Rogue Reader

New publishing companies are starting that are much leaner than their established competitors


“It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital, without any legacy costs, massively trumps print.” — David G. Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media, quoted in The New York Times on September 24, 2012.

The magazine business isn’t the book business, but…

For the better part of two decades, many people have seen the potential quandary the digital transition posed to big successful full-service publishing organizations. If distribution no longer requires scale, what does that mean to the companies that not only succeeded by creating distribution at scale, but which also are largely locked in to their high-cost, high-maintenence infrastructures?

This was one of my concerns when I delivered my “End of General Trade Publishing Houses” speech at BookExpo in 2007. When bookstores go away, I figured, it would become absolutely necessary but would be very hard for publishers working across audiences to adjust to being multi-niche. And it seemed to me that the big organizations built to deal with thousands of dispersed retail outlets at scale would be far too expensive to maintain when the outlets weren’t there. And stepping down the overhead level wouldn’t be easy.

There’s no shortage of understanding of this challenge. All big publishers are looking for new ways to apply scale to gathering names, analyzing data, improving discovery, social marketing, and creating partnerships with others that can provide audience reach.

Several companies have built business strategies around the expectation that traditional publishing organizations are going to have to get smaller and change the way they staff their print value chain. Among the biggest players, Donnelley, Ingram, Perseus, and even Random House fit that description: offering a variety of ways for publishers to offload everything except the functions that are absolutely core to publishing: editorial selection and development, rights management, and marketing.

The companies that offer the print value chain solutions also have digital services, of course, but they have competitors in that space that specialize in providing what demands scale for digital publishing. The competitors tend to start their service offerings further up the workflow than those that started by focusing on scalable distribution. Two new partnerships announced last week suggest the emergence of new commercial models for publishing.

The big eye-catching announcement was that Barry Diller and Scott Rudin, both with Hollywood roots, are putting substantial investment — announced as $10 million, but they could certainly add more when and if they want to — behind a new commercial trade house called Brightline to be led by publishing veteran Frances Coady. Brightline will partner and build its books with The Atavist.

Perhaps less noticed, but pointing in a similar direction, is that agent and entrepreneur Jason Allen Ashlock has set up a new niche publishing imprint to do crime and suspense books, working on the PressBooks platform created by Hugh McGuire.

The publishing ambitions here are quite different, but the point they make about the direction of publishing’s future are very much the same.

Diller and Rudin backing Coady would appear to be poised to compete with major publishers for major books. You don’t put $10 million into play as your initial investment to sign up a bunch of previously self-published or genre fiction authors. And The Atavist’s bookbuilding capability was built with a Hollywood consciousness in mind. They have not only designed what they do so that it rather elegantly accommodates links (allowing them to be made either very obvious or very unobtrusive), The Atavist always envisioned that its own publishing of serious topical non-fiction would have a potential cinematic or TV iteration. Their standard contractual agreement cuts them in on those rights which it was very much in their vision to reserve for themselves and develop.

This is not to imply that Brightline will need in any way to depend on The Atavist’s original commercial vision or contracts; they will certainly have their ideas about both.

Ashlock’s ambitions, at least initially, appear to be more modest. As the proprietor of a young and developing literary agency, he would need to acquire titles that don’t have the kind of advance-against-royalties requirement that Brightline would feel comfortable with. So he’s announced his publishing enterprise, called Rogue Reader, which will do “crime fiction”, apparently only one title per month and also apparently previously little-known or unknown writers.

The message here is that we see a similar answer coming from the opposite ends of the continuum of investment and power of what the genesis of a successful future publisher might look like. Both an ambitious well-funded highly-commercial list headed by a publishing veteran and fledgling authors publishing in a niche under the direction of a young entrepreneur with much less seasoning are being launched on new publishing platforms which have copious capabilities to do digital publishing efficiently. These new publishers can treat the diminishing print-in-store marketplace as a bit of an afterthought because there are more and more sources from which to purchase those capabilities for as long as they are needed.

And since the need for those capabilities is diminishing, and since there are so many companies that own them and can’t suddenly not own them, the chances are that the cost of obtaining those capabilities from somebody else is likely to just keep going down.

We are getting closer to the day when all a publisher really will need to “own” is the ability to acquire and develop good books and ways to reach the core audience for them persuasively and inexpensively. Diller and Rudin, with their Hollywood roots, certainly have access to many of the great story-creators and storytellers. Through connections to lots of people with marketing platforms plus the extensive network of connections through Diller’s IAC collection of web properties, they also have the capabilities to promote them.

Could any publisher build scaled web marketing capabilities more effectively than IAC? Diller’s team seems to be figuring they can rent everything else besides the core capabilities and be competitive. I think that’s right.

Ashlock doesn’t have their reach, but by sticking to “crime fiction” he thinks he can build a community around what he’ll do that will enable effective and efficient marketing. And as an agent, he’s in a good position to recruit good projects, although he will deal with the conflicts involved in turning somebody who comes to him as a literary agent seeking a publishing deal with another house into his own author. The ethics of this question have been hotly debated. One prior experimenter of this type — agent Scott Waxman who started ebook publisher Diversion Books — seems to have given up agenting in favor of being a fulltime ebook publisher. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Ashlock.

Both Brightline and Rogue Reader will undoubtedly be building out their development. We can expect them both to announce soon how they’ll handle putting books in stores. One would imagine that the business development teams at all the companies with big distribution capabilities are knocking on Brightline’s door. One book a month isn’t necessarily as attractive and publishers won’t want to encourage agents to become competing publishers, but I would imagine Rogue Reader will be able to find more than one company with these capabilities willing to answer their phone calls as well.

Rebecca Smart, the CEO of Osprey, was at our office last week let our friend Hannah Johnson of Publishing Perspectives capture a couple of minutes of video about what she’ll be discussing at Publishers Launch Frankfurt on October 8. It’s a quick example of the out-of-the-box thinking which will be coming from 18 different presentations at our 10:30-6:30 event. 

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