Prudence, Partnerships and Three More Tips for Publishing Start-Ups

Start-ups are used to operating at breakneck speed, but even in the swiftly changing digital publishing landscape, slow and steady — at least in some areas — wins the race in the long-term. And according to leaders at three successful start-ups who made that case at a Digital Book World webcast earlier this week, so does building partnerships with new and established players.

These days, “publishers are aware that they don’t want to do it alone anymore,” said Joanna Stone Herman, CEO and Co-Founder of Librify, the social reading platform for book clubs. As a result, she said, there’s never been a better time for publishing start-ups to build businesses by partnering with traditional publishers.

Knowing the ins and outs of the book industry is critical, though. Herman cautioned that tech-based start-ups sometimes struggle to outfit their models for the idiosyncrasies of the publishing world.

Partnerships can also help start-ups keep their costs down, said Inés Pacheco, Chief Revenue Officer at the digital publishing platform Atavist, who also joined the webcast. Especially in the lean, ambitious start-up world, strategically pooling resources can be a survival tactic. Otherwise, Andrew Rhomberg, founder of book discovery platform Jellybooks, who spoke on yesterday’s panel as well, said it’s about good old-fashioned thrift. “We were extremely frugal and careful about how we spent money.”

Here are three more tips Herman, Pacheco and Rhomberg offered for digital publishing start-ups looking to gain traction and grow their ventures:

Don’t always listen to publishers, but watch them. Not mincing words, Rhomberg cautioned, “Don’t pay attention to the well-meaning ‘advice’ that publishers dish out to start-ups.” It doesn’t always square with market realities. Instead, focus on user experiences with all forms of content your business engages with. And study publishers’ workflows, Rhomberg added. “Pay attention to what they actually do.”

Before you reconsider print, consider it. Even Atavist’s digitally driven business touches on the print ecosystem, with digital projects developed in its Creativist platform informing print ones. Rather than focusing solely on new digital opportunities, publishing start-ups should think creatively about making valuable connections between new and traditional approaches to content. That not only strengthens partnerships with print publishers, it’s a way of hewing to readers’ demands. As Herman pointed out, the data still indicates even the most rabid digital readers still read printed content, too.

Don’t be afraid to pivot. The market changes, often rapidly, and successful start-ups need to adapt their value propositions to survive. When Atavist started out, Pacheco said, there was a high demand for developing apps and getting content into the Kindle store. Now publishers are more interested in exploring ways to publish directly to readers. Herman added that changing course when necessary shows investors that you’re responding to customers’ needs. Adaptability shouldn’t always be interpreted as straying from your vision.

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