Start-Ups

How publishing startups use tech tactics to thrive in the digital era

Book publishing startups have picked apart every piece of the publishing stack and reimagined it for a digital world. Hackathons and crowdsourcing are two pieces of this new puzzle.

Image: iStockphoto.com/cyano66

From content creation to manuscript acquisition to distribution to sales, publishing startups are combining traditional book publishing and tech startup tactics in fascinating ways to reinvigorate and reimagine book publishing. These book startups pride themselves on retaining much of the quality of a traditional publisher, while solving key problems with traditional publishing: high overhead, low tolerance for risk, and slow time-to-market.

Crowdsourcing

By mixing crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe and Indiegogo with traditional publishing tactics, some startups give readers a direct say in what gets published, and, in doing so, prove to themselves that the book they publish will earn money.

Two notable examples are Unbound and Inkshares — publishers with custom web platforms on which writers pitch their book ideas to a community of readers who support the book by funding it. Unbound editors choose the goal each book idea must hit, while Inkshares commits to publishing any book that gets at least 250 pre-ordered copies.

Once books have reached their goals, Inkshares and Unbound handle the traditional publishing aspects of editorial, design, printing, distribution, and marketing. Unbound works in tandem with Penguin Random House, while Inkshares has partnerships with dozens of distributors.

Because traditional publishers almost exclusively sign new books written by celebrities or writers who have built up a following and whose work will appeal to a mass market, crowdsourced publishing startups pride themselves on their ability to harness the power of online communities to seed the publication of debut authors. Startups such as Inkshares and Unbound give unknown authors a platform to get their book noticed and also benefit from services — such as design, editorial, and marketing — provided by a traditional publisher.

Lean and agile methodologies

Some digital publishers employ lean or agile software development processes to book publishing, allowing authors to quickly publish their work and iterate based on community feedback.

One of these companies, Leanpub, allows writers to publish an MVP (minimum viable product) of their book, receive feedback, and iteratively create a solid book that has traction with readers (while earning money throughout the process). Many Leanpub books are technical user manuals, but they also include fiction, poetry, leadership titles, and more. The site even mentions that novels by Dickens and Dostoyevsky were supposedly written in this fashion. Notably, Leanpub goes so far as to directly reference the Agile Manifesto in its process via its corollary, the Lean Publishing Manifesto.

Book Sprints also borrows practices from both agile software development practices — namely, hackathons — to rapidly create books that will be made available immediately at the end of the sprint. Like a team might do before a hackathon, Book Sprints gathers a group of people with interdisciplinary skills and gives that group a hard deadline. Once they get working, a mediator (or a scrum master?) helps remove obstacles to the group's success.

Book Sprints not only uses this process to mine subject matter and group knowledge to create books such as user manuals and technical documents, but also to produce works of fiction and more.

Books written via these agile methods not only produce books quickly via a community, but allow for in-the-moment feedback that these startups believe improve the quality of the end result.

Online communities and teams

Traditional publishers rely on a large team of editors, designers, marketers, and publicists to get a book into the hands of readers. Some digital book publishers swap out the work of the salaried employees for the participation of free community members.

A notable example is Red Lemonade, a startup using community input to choose books for publication. Once writers are actively involved in the community, the community reviews their book and possibly selects it for publication (with publisher approval). Books published are available online in their entirety — for free. The money comes from print books sold on the Red Lemonade website and in bookstores.

Another publisher, Booktrope, combines features of a traditional publisher with a community aspect they've coined Team Publishing. Once Booktrope editors choose manuscripts that will be published, as well as teams that can participate in the platform, these authors, editors, marketers, and designers form teams — often teams matched by algorithms — that work together via a platform called Teamtrope. Teams market the books and share the revenue; this reduces overhead costs for Booktrope and accelerates time to market, while preserving editorial, design, and distribution.

Publishers such as Red Lemonade and Booktrope harness the power of online communities to do the heavy lifting traditionally provided by a publishing staff, allowing for a rich diversity of voices to influence the publishing process.

Self-publishing takes it a step further

For the past decade or so, self-publishing has grown into a viable option for many authors looking to cash in on a larger chunk of book sale revenue than they would've received at a traditional publisher.

Companies such as Blurb, BookBaby, and Lulu have allowed self-publishers to create, distribute, and market beautiful books. Self-published books now represent 31% of Amazon Kindle's ebook sales.

Startups Bibliocrunch and Reedsy take it a step further by offering a self-published author the chance to work with seasoned professionals. These companies pair writers seeking to self-publish their books with professional editors schooled in the biz. In fact, many of the editors, designers, and marketers working with these startups used to work for major traditional publishers.

These startups allow authors to retain the biggest benefit of self-publishing — high revenues — while retaining the quality of the book.

Books galore!

Though these startups are notable examples of how companies have combined traditional and tech tactics to create books, there are dozens — possibly even hundreds — of other examples of how publishing startups are creating great, new books by solving intractable problems with traditional publishing.

These publishing startups prove that book publishing is not only alive and well, but has been transformed and is continually transforming for a digital era.

Also see

About

Product manager, writer, and technologist living in San Francisco.

Editor's Picks