How to pitch your publishing startup

How to pitch your publishing startup

“A book is a startup,” Peter Armstrong, the author of LeanPub, said in a speech: both are “risky, highly creative endeavors undertaken by a small team, with low probability of success.”

Ironically, however true this may be, actual startups have not sat entirely well with the publishing industry in the past. It’s no secret that the industry has shown wariness towards change. Long dominated by a select few big players, publishing — from its hyper-long production schedules to its focus on broad market trends — has nursed risk-aversion for some time now.

However, technology has opened up doors for publishing at a rate that its traditional gatekeepers have to notice. Tech is today integrated into the way books are published (self-publishing), printed (print on demand services), promoted and marketed (book review blogs), bought (online retailers), and consumed (e-books). And it all started when Amazon released the Kindle in 2007.

So publishing is paying attention. As the Futurebook Live 2018 conference approaches, I'm looking forward to discovering new projects that can leverage technology to take publishing to a whole new level. As a previous winner of the BookTech Award (in its inaugural year, 2015), here are three tips I'd like to share with this year's competing startups - and any other new companies trying to secure partnerships within the trade.

1. Show, don’t tell

You have to back up what you sell. Charm and nice numbers won’t be enough to cut it here: people in the trade will be able to see through that, just as they can right see through a cocky author who can write pages of words but doesn’t use them to say anything substantial.

When in doubt, do as authors do and trust this old adage of theirs: “Show, don’t tell.” A solid demo of what your product does — one that can take the average user from top to end of your funnel — will win you fans within the industry much quicker than a grand spiel describing what you might only be able to do.

When we got Reedsy off the ground, for instance, we focused on what was in front of us. Instead of spending big on PR and media buzz, I quietly reached out to potential users and showed them our product. We then let our users do the telling for us. This went a long way in persuading the publishing industry that our product was legit from the onset.

2. Understand the limits of the industry

It’s important to remember that the size of the book publishing market is relatively small in the grand scale of things. In 2017, the entire book publishing market in the U.S. generated “only” $26 billion in revenue: a figure that’s modest compared to other sectors. To put it into some context, the banking industry — in which financial technology is a rising star — is valued at an estimated $1.45 trillion, whereas cosmetics and beauty is a $445 billion industry.

Publishing, though, has remained largely static, peaking at $27.96 billion in net revenue in the past five years. The industry is a known factor: stable during economic slumps but not likely to be prone to much more upside, even with technology tailwinds. 

I don’t raise this particular point to deter entrepreneurs from entering the book publishing industry altogether.  But I do urge people to do some proper digging before committing. In an industry that’s already seasoned and finite, it’s all the more important for you to work out a niche where there is still money to be made — or create a new need for people, à la smartphones.

Ultimately, the onus is on you to prove that you can grab a slice of the market pie and, if you’ll pardon my sudden switch over to a water metaphor, generate a consistent revenue stream.

3. Be innovative

And this leads into what perhaps is the most salient tip out there: do the right research and make the case for your pitch rock-solid. Above all, figure out the answers to the evergreen questions: what do readers need, and what might they need that they don’t already know they need? What could benefit publishing in a tangible way, and what is actually missing from the industry right now? You might not, for instance, want to launch a startup that offers readers book recommendations — at least not if you intend to make money from it. That mistake has been made over and over again. The road to startup hell is paved with good intentions but unlearned lessons. 

A better example of a startup that puts a legitimately valuable spin on book recommendations is BookBub, which sends free personalized newsletters to help millions of readers discover discounted book deals. To date, it’s raised $11 million in Series A funding and is still aggressively growing.

Now that technology is advancing at such a rapid pace, we’re bound to see more exciting possibilities emerge for publishing in the future. It will be gripping to see the synergies that come out of it as we move forward. For if a book is a startup, a startup is also a book. Go about a good idea the right way and people in publishing will pay attention to your story.