Through the Eyes of a Startup: Reading Todd Sattersten’s Every Book Is A Startup continues its regular column in which we review, explicate, and excerpt books that we think will resonate with people in the business of publishing and media. 


Sure, putting the word “startup” in the title of a book seems to be all the rage, but can (and should) the publishing of each title be treated like a startup? In  Every Book Is A Startup (O’Reilly, Feb 2012),  Todd Sattersten aims to build on the creative energy of the startup and applies it to book publishing. By prescribing entrepreneurial ways of looking at acquisition and marketing in the book industry, Sattersten pushes for publishers to be able to better define the success of a book more thoroughly, to assess the need and audience for it more concisely, and to react to audiences’ expectations more immediately.

In the book, Sattersten references Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, and Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail to frame the publishing landscape as being one of Black Swans and Long Tails, i.e. occasional, huge hits, and many niche works for smaller audiences, respectively. He outlines the disparity between these two types of titles to explain the unique publishing marketplace and to demonstrate how hard it is to set a standard of success (like one magic number of units sold) across all titles. Very seldom will a book ever become a Fifty Shades of Grey or The Hunger Games, and while “Readers now have the tools to find books in the long tail…becoming aware of those books is another matter.”

One of the most interesting chapters of Every Book Is A Startup is the one in which Sattersten talks about the “Fidelity-Convenience continuum.” On one end of the spectrum is Fidelity, products that focus meticulously on adding features to enhance the user experience like HD televisions; muscle cars with more horse power; and tablets with the best interfaces, screens, and hardware. On the opposite end is Convenience, products that remove as many elements as possible to reach the broadest audience, such as Ikea’s bare-bones (assembly required) business model; online college courses; and Kindle 2’s “Book in 60 Seconds” ad campaign (this is in comparison to its original approach of trying recreate the printed book experience). While Sattersten admits that there is a market for people at all points within the continuum, the importance in treating a book like a startup is knowing where one’s audience falls and then using that to a publisher’s marketing advantage.

When it comes to knowing one’s audience, the idea of “minimum viable product,” a concept popularized by Mr. Lean Startup himself, Eric Ries, is especially effective. The premise is that a company should make its product available to the public in its simplest functional form, so that feedback and data can be gathered from the outset of the development process.  While this can apply to content, as Sattersten exemplifies with the fact that Every Book Is A Startup readily accepts email feedback for future versions, one of the most common ways minimum viable product is applied is through pre-orders. He cites the example of Logos Bible Software, which asks customers to bid how much they would pay for a particular text with a credit card online, and when enough bids are received to cover the production costs of a title’s digitization, Logos will use the bidding data to determine the final retail price. When a product is at the mercy its consumers so early in development, sometimes failure is inevitable, a topic we discussed at length last month with Tim Harford’s book Adapt. The idea of data collection is obviously to maximize profit by taking the guesswork out of whether or not the finished product can find an audience. The typical trade publisher being able to support so much trial-and-error with a sizeable list seems impractical, though Sattersten’s approach is often used successfully with direct-to-consumer book publishing.

Though Every Book Is A Startup does give concrete points to consider when developing acquisitions and marketing plans, the time and resources required to treat every book as a startup seem unrealistic for large houses because of the number of titles and for smaller ones because of limited budgets and manpower. While new networking tools offer new opportunities for titles to find a viable market in the long tail, even Sattersten concedes that the Black Swans are the ones that drive the business, and the successful approach to finding those remains, by definition, difficult to quantify. Perhaps where Sattersten’s book can be best applied is with self-publishing, further demonstrating that the startup mentality is often best when kept to an individual or small group. With that said, Sattersten’s book is in itself an example of what it preaches: in its third release of its third edition, this book continues to evolve as the industry and market do.


Related Reading:

Working with Startups: Five Tips for Publishers from Publishers Perspectives

Being Direct: The ToC Perspective from Publishers Weekly

Leave a Comment


  1. Sep 17, 20126:55 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful review of Every Book Is A Startup.

    I think your conclusion is square on about this applying to individuals and small groups. I would go a step further and say that authors are the best suited for using the lean startup philosophy as the entrepreneur’s in the publishing ecosystem.

    With publishers in the role of VC, they may benefit from looking for authors who are actively “searching” for and already finding a market for their ideas rather than trusting their editorial gut. Publishing already does this, but more can be done.

  2. Sep 18, 201210:15 am
    Kimberly Lew

    Thanks for this great comment, Todd (and for reading our review). We definitely feel that the book would be beneficial to authors, and especially with self-publishing, being able to apply this startup mindset from a book’s inception can be a great asset for a writer. We did enjoy the places where the book was applicable to publishers, though, and it was interesting to see what ideas are already implemented in some form or another and where there may be room for more.

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