that book publishing startups fail at merely a rate of roughly
a third within the ;rst few years of operation. But that’s
Can you talk about some of the common themes you see for
would-be publishing startups? Looking at the data, is there
a particular area where you see a lot of investment? Or any
glaring areas of opportunity?
There is a remarkable diversity in the startups, but a few patterns emerge. Generally speaking, self-published authors are
the main target for publishing startups. I had thought that
lots of them would target publishing companies and publishing operations, but very few actually do so. The big category
is self-publishing tools. And lots of the startups claim to be
the very best, easiest hosts for self-published authors trying to
get their books to market, with the most generous royalties.
On the reader side, many of the startups purport to help
readers discover the best next book to read. But that’s a
problem that I don’t think is nearly severe enough to justify
a new business. The other one that startled me was that there
were a dozen startups speci;cally targeted to ;nding the best
price for used textbooks.
Funding, obviously, is a concern for all startups, but is it
even more so for pub tech, given the industry’s famously
Funding is the biggest problem that book publishing start-
It has been said that for an industry supposedly in decline, there sure are a lot of people trying to get into the pub- lishing business. In fact, over the past decade, there have been around 900 publishing startups, observes consul- tant and Future of Publishing blogger Thad McIlroy,
who recently released a report on the state of publishing-related startups. “I did the work to satisfy my own curiosity
and to understand the nature of innovation in the publishing
industry,” says McIlroy, who started collecting data some
five years ago.
Where would you say the digital startup scene is at the
moment? Are we in a period where innovation and investment
is on the upswing, or is it slowing?
If we talk more broadly than book publishing, about the
digital startup scene generally, I would say that we are in a
period of extraordinary innovation and generous investment. As an example, arti;cial intelligence is causing a
great stir, launching literally thousands of startups, and
attracting venture capital like pigs to the trough.
Do you get any sense from your work of who is behind most
publishing-related startups? Are they publishing people
approaching traditional problems, or are they coming from
I’ve strong sense that the people behind publishing startups
are mostly newbies. Perhaps this is because publishing
veterans are cynical or pessimistic about the possibilities for
innovation. Naïveté has always been an advantage for the
Most startups fail—that we know. Do
you get any sense of whether the bar is
higher or lower for publishing startups?
If so, why might that be?
Working through my study of the 900 or
so startups, I kept learning of one failure
after another, and it gave me the impression that the failure rate among publishing startups was higher than it was in
other industries. So I researched that
question directly and found to my surprise, and to my pleasure, that the book
publishing startups are failing at a level
roughly consistent with other startups.
It seems like a reverse compliment to say
We talk with Thad McIlroy about innovation
in the book business
BY ANDREW RICHARD ALBANESE
Publishing’s Startup Culture