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This Is Not A Startup Story

When you start a small business, it’s hard to know what success–or failure–looks like.

This Is Not A Startup Story
[Photo: Flickr user Magic Madzik]

In 2011, I started a book business with my best friend called Emily Books.

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We were qualified to start a business in some ways, not so much in others. We had some expertise in our field: We’d both worked at the intersection of publishing and tech for years, and we wanted to start an online bookstore that sold a small collection of books and allowed readers to subscribe and receive a carefully chosen book per month automatically. Our idea was that this would provide an online version of what we loved about shopping at independent bookstores: the great taste and careful curation of expert booksellers, which no algorithm can replicate. We had no management experience, though, and had never created a PowerPoint presentation or written a business plan. We also, probably more importantly, had no ambition to found the kind of startup that barrels toward acquisition or IPO. We wanted to test waters, grow organically, and pivot on a dime in response to customers’ needs like a startup, but we also wanted to stay independent, avoid gimmicks, and build a sustainable business that would stay true to its core values.

That was three years, many gray hairs, over 5,000 sales and 36 excellent books ago, but we’re still pretty much just as far from the point of being able to pay ourselves any wages as we were when we first started.

As I write this, we’re debating whether to radically change what we do in ways we think will help us survive, or cut our losses and accept that the project might have hit its natural expiration date. Startup stories usually begin in a garage and end in huge payouts, with funding round deals sprinkled throughout. Startup stories have clear lessons, firm distinctions between success and failure. This is not a startup story. As we make the decision about our company’s future, I’ve begun to look back on what we’ve learned, and what we’re still trying to figure out.


It’s still hard for me to judge whether our earliest moves were mistakes or great decisions that helped define us; probably, they were all a bit of both.

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The root of all our problems, and maybe the cause of our success, was that we decided that we would only sell e-books. We chose to sell only e-books for a few reasons. In 2011, it seemed like e-books’ market share would continue to grow, and that there was a huge opportunity to digitize books and introduce them to a new, device-loving audience. But we also picked e-books because we didn’t have any money or access to people who do, and we wanted to open for business right away; this was a way to do so with no inventory.

Because a lot of the books we wanted to sell weren’t available in e-editions, we decided to republish them digitally in order to sell them, signing revenue-sharing agreements with rights-holders and publishers. From there, it was the most natural thing in the world to begin adding corrections and new Introductions to the manuscripts as we converted them into e-book format. In this way, almost completely by accident, we soon became something we hadn’t consciously set out to be: publishers.

That’s right: In 2011, we went into the book publishing business. This happened gradually enough that we didn’t realize at first quite what was happening, and at first, it seemed like it was, against all odds, working! People committed in advance to receiving our picks. By the end of our first year, we had over 100 subscribers. Maybe we were on to something; maybe our subscription model was an important innovation that could “scale.”

Maybe we were a startup after all.

So we tried to act like one. Six months after starting the business, we started going to “tech meetups” to present our idea. We were often the only women there, or close to it. When pressed to explain our business model, sometimes I talked about the value of “curation”–I know, but it was one of the few buzzwords that I thought conveyed anything of inherent importance. Other times, a bit halfheartedly, I talked about the potential of our idea to spin out into something more salable. Instead of curating a list of independently published books by little-known authors whose work we thought should be considered cult classics, we could develop new verticals with other specialist curators in more marketable genres, genres like YA or sci-fi or serialized fiction.

But we never did anything about this idea, and only felt a slight pang when people who were more serious about that model launched successful Kickstarters and collaborations with Amazon. We were busy doing the work we loved and connecting readers with the books we thought were important, and we were super gratified when this approach worked.

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But there’s only so long you can remain satisfied with naches, even when the kudos come in the form of a constant stream of emails from women and girls who say the books you’ve chosen have changed their lives forever. Nice emails don’t pay the bills, and Ruth and I were both working full-time jobs in addition to our Emily Books roles. Ruth’s bookkeeping work also got harder with every new title we chose, because our backlog of authors, agents, and other rightsholders to send statements to grew, too. By the end of our second year, Ruth was overwhelmed. We took on a paid intern and hired a designer to help with cover art, but we were still spread a little bit too thin to hire a bookkeeper to help her. And while we worked harder and harder, our level of business stayed depressingly static.


