Do Publishers Innovate Too Slowly? Can Start-ups Help?

“Books gestate very slowly,” veteran publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash observed at IDPF’s Digital Book 2015 conference at BookExpo America in New York City yesterday. “But the life-cycles of start-ups are much shorter.”

When it comes to driving innovation, Nash asked, is that mismatch a problem, an advantage or something else altogether?

Start-up leaders who joined Nash on yesterday’s panel couldn’t answered that question definitively, but they agreed that the disparity shapes how and where innovation occurs in the publishing world.

Jason Illian, founder of the ebook distribution platform BookShout, said had he known upon setting out how quickly things change in the start-up world, “I would have taken the blue pill.”

BookShout started as a social reading platform, Illian said, before “pivoting” to become a service for distributing digital content, often for promotional purposes. “Pivoting,” Illian added, “basically means what you were doing wasn’t working.”

As a rule, large organizations pivot less successfully and less often. Despite high rates of failure, Nash mentioned, start-ups tend to excel at reinventing themselves out of sheer necessity. Echoing that point, Firebrand’s Joshua Tallent recalled closing the ebook conversion business he started after discovering that a quality-assurance tool his company hadn’t initially planned to build, called FlightDeck, unexpectedly started gaining traction.

At a separate conference last month, Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis spoke about the organizational barriers big publishers face when the market passes similarly swift judgment on their own initiatives. And while the approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, the start-ups on yesterday’s panel urged publishers to partner with them rather than try to become equally adaptable themselves.

Related: Matt MacInnis on What Drives Innovation (and What Doesn’t)

According to the speakers, not only can start-ups provide solutions for publishers’ challenges, they can also help pinpoint needs and opportunities publishers may not be as well positioned to identify themselves.

While BookShout aims to help publishers strike strategically targeted brand partnerships, among other things, Rebecca McDonald, of the nonprofit global library initiative Library For All, says her organization has a finger on the pulse of emerging markets where large publishers don’t yet have a serious presence.

Rising demand is “coming from countries you wouldn’t expect,” McDonald told publishers. “There is a massive appetite for digital content” where print titles aren’t reaching readers but where mobile connectivity is.

The scale of impending changes (whatever their particulars) remains an open question, though—no matter who discerns them.

Illian says the digital transition is now stuck in the “trough of disillusionment” phase of the Garter hype cycle and that what comes next will likely be transformative. If that proves true, publishers and start-ups could soon find themselves forced to innovate at more similar paces after all.

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