One big way that book publishing startups can succeed now

It’s been more than seven years since the introduction of the first Kindle. Ebooks market share seems to be stabilizing at around one third of total books sold in the U.S. according to the latest reports. But ebooks are just the beginning–the detonator, in a way, of a decade-long disruption of the traditional publishing landscape.

Publishers and agents have certainly “adapted,” but have largely failed to carry innovation forward; distribution channels have been disrupted, but the creative process around books and the business model of publishing remain, for now, unchanged.

As it often happens when technology erupts in a non-tech-heavy industry, numerous opportunities have emerged for smaller players: namely authors, freelancers, and startups. To take advantage of the changing industry landscape, however, those small players will have to grasp the delicate mix of strong technology and intuitive user experience (UX) needed to succeed in a tech-unsavvy industry.

Publishers and “tech”

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, startup founder John Pettigrew from Futureproofs noted that “Until now, publishing companies, as any other big corporations, have been adopting several softwares that came with ‘how-to’ manuals.” Pettigrew was identifying the lack of technological innovation in the publishing industry, which continues to rely on the same old technology despite readers’ and authors’ changing needs.

Case in point? HarperCollins, considered the most forward-thinking publisher out there, has introduced Bookperk — its latest digital product that just happens to be a glorified email listserv. Distributors like Amazon, Kobo or B&N have been offering customers specials and customized recommendations via email for years. But publishers have have been held back by the limitations of outdated technology, along with an understandable reluctance toward investing heavily in digital (after all, most of their revenue still comes from print books and bookstores).

That leaves room for individual authors to take advantage of digital formats that bring control of the publishing value chain into their hands (i.e., selling directly to readers). And in turn, authors have created opportunities for startups by generating a market wholly nonexistent until the early 2010s: independent publishing services.

Addressing real needs with strong technology

Many startups that have thrown their hats in the ring have confronted one of two challenges: they know the market’s needs but are unable to build the technology, or they come with great technology but don’t know how to “geek it down.” Let’s give a couple of examples: Editorially and Net Minds.

Editorially was trying to solve an obvious problem: the vast majority of authors are still writing on Microsoft Word, software that’s not made for writing books and stories, and generates formatting issues when converting to EPUB and MOBI files.

Editorially created a beautiful collaborative writing tool and editing platform, and received VC funding most startups only dream of. But it went under because it “failed to attract enough users to be sustainable.” The technology behind Editorially was great, but for authors to embrace a new editing tool, it needs to look and feel like what they’ve been using for decades — only simpler and more effective. That’s what good UX means in the publishing world.

Net Minds had the opposite problem. It had the awesome vision that authors could share royalties with the editors, designers, and marketers who worked to bring their books to life. The founders had knowledge of the market, as well as a good network thanks to CEO Tim Sanders, a bestselling author and speaker. However, it failed for the same reason many startups out there fail: the founders didn’t get along. Or more precisely, the tech founders didn’t get along with the non-tech ones.

Creating the right UX

User Experience, in my opinion, is one of the top factors that will ultimately dictate any success or failure in this industry. Be it a marketplace, an online writing tool, or a distribution channel–and be it aimed at publishers, authors or other industry professionals–emerging tech needs to feel intuitive to its users.

One of the most impactful examples of UX taking the day is Smashwords, the startup founded by Mark Coker in 2008. “The rise of Smashwords is the story of the rise of self-publishing,” Coker wrote in August last year.

Smashwords basically allows authors to convert their manuscripts to the right electronic formats, then distributes them across all major e-retailers, aggregating the right metadata so authors only have to enter it once. Though some competitors offer more features and flexibility, Smashwords’ superior UX condemns these competitors to a narrower segment of the market.

There are few other industries out there as exciting and full of opportunities as publishing. It’s up to smaller players to inject the book industry with new vitality and carry on the disruption started by Amazon.

Ricardo Fayet is a co-founder of Reedsy, an online marketplace that enables authors to directly access the wealth of editing and design talent that has started leaving major publishers over the past few years. A technology and startup enthusiast, he likes to imagine how small players will build the future of publishing.