(Another) Spotify For Books

Here’s how to alienate a large portion of possible content sources in one go: compare your product to their greatest fear. Perhaps Oyster didn’t call themselves the ‘Spotify for books’ in their pitch to publishers – I wasn’t at Frankfurt – but it’s certainly how they’ve been branded in the aftermath. And it doesn’t, as far as I can see, do them any favours.

‘Spotify for books’

This is what the word ‘Spotify’ conjures for me.

Spotify - music's last resort. Thanks to @mikemurphy1979 for bringing this to my attention


This sentiment has echoed through the music industry so many times, consumers have heard it. So now the big question coming from within publishing will be: who is going to take the first leap and release content for the new subscription-based unlimited-read app? Because surely this thing will live or die on its library.

I would be incredibly surprised if this was universally embraced by publishers, particularly large ones. This has less to do with a publisher’s inherent reticence when working with digital startups and more to do with the full consideration of the current publishing landscape and market – the same consideration, in fact, which goes into any major business model decision in any industry.

In a market where publishers acknowledge that bookshops are the best showrooms for their authors’ books, would they contribute to a startup that is looking to massively undercut a bookshop’s business?

While you can see how and why a consumer would buy into a cheap subscription to unlimited content (thus explaining the $3 million in investment the company managed to raise), that’s not the same as asking ‘is this the best thing for my authors?‘. Finding the answer to that question is a publisher’s job, far more than pacifying a league of developers with brilliant ideas for content curation.



There are two considerations that I see as critical to the publisher’s decision when working with a new startup:

a) Is this something the reading public will use? Does it have a market large enough to be worth my time or are the trying to sell me a community smaller than the one I’ve already created?

b) Does this person represent authors’ interests, or do we have something they want to exploit?

Publishers are cautious. We work with Amazon, go figure that one out (and just because a startup isn’t Amazon doesn’t mean they represent a better alternative). Many tech start ups will go to a publisher and say ‘I have a great idea, and I want your content’, or ‘I have a great idea and I want your marketing budget’. In the first situation (which is a lot harder to defend publicly than the latter) a publisher will consider the revenue that content makes elsewhere, and whether this new avenue will either increase or decrease that revenue. And it comes to this: if a startup runs contrary to our business’ aims, why would we invest in it?

Another key question for those startups trading in ‘discovery’ is: as a publisher, why would I want/need you to capture a market for me rather than invest in doing it myself?

More thoughts on the start up – publisher relationship in a conversation I had with Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks here.

Apps for Digital Publishing, digital publishing, oyster, Spotify, Startups


Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.

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