London-based digital publishing specialist The Literary Platform celebrates its fifth anniversary today (10th April 2015). In March 2015 it was listed on the Fortuna 50 list of the UK's fastest-growing women-led small businesses, as well as earning a place in the Guardian Professional/h.Club 100 list of "most innovative and influential" in the creative industries. In this blog, partners Sophie Rochester and Joanna Ellis reflect on the five biggest lessons learnt since they launched.
1. Respect publishers, literary agents and others who have worked in publishing for decades, and remember you can’t have a conversation about digital publishing without including authors
Respecting publishers, literary agents and others who have worked for decades of years with books is possibly our first advice to any start-up that we work with. Creating a logo of a Penguin shot through the heart is not the best way to introduce yourself as a vibrant new player to the publishing industry especially if you need to work with publishers and their authors to develop your product (in the words of Horrible Histories: This actually happened!) There was a time when we were paid money to go into a publishers to show them a Kindle (this actually happened too), but those days are well and truly over and most publishers and literary agents will be having a conversation about digital publishing and its impact on the industry every day.
One of the most positive changes we’ve seen over the last five years is the greater inclusion of authors in conversations about the future of the industry. We set up The Writing Platform to provide information and inspiration for writers in the digital age and the first few writers’ fairs we ran were really a response to the absence of writers’ voices in industry debates, which seemed so absurd given that, alongside readers, writers are the key players, the rest of us are just supporting cast.
2. Be open and be generous - if you’ve had a good idea, the chances are that someone else has already had it, is having it or is about to have it…
The week we gave The Literary Platform the big reveal in April 2010 at the Free Word Centre was also the week that The Bookseller launched its FutureBook blog – nuff said. This kind of set of the tone for the next five years and the single one thing we've learnt in five years is to drop the territoriality on what you think is your patch, as basically we’re all reading the same blogs, going to same conferences and hearing the same rhetoric. We now understand that someone may have got there first or may have got there just after you and that this doesn’t matter. It’s not being first that matters; someone may launch a similar project but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done better and there might be things to be learnt from the mistakes of a trailblazer. None of us invented books or technology, and the ground that crosses the two is a very busy, well-trodden, heavily researched and globally communicated area.
3. Bring in the professionals (the small business lesson)
Consultancy can sometimes be a bit of a dirty word and, to be honest, we spent the first two years skirting around the fact that we are a consultancy, but ultimately, that’s what we are. What’s more, we use consultants all the time and have a healthy respect for experts in their field. We bring in experts to work on specific projects with us and, as a small company, we’ve benefited from consultancy for business coaching, financial advice, business development and fundraising. As a small company, paying out for something you think you might be able to muddle through can seem a bit profligate, but ultimately if it saves you time to work on something you’re good at then it’s worth every penny – just think about Bernard in "Black Books" when he decides to do his own tax return…
4. Hold your cynicism - just because something didn’t work then, doesn’t mean it won’t work now.
A lot of digital publishing projects have tried, and a lot have failed (What Failed Publishing Start-Ups Learnt), but this doesn’t mean that similar ideas won’t succeed in future. Sometimes ideas are plain duff, but we often talk about projects that are ahead of the market or the reader and failing because the conditions aren’t quite right yet. Of course, anticipating just how and when reader behaviour will evolve with technological change is the 64 million dollar question. Though some would happily like to draw a line under it all (like Evan Schnittman with his claim that the Enhanced e-book is dead), we try to hold off being cynical in the knowledge that the only constant is change. What is really rewarding for us now is working with new clients and bringing all the knowledge and insight we’ve accumulated over the last five years and seeing where that adds value.
5. We’ll look back at this period and reflect on what an exciting time it all was
When we’re boring our poor grandchildren with tales of the past, they will include what an incredibly exciting period the beginning of the 21st Century was for publishing. Even though running a small business has had its highs (working on some incredible projects with some amazing clients) and its lows (not always quite knowing if we’ll make the studio rent or be running in three months time), to be just one bit part of this exciting period has been a privilege. There aren’t many industries where you get to work with readers, writers, academics, artists, technologists and many, many more extremely creative and inspiring people.
We feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to create a business, and working environment, that we want to work in. We thrive on working with a wide range of clients from commercial, charitable and academic sectors as well as running our own writer-focused projects. Our size enables us to be fluid and flexible, and while it doesn’t always make for the neatest elevator pitch, it’s always interesting and our clients benefit from the breadth of insight we have.
The Literary Platform's forthcoming report ‘The Publishing Landscape in China: New and Emerging Opportunities for British Writers’ will be published in May 2015.