Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
Recently, I sat down with Mike Shatzkin, book publishing consultant and Digital Book World 2014 conference chair, to talk about a wide range of topics, including many that will be covered at DBW 2014. Over the next few months, I will be bringing you some of his insights, many of which will be expounded upon and made into practical, applicable takeaways at the conference itself. Learn more on how you can attend.
The environment in book publishing today is ripe for start-ups: New technologies have emerged that have changed the way money flows in the industry and what traditional players need to do to succeed. Yet, very few book publishing start-ups seem to make any headway. Why? And how can this be fixed?
I sat down with Mike Shatzkin to discuss.
Jeremy Greenfield: Publishers and start-ups seem to not get along. Why?
Mike Shatzkin: Publishers sometimes say, “these start-ups come in, they don’t know what they’re talking about and they don’t know about our business,” and start-ups say, “these publishers are hopeless. They don’t want to change; they don’t want to experiment. We came and we offered them an opportunity to experiment for free and they claim they don’t have the time and that they are doing experiments already.”
You have these two constituencies — established publishers who know they need to change but are frustrated by start-ups and the start-ups who can help with change but don’t have the know-how and the relationships. We’re doing a survey of the start-ups and the business development people at publishers to understand what they expect out of each other and what their beliefs are themselves.
JG: When it comes to start-ups in book publishing, there’s also a third leg to the stool.
MS: The third piece is investment. What’s making all these “Netflix for ebooks” arise is that the investment community thinks it’s a good idea even if authors and agents and publishers don’t.
JG: Do publishers need start-ups?
MS: I don’t know if publishers need start-ups. What I do know is that if you’re a “big five” publisher, you can always wait.
For example, HarperCollins has thrown itself in with Scribd and none of the other major publishers have. If Scribd makes this work, they’re not going to tell Simon & Schuster, “you’re not going to get to come in now because you didn’t at the beginning.” So, big publishers know that they don’t need to move now.
The only thing that Scribd can do later [to reward or punish publishers that did or did not play ball early] is put their thumb on the scales [give more exposure on its platform to certain publishers]. Not all exposure is created equal. The risk for a smaller publisher is that you give up the opportunity to be special to a start-up and the benefits to having been special.
In most cases, publishers don’t need the start-ups and when they meet with them really all they’re doing is due diligence to keep themselves informed on potential disruptions in the marketplace. Occasionally start-ups come up with things that publishers want to use.
Inkling is developing tools that people are using. In that case, the start-up has immediate value.
JG: Is there too much start-up investment in publishing?
MS: There’s significant over-investing in ebook subscription services.
The other thing as far as I’m concerned, and I test this all the time, we have established for sure that books that you read from page one to the end work as ebooks. We do not know that about any other kind of book. There is no evidence that illustrated books or reference books or how-to books of any kind have a digital instance that predictably will sell like a book will predictably sell. My advice when I talk to publishers is don’t bother with that stuff. For the ebook world, just do the narrative reading because that works and you can worry about the other stuff when the day comes those things are proven to work. So every start-up that is built around making complex ebooks is over-invested in too.