Publishing in 2017: Has the Startup Scene Cooled Off?

‘I Absolutely Would Do This Again’

In the world of publishing startups, Vancouver-based Shelfie has shown resilience and staying power.

Shelfie, as we’ve featured in previous coverage, is the app that lets readers bundle ebooks and audiobooks with the print titles they already own. It now also offers a recommendation service, suggesting next reads based on a reader’s existing bookshelf. And with more than 2,100 publishers on board, Shelfie is showing no signs of slowing its growth.

More than three years in—and with thousands of cold calls behind him—Shelfie’s CEO and co-founder Peter Hudson says he sees the industry from the rare perspective of a successful startup. He and Mary Alice Elcock, Shelfie’s vice president for content, speaks here with Publishing Perspectives about the current state of the startup as seen from the vantage point of their own company’s staying power.

The pace of startups entering the market is slowing, Hudson says. But that, says Elcock, doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for both startups and publishers willing to experiment and innovate to reach new readers.

Publishing Perspectives: We’ve seen a lot of startups come and go, and yours has shown real staying power. Where are we now in the world of publishing startups?

Peter Hudson: The reason we’re likely seeing fewer startups is that founders—and the investors who fund them—tend to look for opportunities in large markets that are undergoing rapid change.

When ebook adoption was growing 200 percent year-on-year and battles were being fought over agency pricing, lots of startups joined the fray. As ebook growth has plateaued and agency pricing becomes dominant, fewer startups have emerged.

Interestingly, two of the startups that persist today, Scribd and Shelfie, operate under non-agency terms (subscription and bundling)—but that’s a discussion for a different time.

PP: How do you see the newer entries in the field? Do they focus on trade publishing or are they trying to offer something other than a book—digital storytelling or augmented reality, for example?

PH: I’m not sure I have a good answer for that question. Running through the list of startups that come to mind in publishing, it feels like most of these startups—Scribd, Shelfie, Enthrill, Aer.io, Canelo, Booktrack, Wattpad, among others—are working with publishers in some way.

Notably, Wattpad is one of the most successful and is perhaps the startup that’s working the most on an alternative to a traditional publishing model for production of content.

PP: You’ve passed the three-year mark now, and have made a real success of this venture. When people see a startup succeeding, they don’t think about what it’s taken to get to that place. As we’ve discussed with you before, you’ve made a lot of calls and knocked on a lot of doors. Do you have the impression that major publishers have learned how to work better with startups?

PH: Some of the big publishers have learned to work well with startups—for example, HarperCollins. While I have a biased opinion [Harper Collins was among the first major publishers to work with Shelfie, or BitLit as it was called at the time], I think this is to their long-term advantage.

By participating at the earliest stages, HarperCollins is able to set the terms of engagement. Further, with their well-earned reputation for being innovative, HarperCollins will almost always be the first to hear about any new technologies or models that come to market.”

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