Sophie Rochester: Start-ups' lessons inform new opportunities

Sophie Rochester: Start-ups' lessons inform new opportunities

Editor's Note: What pushes a start-up over the edge? Having recently noted that Canelo publishing director Michael Bhaskar's list of publishing start-ups has grown to some 300 entries, we're glad today to have this perspective from The Literary Platform's Sophie Rochester. At a time when we hear voices urging publishing to step up its game in tech -- here is Sara O'Connor, for example -- Rochester warns that the rising importance of mobile makes this no time to let up. As she writes, "The danger is that publishers might take their feet off the pedal on innovation." - Porter Anderson


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]

So out of these tales of digital publishing woe, what are the stand-out issues?

  • Margins with rich content
  • Breaking even
  • Hard-to-categorise
  • Solving a problem that doesn’t exist
  • Competitive pricing
  • Necessary resources
  • Niche focus  
  • Distracted readers

These are all familiar challenges to publishers, and though they remain challenges, publishers do have a lot of experience in attempting to overcome them. In addition, where these start-ups have tried and failed, publishers have been able to watch and learn and shouldn’t this in itself represent an opportunity?

We're about to move into an interesting period for digital publishing.

To date, largely speaking, the lion's share of the digital reading market has been synonymous with ebooks, ebooks have been synonymous with e-readers, and e-readers have been synonymous with a quite traditional reader looking for a quite a traditional linear, long-form narrative. This has arguably bought some time for publishers, giving them a window to adapt business strategies for the always connected, fast-paced, user-centric world in which we now live and adapt its communications strategies to become increasingly consumer facing.

We can see the sales of e-readers slowing and the future of digital reading will almost certainly be on mobile, with all the opportunities and challenges that brings. With the next generation of readers looking for new and exciting pieces of entertainment, publishers are well positioned to take reading content to these audiences, but they need to understand the needs, desires, mindsets, habits and rituals of the next-generation mobile reader.

In almost every other industry, research and development plays a major part in understanding these future opportunities. But with all the talk of digital publishing start-ups going under -- not to mention those publisher digital projects that didn’t make the ROI -- and with ebooks such an established channel, the danger is that publishers might take their feet off the pedal on innovation.

However, now is the time for publishers to continue to invest in innovation, and to ensure that they understand shifting habits in reading (and work out how they might meet them).

The opportunity is that now publishers are now better placed than ever to be part of this exciting future.


Sophie Rochester founded The Literary Platform in 2009 as a resource in publishing and technology. It is a specialized consultancy today. In 2010, she launched Fiction Uncovered, which is today the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, recognising British fiction writers. In the past, she has worked with 4th Estate, Jonathan Cape, Good Technology and Colman Getty, 

[1] Papercut (UsTwo)

[2] Papercut (UsTwo)

[3] Hide & Seek

[4] Enhanced Editions

[5] Readmill

[6] Moglue

[7] Editorially

Main image: Shutterstock: Ditty_about_summer