Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
It’s not true that all publishers don’t like working with start-ups, but as the founder of one such start-up in the publishing world, Jellybooks, I can tell you firsthand that what might seem like a home-run partnership doesn’t always come to fruition. Now, you might say that I’m just being a big ol’ complainer and this is just sour grapes (I’d understand), but I shall try to be as balanced as possible.
So, here goes:
Initial conversations with start-ups don’t always go well because publishers don’t like talking strategy or complex business models when exploring partnerships (they prefer to do in-house behind closed doors – there is a fear of being seen as naive or foolish by outsiders).
Publishers are also VERY conservative commercially. Take something as dead simple like putting your fulfillment servers in Luxembourg in such a way that you only incur 3% VAT (value-added tax) in the EU when selling to consumers (as Amazon and Apple do). No European publisher I have met has ever dared take such a step, even if you explain to them the details of HOW to do it (when I worked at Skype we of course operated out of Luxemboiurg). Publishing is all about risk when it comes to publishing content, but the industry is extremely conservative in most other areas.
On the other hand publishers LOVE hearing industry gossip, market-share data, insights about what is going on in the industry, etc. Sometimes, I think I am providing nothing but free consulting, but that is part and parcel of winning other “early adopters” among publishers (and is standard practice across the entire tech and start-up landscape).
Having worked for start-ups across multiple industries over the past 12 years, I would say book publishers are not that different from others, just more isolated and more insular because the average tenure of people working in publishing is much longer and most people have little work experience outside publishing. In other areas there is more movement of people between companies and industries and as a result far more knowledge exchange.
Here is my list of the top five reasons (or “excuses”) why publishing companies don’t work with start-ups:
— We don’t have the resources/digital team/etc. like the “big ones”
— I have too much on my plate for the next six months/sales conference coming up/Xmas sales/etc.
— We want to focus on the three-to-five partners/channels/opportunities that we think will be most significant (= Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook)
— This looks too risky/ I don’t understand the risks/ I feel out of my depth with this project
— It is too difficult/expensive/complicated, because our back-end/website/etc. has been outsourced to a 3rd party
There are notable exceptions though and here are the top reasons why some publishers DO work with start-ups:
— This is interesting/fun/exciting
— You already signed up my immediate peer(s)/don’t want to be left behind
— This doesn’t cost me much/nobody will notice the tiny expenditure
— It helps me with marketing/supporting authors/other immediately pressing (not abstract) problem
— This is really different to everything else I’ve seen/let’s give this a try
— I know you from the past/I already trust you/I owe you a favor
Strategy or strategic differentiation is almost never a reason, at least not in publishing, where differentiation has always been content driven.
And like always in life, it comes down to finding and connecting with the right people because real business is done between humans and not between ideas, balance sheets or legal entitities.