed in centuries. There is little meaningful comparison with start-ups monetizing huge investments in development against future value and future reach.
For some authors, perhaps, the book is a start up. A blank piece of paper or screen is the place it all starts. But that romantic cliché ignores the inconvenient truth that the vast majority of books published are pro-actively commissioned by publishers, rather than being the offspring of a single, fevered creative brain. Books are deliberately created and published into a known and well-established (if challenged) commercial ecosystem, to well understood pricing models and markets. Other than the will it sell? question, the business model for books is tried and tested.
So, dear reader, as it’s pantomime season, be warned. If I hear anyone else trotting out the each book is a start-up mantra, I’ll be in the front row chanting, Oh no it’s not..!
*PS. I chose not to go down the road of berating publishers’ fixation with unit cost. I’m with Richard Balkwill on that one, and if I start now we’ll be here for a score more paragraphs. If you really want, we’ll do that tour another day.)