Oh no, it’s not…

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.)

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2 Responses to Oh no, it’s not…

  1. Brett says:

    Thanks, Sheila. This is great. I cannot agree more.

    Over the last year, it seems, the publishing establishment has taken to things from implementing agile product development as a business model to likening themselves to startup incubators, as you point out, as a means to address the challenges we face in today’s digital/web-enabled world.

    But, the fact is that publishers are not startups. Startups are in the business of building new technology products and creating markets. Neither of which is accomplished, really, by the publishing model of selling content in various formats. We are not startups. Period. In fact, most of us are large corporations whose operations in no way mirror those of a startup. Nor should it, for that matter.

    I think the reality here is that publisher see startups making things faster and better than ourselves and other legacy businesses. Thus, it becomes easy to say… Let’s be a startup-like publisher and do the types of things those guys are doing.

    But, negating or ignoring reality is more detrimental than the presumed benefit here. As you rightly point out, round hole square peg. There is a way for publishers. There is a way to be a company that works within both the digital and physical spaces with products spanning both universes. Perhaps even publishers are uniquely positioned to straddle this division best.

    But, the path to balance here is paved in understanding what we are doing and not pretending to be something we’re not. It’s about creating a unique hybrid approach which works for us because of the nature of our businesses and not jumping into a mindset that is reductive and harmful yet chic.

    • Sheila says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Brett. Of course you’re brilliantly positioned to see both sides of this coin, and it’s helpful to know it’s something you’ve noticed (and disagree with) too. “Ignoring reality is more detrimental than the presumed benefit” is a killer phrase…

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