We also kept experiencing a phenomenon we started to think of as digital showrooming: We’d look up books we picked on Amazon and find they were “better together” with many other books we’d chosen. That this would inevitably happen should have been obvious to us, but it hadn’t been. Naively, we’d assumed that people would buy from us because they liked us more, the same way that people buy from neighborhood bookstores. Turns out, it’s trickier to convince people to make good-karma purchases when those transactions are digital and invisible. It also seemed like there was a fundamental disconnect in readers’ minds between their enthusiasm for our project and actually buying books from us; every like and retweet of our posts and tweets about the monthly picks had a coversion rate so tiny it was shocking. Many people told us that they bought every one of our picks…from Amazon-owned used bookstore AbeBooks.com. We had the most success when we could figure out how to become a book’s exclusive seller, but to do that every time was an administrative task much larger than our bandwidth.

Still, it gave us hope that if we could figure out how to publish or republish books exclusively each month someday, our breaking-even business could start turning a profit.


As we approached the beginning of year three, in the summer of 2013, it was clear to us that e-books were not the wave of the future. We ourselves read them, sure, for the sake of convenience, but even Ruth and I, if we were honest with ourselves, still preferred the unquestionable advantages of print. (For one thing, you can’t get distracted and check your email on a paperback.) Most of our customers told us they felt the same way. Print seemed like the obvious next frontier, but the numbers didn’t add up: With around 250 subscribers, we were an order of magnitude shy of the 3,000 guaranteed customers we’d need to make designing, printing, and shipping a book make financial sense.

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So instead, we explored other means of enlarging our subscriber base: We launched an iOS app version of our subscription in September 2013 order to make it easier for readers to download our books, and we experimented with various kinds of sales, special offers, and events. We launched a feature where we interviewed subscribers on our Tumblr, which was great; we learned a lot about what our readers wanted, and our customer base grew to seem even more like a true literary community.

But the iOS app didn’t catch on as much as we’d hoped, seeming less to capitalize on a new audience than to cannibalize the one we already had and give Apple a 30% cut of those subscriptions, to boot. It also caused confusion among readers who assumed that they could have both versions of the subscription, which for technical and accounting reasons we had to keep completely separate. And the community, while vibrant, didn’t seem to be capable of wielding much influence. I often found myself envying the booksellers I knew who worked in brick-and-mortar stores: An in-person handsell, I knew from experience, was a lot easier to pull off than its digital equivalent.


So, then, this has been the status quo for the past year. A few weeks ago, Ruth and I went away for a weekend “retreat” at a borrowed beach condo to figure out our next move. We discussed several different options, ate barbeque, and swam in an unseasonably warm ocean. We talked through the pluses and minuses of starting our own crowdfunding campaign, comparing our project to others that had enjoyed success. We still might take that option, if we can figure out how to offer books and subscriptions as rewards in a way that will enable us to profit rather than lose money, and if we can find the amount of time and energy it takes to run a successful campaign. We also talked about how we’d go about winding down aspects of the business that seem like they’re draining our resources more than they’re helping us: The essays and interviews about our books that we’d assigned, paid for, and featured on our blog and in the app, for instance, aren’t currently seeming like an essential part of what we do.

The iOS app, pending improvements, still might catch on, but if it doesn’t, we’ll have to figure out how to try to keep those subscribers as we fold them back into the original distribution system. We’re also in talks with an established indie publishing house, trying to figure out whether doing a handful of print and e-book Emily Books originals in collaboration could make financial sense for both us and them; I’m hopeful, but when I look at the profit and loss statements they’ve given us for reference, I get less so. The idea that print availability is the only difference between selling a few hundred and a few thousand books seems like a stretch. Then again, we have a built-in base. “Two hundred people who love you are more important than 2 million people who like you,” some startup guy or other once said. Startup guys say a lot of stuff, though.

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When night fell on our retreat, we put away our laptops and curled up on the couch in front of the TV. The Devil Wears Prada was showing on Lifetime, as it always is, and we were delighted to sit down and rewatch it. Outsized caricature that it is, this monumentally great chick flick does seem in some ways to encapsulate my own journey from principled young striver to glamour-chasing young sellout and back again. As we watched Andi toss the cell phone that had tethered her to her dream-nightmare job into the fountain and put her terrible corduroys back on to work at some kind of scrubby newspaper, I wondered if the movie wasn’t an omen. Maybe it’s time to embrace something old-fashioned instead of something glitzy and new and untried. Maybe our future–and publishing’s future–isn’t to be found in technological advancements that change the way we read, but in advancements that change the way books reach their audience.

I still think we’re on the ground floor of something great, but it’ll take much more time than I’d like to figure out what, exactly, that “something” is.

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