Sophie Rochester: Start-ups’ lessons inform new opportunities

I was asked recently by a UK publisher to respond to the question, “What is the biggest opportunity for publishers in the digital age?”

This has been a recurring and perplexing question not only for established publishers, but also for start-ups looking to create viable publishing businesses in the digital age.
Given that it’s often the lessons of the past that inform the future, I decided to take a look back at the number of relevant start-ups and projects that have set up since c. 2009 that have failed, ceased to trade or disappeared, etc. Why didn’t these projects succeed, and what can publishers learn from their experiences?

With a bit of gentle Google mining, I found the following statements from start-up founders on why, they believe, their businesses and projects weren’t working. It strangely makes more interesting reading not to attribute these quotes to the specific starts ups, although I’ve added footnotes for the curiously minded.

What Failed Digital Publishing Start Ups Learnt:

1. “Margins in the publishing world are small enough already without the additional overhead of having to supply rich content.”[1]

2.” The hard facts were that for us to break even we’d have had to sell 25,000 copies at its intended full price, £3.99.”[2]

3. “What we’ve found is that hard-to-categorise thing about us – that diversity, that public-spiritedness, that cultural curiosity – is hard for the market to value.”[3]

4. “Consumers weren’t waking up in the morning going, ‘I really need to have (Author Name) reading his book along with a soundtrack.’ We were solving a problem that didn’t exist.”[4]

5. “Unfortunately, it is not possible to sell books on Apple’s platform at a competitive price. We also considered the book subscription model but did not find it to be a viable option for us. Even if all users paid for the app, it would not provide the necessary resources to sustain and develop it.”[5]

6. “After we launched our 2.0, we realized that the market was not big enough. I talked to several competitors in various countries such as the US, Spain, and Israel and all of them have a difficult time.” There was an interesting response to this from Inks, Bits and Pencils, commenting that ‘there are far more people interested in making a basic ebook than those who want to create rich ebooks like the ones that (our product) enabled, and between the price and the niche focus, the company may just have done itself in.’[6]

7. “Each of us has spent years thinking hard about how to make digital publishing the best experience for readers, writers, designers, and developers alike (…) but to be successful, digital publications must do more than permit a story to come together — they must also empower the kind of prolific, creative collaboration required to bring off stories that can seduce even the most distracted readers.”[7]

Published February 16, 2015. By Sophie Rochester

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