By Rachel Aydt
Earlier this month at the Iguana Club on West 54th Street in Manhattan, it was swinging upstairs at happy hour, but wind your way down the little staircase to the side of the front bar and a different scene unfolded entirely. A gathering of approximately 30 publishing folks, later to be revealed as a “hybrid of writers and coders,” arrived with varied curiosities and expectations for the evening. Pitchers of strong drinks and baskets of tri-colored tortilla chips staved off the dinner hour.
Book Machine, an optimistic, non-profit, event-throwing community of publishing professionals in theUK and New York, brought together several speakers from around the publishing world who each took a turn speaking about the struggles of start ups, be it in the collaborative process, or with the technology. The event was sponsored by PubSlush.
The speakers’ backgrounds varied: Joe Regal, a seasoned former literary agent whose company Zola Books, an ambitious, multi-tasking ebook retailer with various twists and turns, launches in moments; Miral Sattar, who’s BiblioCrunch can best be summed up as “Angie’s List for the book publishing industry;” and Jake McGraw, the Director of Technical Operations at the fashion industry’s Refinery 29 media company. Moderated by BookMachine NYC’s Bree Weber, the conversation flowed from startup bump to startup bump. The lessons imparted were many and varied, with sometimes practical and other times obscure takeaway being obvious to some, and downright confusing to others.
Let me say that I never tire of hearing successful publishing professionals proclaim this as a golden age for writers, which Mr. Regal implied several times. If this is true, though, writers need to steady themselves among the harried waters of ever-changing technology. It’s not going to be easy. Here was a clue why: “It’s important to maintain control over how your brand exists in the world,” said Mr. McGraw, whose employer is aimed at fashionable “millennial- minded women.” Refinery 29, which just published its first print book Style Stalking, took Jake on a two-year journey from the beginning to end of the book project. Was the length of the journey because it was a media company not in the traditional publishing business? Perhaps, but Joe Regal pointed out that it would have taken two years in traditional publishing, too. McGraw’s use of the word Brand was telling—he’s a relative newcomer, comparatively, to traditional publishing, but his lesson sounds across the business in seismic career make-or break waves: Writers need to buck and consider themselves a Brand.
The banter between guests continually showed a generational schism. “The truth is, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” said Dr. Gerald P. Hirsch, a writer (and botanist, naturalist, and master gardener, according to his business card) — a question that set the tone for the rest of the Q&A. How does a writer navigate the maze of ebook publishing, self-published or otherwise?
For starters, sitting down with a youngster who can define a few acronyms from the jargon lexicon isn’t a bad idea, offered McGraw (who in all fairness didn’t come out with the word “youngster”). This advice could be heeded from Luddite and tech-startup CEO, alike. “I realized I was trying to get to a mountaintop from the wrong road,” said Mr. Regal, who learned that, although it was important to delegate during an intense startup period, it was even more important to understand the minutia of each task, even if it meant jumping into the technology acronym trenches. “You need to be able to understand, as CEO, the business from top to bottom. You need to deeply understand what they’re doing.”
Another attendee got upset during the Q&A over the pressure that higher education has on publishing — or that publishing has on higher education? — with professors being forced to sell certain textbooks. Unaware that academic publishing wasn’t the subject on the table, it seemed he’d shown up to the wrong meetup. “I’m sorry, we just don’t know about that,” offered Regal.
The most straight-forward advice to writers and entrepreneurs came from Miral Sattar. “Always get feedback before you launch a project,” she offered, after continually adjusting her business model based on ongoing feedback from subscribers. “If we got ten requests from freelancers to add a new category, then we added it,” she said.
Finally, it’s important to be patient with the start up process, which is never going to be smooth sailing. “With startups there will be overhauls in technology, but you have to think of it as a transition, not starting from scratch,” said McGraw, who oversaw an e-commerce wing of Refinery 29 which was ultimately closed due to underperforming sales. “Technology is a means to an end, but it has to be a substantial end. You have to be able to understand what the overall goal is. Is your business model needed? Look at Twitter as a case study. Twitter has had its struggles over the years – especially at the beginning, but people understood that it was amazing and that’s why it’s still important today.”
The just reward for being open-minded to new blazing trails isn’t a small one: “No longer is it a world where an appearance on the Today Show will sell thousands of copies of books. But good SEO will,” offered Regal.