Ear to the ground

Earlier this month, Arthur Attwell posted "Tough truths about selling to publishers". The post includes the content (text and slides) of a presentation he gave at "the inaugural Footnote Summit, South Africa's new digital-publishing summit."

Attwell is no stranger to publishing or its many events. His work experience includes time spent with Oxford and Pearson, while his distributed print-book startup, Paperight, was chosen from a short list of startups and recognized as the best in show at last February's Tools of Change meeting in New York.

For several years, Attwell has been trying to partner with publishers on new ideas. The road has not been easy, and he packaged his experiences into five "tough truths":

  1. People love you. Their organizations don't.
  2. The right person is rarely the right person.
  3. Most people don't speak XML.
  4. Anchored numbers (internal hurdles) are sticky.
  5. Risk and regret loom large.

Yesterday, Porter Anderson dedicated part of Ether for Authors, his regular contribution to Publishing Perspectives, to ask "Is there an 'architecture of collaboration' for startups?" The phrase is borrowed, fairly, from an observation I'd made last month after attending the fourth iteration of Books in Browsers.

In this most recent Ether for Authors, Anderson considers the dynamic that persistently unfolds between traditional publishers and the startup community that hopes to partner with them. Most of these startups want to offer publishers new ways to distribute and sell content. Anderson observes:

Major corporate structures—and the traditions of doing business that create their scaffolding— make fruitful collaboration with small, lean, tightly targeted startups very challenging.

The topic draws its share of time and attention, particularly when a company like Small Demons announces it cannot continue without additional, as yet unrealized funding. In a post motivated in part by Small Demons' plight, I suggested a course of action for publishers:

I counsel publishers to place their bets broadly, investing in limited ways with startups. At the least, make it easy for companies with a range of new ideas to do business with you. If publishers really feel they are in a dogfight with Amazon and Apple, it would be nice to have some tech-savvy allies in their camp.

That said, the window for partnerships may be closing, but for a different set of reasons. Bowker recently announced that in 2012 it issued more than 391,000 ISBNs for self-published titles, an increase over 59% over 2011. Something like 40% of those ISBNs identify eBook formats.

Those numbers represent just the titles published with identifiers. The self-published total is probably much higher, as books distributed within a platform like Kindle or Nook Press can be sold without an ISBN (though Laura Dawson can give you a course on why that's not always a good idea).

In and of itself, growth in the self-publishing market does not signifiy the end of traditional publishing. Multiple models can and do co-exist. But a new set of less rigid options is already operating in the publishing space.

When a platform like Smashwords (which distributes more than 100,000 self-published titles) signs a deal with Oyster, the emerging book subscription service, we can laugh about the apparent quality of some of the Smashwords books. Ear to the ground, though, we might listen as authors and entrepreneurs ask, "Do startups really need publishers?"


About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *