Publishing start-ups: not just lean, but emaciated

Thad McIlroy, the brains behind, has released a fascinating report into publishing start-ups in the US. It makes sobering reading. 

I remember being the contact at the big publishing house, being approached by start-ups keen to use our content and partner to reach our markets, trying to assess if these passionate young men (they were usually young men) with little idea of how publishing worked but limitless energy and technical wizadry would be our saviours or at best a waste of time and energy, at worst a risk to our continued existence. 

Thad points out that of the nearly 900  companies on his list (900?! no wonder it felt never-ending!), only 15% received any funding, and many of those received tiny amounts. As Thad puts it: ‘Many of these publishing startups are not just lean: they’re emaciated. In many cases there is no startup, per se; just a website and some good intentions. The marketing and promotion is minimal.’

Around one third appear to be dead in the water. And there’s a massive amount of overlap between their stated aims: ‘the Spotify of books’, ‘social reading’, ‘improving discoverability’ and so on. 

I don’t know how this compares to other industries: I suspect it’s leaner than most simply because book publishing profits tend to be so meagre. The inevitable conclusion is that publishing is oddly hard to disrupt, perhaps because books are such a good technology as they stand (‘de-bugged’, as Thad puts it). 

It’s sobering reading for a small independent boot-strapped publisher. But one thing that comes across strongly is that most of the failed companies had little or no understanding of the industry, and a disregard for the importance of the printed book to our lives. To read the stats another way: over two-thirds of these companies are still active, and the enthusiasm of founders for starting businesses in this sector reveals the extent of enthusiasm and passion for books themselves. 

And that’s got to be a good sign.