December 20, 2016
One from the vault: Book tech startup renounces traditional publishing, offers to sell your book to a traditional publisher
by Chad Felix
As the gremlin-besieged aircraft known as 2016 comes in for a landing, we’re revisiting some of our favorite MobyLives posts from the past year. This one originally ran on March 30, 2016.
In the “philosophy” section of book tech startup Inkitt’s website, the “data-driven agent and publisher” confirms the failure of traditional publishing by citing the essence-of-worn-leather fact that Harry Potter was, prior to becoming a global sensation, rejected by 13 different publishers. The reasoning for this gross failure, Inkitt notes, is that “The entire publishing industry has always relied upon the subjective and emotional opinions of their decision makers.”
Okay, publishers and editors—our “decision makers” (read: gatekeepers, humans)—sometimes don’t acquire a book that later goes on to make its author (and publisher) millions. This may be because the particular editor just doesn’t like the book. It may also be because the house can’t afford the book at that time, or they don’t think it’s the right book for the season, or the right book for the house. Perhaps the book was, at the time of submission, in pretty bad shape and the editor, no doubt overworked, felt unable to devote the time and energy needed to make the book great.
Or maybe the editor really loved the book, but the publisher was more skeptical? Maybe the book wasn’t submitted properly? (It’s also worth mentioning, if not obvious, that—kids, plug your ears now, please—sometimes a publisher’s foremost concern is not profit. Sometimes a house will acquire a book because it is formally challenging or—keep ’em plugged—important and, therefore, needs to be published, as financially risky as the venture may be. Also, sometimes books are bad and should not be published.)
All of which is to say, there are countless reasons why a publisher might have passed on Harry Potter, and not all of them involve an editor’s snooty attitude. Inkitt, perhaps correctly, chalks all of this up to dreaded Expertise, and Expertise is bad, very bad, for the business of books:
Who are we or any editor in the world to judge whether your book is worth publishing? We don’t think that we or any so-called “expert” is in a position to judge your work. You write your book for your readers, and the most important factor is whether your readers like it or not. That is what we measure at Inkitt.
So how does Inkitt solve this problem? Who, if not an expert, will judge the books? Why, an “objective” artificial “intelligence” algorithm, of course.
This is why [Inkitt] built artificially intelligent algorithms that have the ability to analyze reading pattern data and engagement levels. This allows us to make objective and data-driven decisions regarding a story’s potential to become a bestseller.
This all good and fine, but not new or surprising. We’ve seen it again and again: non-expert or reformed expert approaches industry with ideas about how to make money (Inkitt creators Ali Albazaz and Linda Gavin have backgrounds in sales and corporate design, respectively), non-expert builds algorithm, non-expert tries to sell newfangled, guaranteed-to-work thing back to the industry of bad experts.
Fine, do it! Except for that last step, you wife of Lot, you. As it turns out, working with the expert publishers of old Sodom is exactly what, in the long term, Inkitt wants to do. In an interview with FutureBook, who named Inkitt their startup of the week, Albazaz and Gavin state that their ultimate ambition is:
To have a large catalogue of books which the publishing houses can use to find their next blockbuster. We want publishers to come to Inkitt when they are looking for a future bestseller—because they know that we will deliver every time.
But don’t be misled, writers. As explained by Inkitt, if your book fails to sell to an “A-list publisher” (read: a publisher with the ability to make a bestseller, a feat that extends well beyond the words on the page), then the rights to the book are, ultimately, returned to you. Unless, of course, Inkitt manages to sell 1,000 copies in 12 months on their own (again, no small task), in which case Inkitt will try their luck with the A-listers again. Inkitt also notes that “at present, our publishing program is limited to selected stories but will become available for more authors over time.”
In other words: meet your new Gatekeepers, who will then try to sell your book to an industry they recently lambasted.
Chad Felix is the Manager of Direct Sales and Library Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.