Don Linn, Optimistic Book Lover
By Marian Schembari, Contributing Editor, Digital Book World
We had a rule when I ran Consortium that when you said something you had to clarify whether it was based in fact or was your opinion; it was a good rule.
Don Linn has an odd background.
After spending almost thirteen years as an investment banker, he moved into the agriculture business in Mississippi for another twelve years. This drastic career change got the attention of author Po Bronson, and Linn ended up being Chapter 19 in Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question (Random House, 2002).
After years of farming, Linn’s career took another drastic turn, into the publishing industry via book distribution, which he “fell in love with,” and at the end of 2001, he bought Consortium Book Sales & Distribution. He thought, rather optimistically, that “with a little bit of management it could not only be a fun business but profitable, too!”
When the deal was announced, he explained his decision to Publisher’s Weekly:
“I was looking around for something interesting to do that I could really care about, and from my first visit up there in October I felt a real affinity for what Consortium is all about. They’ve got a great management team, as well as a terrific name and franchise in place, so I certainly don’t think anything drastic is going to happen; there’s not going to be any major management shift or change. This is not a turnaround—I’m just hoping to have some fun and keep things moving forward.”
A few years later, in 2006, Perseus bought Consortium, and after a transitional period, Linn became Senior Vice President and Publisher, Books for Taunton Press, a niche publisher of enthusiast books and magazines.
Linn says that his “non-traditional” publishing background ultimately helped his career. Admitting his experience can be a double-edged sword, he did many things at Consortium that hadn’t been done before, like giving publishers real-time data on sales. He found this process created a much more intimate relationship and never realized it was something you “just didn’t do.”
Now he works with small to medium-sized presses, both print and digital, advising them on how to create a direct connection between authors, publishers and readers. According to Linn, that direct connection is sorely needed. Right now everything’s just a “plain vanilla service with everything becoming commoditized,” and to change it for the better “involves breaking some things currently in place, while not trying to break the whole industry.”
“Like the model we have lived under for so long,” he explained. “The print model can’t just be transferred over to digital; that just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Relationships with agents and publishers… royalty rates between authors and publishers… that’s what needs changing. Print’s not going to go away but we need to take this stuff into account. Someone needs to figure out what should stay and what should go.”
Do you have any suggestions?
“Yes, in the very general sense. If you’re a traditional business, or have been, you have to manage your old business while transitioning to the new. You can’t throw out the baby with the bath water, and you can’t be so enamored with the old infrastructure. You have to be willing to step out and try new things.”
This is where Linn’s most recent publishing venture serves as an excellent example.
Back in May 2009 he tried to launch a digital-only publisher, Quartet Press, but pulled the plug before it actually launched. The plan was similar to the Ellora’s Cave model. Their hope was to buy out-of-print and backlist titles and get up and running in a fairly short time frame. But over the course of four to five months it became clear that with the current eBook distribution system, it just wasn’t going to work.
“Unless we could drive tons of sales to our own site, which seemed unlikely, we might make a little money but basically we would be doing tons of work… the risk and reward ratio seemed out of whack,” Linn said.
But it wasn’t a complete bust. The great thing about the digital space is that you can build quickly and relatively inexpensively. and Linn said he learned a lot along the way. Quartet Press definitely had potential, but you need an existing platform of some sort.
“You can’t open the doors on a Tuesday and expect enough people to find their way to your store or site by Friday.”
Someone who is already established and has a niche, somebody who’s already out there, would have an easier time getting eyeballs to their site. On that note, Linn thinks Carina Press has great potential because they have the Harlequin platform to build on.
Despite Quartet’s early demise, Linn remains excited about the future.
“Where there’s chaos, there’s opportunity.”
Don Linn has a sordid past as a mergers and acquisitions investment banker; cotton and catfish farmer in deepest Mississippi; book distributor (as owner/CEO of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution); publisher (The Taunton Press); serial entrepreneur and general ne’er-do-well. He’s a graduate of Harvard Business School and Vanderbilt University, and is endlessly fascinated with the convergence of technologies with media and the opportunities and business models arising from their collision.
Marian Schembari digs social media and books. Usually at the same time.