it's about user experience

One big way that book publishing startups can succeed now

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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 But publishers have have been held back by the limitations of outdated technology, along with an understandable reluctance toward investing heavily in digital (after all, most of their revenue still comes from print books and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.

10 Responses to “One big way that book publishing startups can succeed now”

  1. If you see a very large group of dedicated, smart people who have been working in a business for decades doing things that outsiders see as stupid, I would suggest that the outsiders may be missing something.

    If you think that there are simple, obvious changes that need to be made in a complex set of interlocking systems, but none of those smart, dedicated people are making them? Then maybe they know something you don’t.

    This article, like so many such, draws conclusions from a limited data set, and over-generalizes from them. Because of this, some of the conclusions are simple, obvious, and correct **only** in the parts of the business that the writer knows well, while implementing them would be an expensive mistake, even in other parts of the trade book business.

    And in a small nitpick: the 30% figure describes **trade** book sales, not **all** book sales. Trade books are novels and the kind of non-fiction that shows up in normal bookstores when released in print. Trade publishing is only half of the business, by revenues, and less than half, by profits.

    • Ricardo Fayet

      Drawing conclusions from our experienced and/or a limited data set is the only option we have in this industry.
      I only offered my views on digital publishing from a startup founder perspective, explaining what I’ve learned from other startup’s mistakes and how I perceive changes in the publishing industry.

      “If you think that there are simple, obvious changes that need to be made in a complex set of interlocking systems, but none of those smart, dedicated people are making them? Then maybe they know something you don’t.”
      >Maybe. Or maybe they’re not ready to take the risk to change because they’re larger, more traditional corporations.

      Innovation in a particular industry is rarely driven by players of the industry, it is often driven by outsiders who have this crazy vision that thins could be done better. Of course, 99% of these crazy visions are never brought to reality.

  2. Ricardo,

    I was so disappointed when Editorially failed. It was such a promising app. I think the biggest reason they failed was that they were thinking too small. Think of the potential for publishing houses or Hollywood with something like Editorially. But the founders stuck by their original purpose and wanted end-user writers and editors to use it, not big corporations.

    Luckily, Vox Media has picked up some of the Editorially staff as well as their code base ( Perhaps we’ll see something come of that (or maybe Vox is simply using the software in-house).

    I’ve never heard of Net Minds before, but I know of a few companies out there that work under a similar model. One issue with this type of model is there is little incentive to work on projects that stagnate. If a book doesn’t do well in the first three months, the team working on it usually gives up. They’re not getting paid outright like they do on Reedsy, and so the investment of time becomes a burden unless the book really takes off from the get-go.

    • Ricardo Fayet

      I was very disappointed too. I’ve read and re-read their “post-mortem” post. For full disclosure, we’ve used them as a source of inspiration over at Reedsy for our upcoming book writing/editing tool.
      I think their main problem is that they simply didn’t reach product/market fit. Hopefully we will.

  3. Going by this article alone, both startups failed because they solved a simple problem in a complex way.

    1. Learn a new platform and software (Editorially) or devote the money to hiring an ebook maker. Or begin the ebook-manufacturing process by saving the Word file as a TXT. Presto, no Word problems.

    2. For Net Minds, it comes down to a choice between sharing royalties or, as is more common in these industries, paying people a flat rate and keeping the royalties yourself.

    • Ricardo Fayet

      Editorially was more than a software to convert files. They had collaborative writing and editing (with track changes and versioning). It was absolutely brilliant in terms of functionalities but needed a technological learning curve that most authors still using Word were simply not ready to go through.

      Net Minds did have a market, they were getting a lot of interest from authors and did several books through their model, only manually. They didn’t have the technological resources to scale it, really. Or at least it is the impression I got when talking to one of their founders.

  4. Jennifer Lancaster

    Microsoft Word is a pain for books; it crashes a lot and its formatting becomes erratic. However, having run a complex book through the SW and Amazon wizards, it’s not impossible to get things right. Jutoh is a program which makes everything easy and helps you fix your errors, however the big platforms are supporting the ‘majority’ and expect the .doc or .htm file. This leaves out e-books created with InDesign, unless it is made into an ePub file by God’s own miracle. Re, another startup, I tried this and it is a failure for complex non-fiction books as nobody checks anything is right.

    • Ricardo Fayet

      Interesting experience, Jennifer. Conversion/formatting for complex non-fiction books is still a very manual process, and there is definitely place there for a great technology company to simplify things.