‘Sometimes It Sucks to Be a Pioneer’: On Watching Publishing Start-Ups Finish

Zoe Dattner launched her own small publishing company, with Louise Swinn, 11 years ago. In her role at the Small Press Network, she was involved in small publishers partnering with digital reading platform Booki.sh and independent bookstores to provide a viable local e-reading alternative. And during the digital age, she’s watched a lot of start-ups finish (including Booki.sh). She tells why the Australian book industry needs to invest in the digital technologies of our own sector … and why sometimes it sucks to be a pioneer.

Zoe Dattner, left, with fellow publishing pioneer Louise Swinn, partners in the successful, still-going, Sleepers Publishing.

Zoe Dattner, left, with fellow publishing pioneer Louise Swinn, partners in the successful, still-going, Sleepers Publishing.

12 Oct 2011 ª@DigitalDanHouse¬¬¬¬¬¬: Best thing I’ve seen at Frankfurt? www.smalldemons.com¬¬

Back in 2011, the above tweet appeared in my Twitter feed, posted by the digital publisher at Random House in London, who I’d met earlier that year. I sensed this discovery that Dan had made at Frankfurt Book Fair was neither a book nor a publishing company; increasingly, in the world of books and publishing, this is exactly what we need. We need to think beyond the traditional structures of the way in which we do business and tap into the thousands of individuals around the world who are obsessed with technology and content and building new platforms for engaging users. Typically, this is what digital publishing start-ups are concerning themselves with.

When I went to the link, I learned that Small Demons was a wonderfully imagined and beautifully executed reference library of food, celebrities, iconic dates, objects, music, booze, other books – absolutely anything that could be found in any book. Type in ‘jazz’ or ‘spaghetti’ and you wouldn’t just find a Haruki Murakami book, but a number of other books containing jazz and spaghetti too. It was a curiously compelling book-discovery tool that had a lot of potential but was probably ahead of its time. A few months ago, following a difficult search for new investors, it closed down. Click on the link above, and it doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, almost all remnants of Small Demons have been wiped from the web.

Eleven years ago I embarked on my own ‘start-up’ journey, when, together with my friend Louise Swinn, I started a small publishing company, Sleepers. We never thought of it in terms of a ‘start-up’ as such; we were following the reasonably well-trodden paths of traditional publishing, and a start-up is typically something that strives to establish a new business model, a new way of doing things. But running a small press does share many things in common, particularly in this age of digital publishing, which has given publishers like Sleepers access to production, marketing and distribution methods never before seen. Now there is an abundance of independent publishing activity and I’ve developed a great enthusiasm for publishing start-ups and the lunatics who feel so driven to establish them. They are a wonderful expression of courage and risk-taking, something lacking in so many facets of contemporary business. But the very nature of the landscape they are compelled to innovate in, one that is turbulent and unstable and characterised by constant change, means that not many of them will flourish.

This article was prompted by an email I received recently, from a start-up I’ve been following since its beta phase in March 2013:

Goodbye. Editorially is closing its doors… We’re proud of the team and tool that we built together, and incredibly thankful that so many of you were willing to give it a try. And we continue to believe that evolving the way we collaborate as writers and editors is important work. But Editorially has failed to attract enough users to be sustainable, and we cannot honestly say we have reason to expect that to change…

This followed on from the disappointing news earlier this year that Readmill – a reading App I’ve often enjoyed using – had been bought by Dropbox:

Readmill’s story ends here. Many challenges in the world of ebooks remain unsolved, and we failed to create a sustainable platform for reading. For this, we’re deeply sorry. We considered every option before making the difficult decision to end the product that brought us together… As of today, it is no longer possible to create a new account, and on July 1, 2014, the Readmill app will no longer be available.

Some might argue that the founders of that particular venture had benefitted. They had created something of value that someone else needed and was prepared to pay for. But the above notice does not exactly ring with celebration and pride, and while the technology underpinning the Readmill platform presumably has a life ahead, Readmill, in terms of the experience it provided for me, is gone. Furthermore, it has been reported that, while the value of the deal was around $8 million, this was largely made up of stock, with a small amount of cash for the founding partners. Not to undermine the significance of this offer, I can’t help but feel a little sad for the independent Germany-based group who established Readmill. No doubt they had imagined a different future for themselves.

In 2013 I travelled to New York to attend the Tools of Change conference – an impressive annual event established in 2006 by the innovative publisher O’Reilly Media, devoted to exploring the future of publishing and inspiring us towards new ways of doing things. (Sadly, as yet another example of business leaders making too many decisions based on dollar value and not enough based on community, cultural and progressive values, three months after attending that wonderful conference, Tim O’Reilly announced he was discontinuing the event.)

One of my big take-home messages from that conference was this: if we do not invest in the technologies of our own sector, as the medical and finance communities do, no one will. Certainly, many of the start-ups showcased at that conference are funded by private investors, even when there is no clear path towards a lucrative outcome. There is an adventurous quality to the way in which other parts of the world invest in their industries, and I feel despondent at Australia’s inability to do the same. If this was an Indiana Jones movie, we’d be the hapless guide who hesitated out of fear, then got shot with an arrow in the first five minutes.

We have, of course, seen some innovation on a local level. In 2009, when I was working with the Small Press Network, I was involved in partnering with independent bookstore Readings, and a small company called Inventive Labs, who had just developed a reading platform called Booki.sh. Together with some of Australia’s small publishers, we launched the first independent ebook store in Australia. Aside from Kobo, for six months or so, we were the only ebook platform supplying local content in Australia. Soon, more bookstores followed, and more publishers put up their content. It was an extraordinary project to be a part of and for a short time, fuelled by a healthy dose of naivety and plenty of chutzpah, we were blazing a trail that gave others a path to start on. All three parties invested huge amounts of time, money and effort in making the platform work, and there was plenty of goodwill from the reading community. But in March 2013, not long after news broke that Booki.sh had been acquired by American library supplier Overdrive, the following email went out to its customers:

Today, we let our retail and publishing partners know that we’ll be ending ebook sales via the Booki.sh platform on June 30 this year. We have been privileged to work with Australia’s best independent booksellers as we all fought for a place in what is a difficult market, and we did not come easily to the decision to end our retail operations.

Of course, we will see so much more, as we navigate this strange new frontier. Innovation and new models will continue to come from the fringes, influencing the power brokers and changing the way we read, write, publish and engage with the written word. We’ll know that we were the ones who did it. But in the meantime, we’ll also know this: sometimes it sucks to be a pioneer.