Realistic for whom?

Yesterday, news came that Small Demons, a startup focused on “the people, places and things from books, and everywhere they can take you”, had begun telling its publishing partners that, without additional financing, it was planning to close down later this month.

According to The Bookseller, where the story apparently broke, efforts to sell the company to an unnamed technology firm had fallen short. I read about the expected closure on Publishers Lunch, a subscription site covering the book publishing industry.

In the Publishers Lunch coverage [registration is required; only a part of the coverage is available without a subscription], Michael Cader introduced the news by invoking a theme that has appeared with some regularity on the site:

In perhaps another sign of the disconnect between conference veneration of the new and shiny and the daunting challenges of building a scalable business around new uses of other people's content, California-based Small Demons has indicated to publishers in a letter cited by the Bookseller that it will cease operations on November 25 unless a buyer emerges.

Cader goes on to point to a featured track at the upcoming Digital Book World conference, describing it as “a realistic look at where and how established publishing players and start-ups can and should come together.”

Promoting the conference is natural here; Cader has partnered with Mike Shatzkin to put on a range of events, including Digital Book World (in conjunction with F+W Media). It was the use of “conference veneration of the new and shiny”, coupled with the later, contrasting use of “realistic”, that got me thinking.

Small Demons and its founder, Valla Vakili, have been featured at a number of publishing events. It’s kind of the thing people do, in part, to market their ideas. Things are changing quickly in publishing, and there is no shortage of companies and ideas that could grace a stage at virtually any publishing meeting.

Still, I don’t think of Small Demons as “new and shiny”. Vakili came to the idea with a deep background in and a love of storytelling. His company offers publishers a way to expand “which stories gets told, as well as who writes – and publishes – them.”

That last phrase is borrowed from the final lines of “Context first”, which I wrote in 2010. They fit here by design: when Vakili was first trying to introduce his idea to publishers, he read my “Books in Browsers” talk and asked to come see me in New York. We saw eye-to-eye on how context plays a critical role in discovery and use of content.

I’ve written before (as recently as the moment when Amazon acquired Goodreads) that “It's hard work starting a business whose underlying premise disrupts the one that made you successful. Building a new business model takes planning and patience.”

At the same time, trying to bring a new idea to an established set of businesses is not easy. 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.

Keep in mind: we want to bet broadly because we don’t know who’s going to win. By “we”, I mean “all of us”. I think highly of work done by Nicholas Negroponte and Kevin Kelly, but even they missed some boats. When it comes to figuring out which ideas will persist, we can make educated guesses, but we should also admit that a lot of our education no longer applies.

As it happened, Digital Book World did include Small Demons as part of a January 2012 session on new business models for trade publishers. Over the course of an hour, attendees heard from:

  • The Atavist, talking about Periodic Technology, described by Publishers Lunch at the time as a “robust custom content management system”
  • Cookstr, which “has developed a rich taxonomy and tagging system that can be applied in many other verticals”
  • Subtext, “among the hottest of the new social reading platforms”
  • Small Demons, showing how various users can “drive digital discovery” (a persistent theme across several conference programs)
  • Audible.com’s ACX (the Audiobook Creation Exchange)
  • Bookriff, showing "how readers can build their own curated collections from published works and their own content”
  • Vook, demonstrating “a product that enables creation of and multimedia eBooks”

So, almost two years later, where are these inaugural members of “Publishers Launchpad, a curated forum to highlight companies with new propositions for the trade publishing value chain”? [this link is a reposting by Audible.com of text taken from a post that appeared on Publishers Launch]

  • Well, Atavist rebranded Periodic Technology; it is now called Creatavist. The software remains in beta, with eight “featured clients”. Half are not-for-profit entities. None is a trade publisher.
  • Cookstr persists, but its “context-first” approach has not taken root among established publishers (believe me).
  • Subtext pivoted; it now offers an app “that allows classroom groups to exchange ideas in the pages of digital texts”.
  • Small Demons is hoping for a November intervention.
  • Bookriff lost its CEO in 2011 and shut down soon after, eventually taking an established Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, with it.
  • As best I can tell, Vook is plugging along, with a focus on periodicals as much or more than books.

Then there’s Audible.com. ACX probably seemed cool in 2012, but the notion of crowdsourced audiobooks and collaborative creation was pioneered by Hugh McGuire in 2005, with the launch of LibriVox. Publishers may feel more comfortable with Audible.com, which of course is owned by their favorite large online retailer.

So, two failures, a pivot, a product still in beta and three survivors, only one of whom seems very connected to the book business (and that one cribbed its offer from a start-up). That feels fairly representative of the kind of results we might expect from a mix of companies offering new approaches and ideas.

Ultimately, that’s the point: no one has a monopoly on “where and how established publisher players and start-ups can and should come together.” Ideas evolve. Things catch on, or they don’t. But a process that tries to pick winners (and by exclusion, losers) at the outset is doomed to fail. A collection of things we see as “realistic” begs the question: realistic for whom?

More than a bit of disclosure: I met Valla Vakili in early 2011. I’ve talked with him a number of times, occasionally offered advice and perspective (not as part of a consulting engagement), introduced him to colleagues and friends and once reviewed a presentation. I edited a contribution from him for Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. Although it is not the point of this post, I like the idea behind Small Demons, whether it finds a lifeline this month or not.

I've done a limited project for Publishers Marketplace, owner of Publishers Lunch, working on a new-business idea. At my suggestion, the assignment was contingent on the the business coming to fruition; the plan ultimately didn't come to pass and I was not paid for the time I spent working on the project.

And: I co-edited Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto with Hugh McGuire. I talk with Hugh even more than I have talked with Valla Vakili. I wish that everyone in publishing did. We’d be better for it.

Brian O'Leary

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.

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