Publishers don't have to choose between scale and fail

Publishers don't have to choose between scale and fail

It was always going to be different, coming from decades of corporate trade publishing into the world of entrepreneurial investors. All those stories of money made, and money lost. Understanding the exit strategy. The withering contempt for any so called ‘lifestyle business’. The sweat equity and the skin in the game. The finger in the air or back-of-a-napkin valuations. And most of all, the incessant, quasi-magical invocation of the ‘S’ word.

Scale.

Publishers, of course, invest and acquire. They often have ambitious plans for strategic organic growth. But angel investors or VC funds don’t just want growth. They want to see that a business idea has the ability to scale and represent a significant return, often within two to three years. Spread betting as long as one investment in 10 represents a 10 x return.

Scale or fail, as I was told any number of times.

Pending anniversaries tend to focus the mind. This spring, whitefox - the publishing services company I founded with former HarperPress senior editor Annabel Wright - will turn six years old. We have been lucky to have some benign supporters right from the get-go, who have found tax-efficient ways to support a fledging idea for a business, and who have not held a gun to our head as we learned what sort of sustainable model we wanted to create.

But back in 2012, when we started out, it was all uncharted territory. Annabel and I had to learn how to bootstrap a startup and try to scale up without breaking the bank. How big was the potential prize? To what extent could we pass as a proprietorial SaaS platform? Or how to get around the fact that, as someone once said of our business, there were ‘too many people in the way’ between the client and the product?

What we did have was an unshakable belief that we wanted to create something that would genuinely solve a problem in the industry we loved. Starting from scratch with that proposition meant that we could experiment. Because it can take years to work out exactly what your business is, and to be brave enough to admit you can’t do everything for everyone. To start saying no, because to say yes would compromise focus and above all quality.

Over the past few years we’ve borrowed all manner of early-stage behaviours from the people nearby us on the Old Street roundabout – iterate, test, fail fast, understand and adapt via our own version of an MVP –  but we’ve also tried not to play the Silicon Valley game. Innovation can take many forms, and some of them quite unflashy and prosaic.

A beautiful-looking book arrived in our office recently. We know the author and publisher and freelancers involved are happy and confident of having created a non-fiction bestseller. There is no mention of whitefox on this book, despite our considerable involvement. We earn no royalty from its success. Is that bad for PR and marketing? Or maybe there are more ways of doing good work and getting your message out there than the constant white noise of self-congratulation on social media? Some brands can sit happily below the radar, camouflaged, and allow other creative collaborators – writers, publishers, brands – to shine.

So, if not exponential scale as such, what does our sort of growth look like? Less of a hockey stick and more of a ziggurat. Periods of substantial increases in turnover, often followed by flatter periods of consolidation. Time well-spent during which we interrogate our margins and understand what is really profitable and what is not.

Farewell, then, to an Airbnb for books or match.com for publishing. To the need for an elevator-pitch shorthand. Goodbye exaggerating or sticking a zero on the number that represents how many people are actively engaging with your platform.

Hello to operating profitably in the hybrid spaces in publishing – between writers, publishers, agents and brands – and to adding real, meaningful value. And hello hopefully, most of all, to being relevant.

Maybe it doesn’t always have to be about immediate, explosive scale. Who was it who said in a recent interview "the get-rich-slowly schemes are not big sellers on infomercials. That’s something we have to…teach over time?"

Oh yes, that’s right. Jeff Bezos.