5 Ways Publishers Can Be More Like Start-Ups

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

By Rebecca Smart, CEO of Osprey Group

Rebecca Smart

Rebecca Smart

The start-up is rapidly becoming the business model of our times. From Silicon Valley to Silicon Roundabout, it seems that everyone wants to emulate the way of working that transformed Google from a bright idea based out of a garage into a verb in less than a decade. The world of publishing is no different. Trade publishers have a long tradition of innovation and of independence — there are many companies which have forged their own destinies in very challenging economic conditions. What we are seeing emerge today, however, is a new breed of start-up publishers who are taking the best practices and principles from the publishing and technology sectors and using them to create companies that could provide the future model for the sector as a whole.

If the future of publishing lies in more publishers behaving like the start-ups which have shown that a good idea, well executed and with a clear idea of its audience, can conquer the world, then here are five ways they can do it.

1. Recognize that you are running two companies — liberate the start-up from the legacy

Perhaps the biggest advantage start-up publishers enjoy over their more established counterparts is the freedom from having to maintain revenues from legacy operations. Many publishers are working incredibly hard to make their traditional publishing operations more efficient, but in the knowledge that revenues and profit margins in these areas are becoming tougher to achieve.

By contrast start-up publishers have a clean slate. Instead of feeling compelled to invest time and money in shoring up a business on the decline, they can focus on revenue streams of the future. This could take the form of acquiring content primed to sell well in ebook stores, or experimenting with digital bundling, as we have with a number of independent bookshops in the UK. What’s most important, however, is that for these experiments to succeed they need to be structured independently of legacy business, and given the power to do things differently.

2. Build small, committed teams

Time and again start-ups have demonstrated that small, passionate and focused teams can outmaneuver and innovate companies many hundreds of times their size. Publishers have exactly the same opportunity when it comes to staffing new business developments. By selecting the small group of people within any organization who are most engaged and open to embracing change, publishers can effectively build a start-up within their own company.

3. Know your niche

Turn a network of fans into an online community.

Successful start-ups operating in the publishing almost always have a well-defined audience. Selling into niche audiences is nothing new. Plenty of publishers, including our own military history imprint Osprey Publishing, have been doing it for centuries. What is different now, however, is that social media has given publishers the opportunity to turn a distributed network of fans into an online community. Whether this coalesces around publisher-owned community sites, or hashtags on Twitter, it gives publishers an opportunity to observe how readers are engaging with their content and use it to make the way they create, market and sell it more effective.

In this respect a specialist publisher, which sells to a defined audience, is at a distinct advantage over a more general publisher, which might have to split its editorial and promotional energies across many different communities and market each product on an individual basis.

4. Treat feedback as your friend

User feedback has long played an integral role in ensuring that start-ups build products and services that meet the needs of their customers. Not only are your customers often your most incisive critics, they can also lead your business in new and extremely rewarding directions.

At Osprey Publishing we regularly use crowdsourcing as a means of deciding what military history content we commission. It’s a strategy that works for this imprint because the readership for these books is extremely engaged. The feedback we receive from readers has also led us to commission titles that would never normally make it through the editorial process. One example would be our recent book Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WWII which we decided to publish after more than 10,000 of our readers requested something on this under-documented area of history.

5. Don’t be afraid to change direction

Another hallmark of successful start-ups is that they are able to change direction or pivot if and when they discover their product or service isn’t hitting the mark with customers. A start-up that pivots is in illustrious company. YouTube, for instance, originally started life as a dating website, whereas Groupon grew out of a web community that was intended to encourage people to do good deeds in their local area.

One reason that start-ups pivot is because they can. It’s much easier for a tiny company that prides itself on working quickly to do a 180 degree turn than a much larger counterpart. Yet the important principle for publishers is recognising from the very beginning that if an experiment with a new business model fails then you can put an end to it and do something else instead. Start-ups know that failure isn’t a full-stop so much as a comma – something that urges them on to future success.

(Read more about Osprey Group’s innovative publishing programs in our recent feature, “Osprey Takes Flight on Brands, Tribes, “Clonefiles” and the Crowd.”)

Rebecca Smart will speak at the London Book Fair on Tuesday, April 16 as part of the panel: The Campaign Revolution: New Models for Reaching Reader Communities. The event takes place from 17:30 to 18:30, Thames Room, EC1.

This session will feature case studies from across the book industry, each of which will show how it’s possible to enlist readers in championing your author’s work; build communities around niche areas or work with existing groups; and address the challenge of keeping them engaged in the face of limited time and resources.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.