Eyes Wide Open: Can Canelo Cross The Coals?

iStockphoto / KendallCarter
iStockphoto / KendallCarter

If Anybody Should Know This, It’s Publishing People

Enough disrupting! Disrupting is the unthinking mantra of technology companies desperate to carve a niche.
– Michael Bhaskar

During the FutureBook Hack in London last June, Faber Press’ Henry Volans said to me that it’s interesting that “publishing has taken the digital disruption very hard.”

As it would turn out, Volans was only a couple of weeks ahead of the publication of Jill Lapore’s controversial New Yorker piece, The Disruption Machine.

And it’s to that article that a new post at Medium refers: What we won’t do. Maybe.

Michael Bhaskar
Michael Bhaskar

This commentary — written by the ever-eloquent Michael Bhaskar, he has conceded —  is the “Week One” expression of a new publishing start-up called Canelo.

The piece works as a sort of anti-manifesto (maybe), posted at a particularly pivotal moment (as the piece, notes): Canelo is pushing off into the choppy waters of digital publishing just as two other start-ups go under the foam — the audiobook-streaming Bardowl and the Tesco-touted Blinkbox Books. Indeed, a company of another kind, Germany’s Textr — which had floated a very inexpensive e-reader, the Beagle — is reported by Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch today to have “filed for insolvency proceedings with a German District Court.”

One of Canelo’s troika of founders, Bhaskar is more familiar than  most with the precarious prospects of start-ups in our field. He has for years been keeping a list of digital publishing start-ups (some of them now shut-downs), and it’s a lengthy document, as you can see here, running to eight single-spaced pages, some 300 entries.

It might have given him a pause,  in fact, when he installed Canelo on that list between the “open-source ebook library management application” Calibre and CinnamonTeal Publishing — “we are driven by our passion for the book.”

And aren’t we all?

‘Disruption Has Become The Goal, Not The Byproduct’

In explaining his exclamation “Enough disrupting!” Bhaskar is careful to honor Clay Christensen, whose The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms To Fail (Harvard Business Review, 2013) is the guiding monograph on the concept of disruption in the digital dynamic.

“Having read Christensen,” he tells me, “I think the whole theory is actually quite good; but I’ve become tired of hearing ‘disruption’ as a mantra for its own sake. Disrupt to make things better, by all means. But disruption has become the goal, not the byproduct.

“What that means, I think, is that you miss a huge amount of pre-existing value. You miss all the good stuff there already.”

Instead, the Canelo creed, if you will, is meant to build on the best of what’s been done for so long in the world of literature: throwing out fewer babies, getting less soaked by bathwater:

“We at Canelo,” Bhaskar says to me, “want to be innovative, we want to use technology in new, interesting and effective ways and we want to be leading publishing in all of that. We will do things new and differently. But we also want to keep some of the older stuff as well; the stuff that is really worthwhile.

“Editorial integrity, values and attention to details in text being one good example. Working closely and building personal relationships with authors being another. Building partnerships with companies and writers. We want to combine the best of the old and the new.”

Bhaskar is publishing director of the new Canelo, which he and his associates describe as “a new digital publisher of engaging fiction and non-fiction released as ebooks, apps and on the Web.”

Nick Barreto
Nick Barreto

His partners are managing director Iain Millar and technology director Nick Barreto.

And there’s a lot of interest in their effort, not just because all three of these principals are high-profile members of the digital publishing community.

In addition, there’s a lot of resonance for their ambitions, built as they are on an idea of furthering digital publishing, getting on with it rather than obsessing over it or trying to ameliorate its effects or trying to deny that publishing’s world has changed.

Iain Millar
Iain Millar

Millar told The Bookseller’s Philip Jones — for his initial column on the start-up’s announcement, Canelo: a new hope — “We first met as trade publishing was getting to grips with the ebook revolution. Now we’re here to prove that the industry can change further, and that the market for digital reading can continue to grow.”

And, as Jones went on to clarify:

The important thing about Canelo is that it is digital-only. Millar told me that Canelo would be looking to publish between 100 and 150 titles in its first year—and would not be doing any print books, though it may consult and collaborate with other publishers on their digital strategies.

The challenge for Canelo (as it is for all small publishers) will be to balance out its need for a quick commercial return from a project, with the desire to be (and be seen to be) experimental and innovative. As it notes on its website, “Canelo offers cutting-edge digital marketing, industry-leading production values and highly competitive royalty rates and license terms.”

And maybe it’s the news this week of newly foundering efforts that makes the arrival of Canelo seem all the more welcome, but also all the more chancy.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

In his newest commentary for us at The FutureBook, Running up that hill, Jones obviously has Sisyphus in mind. He references the new Week One Canelo post in watching Bardowl and Blinkbox Books go down, and writes:

We are not quite in Fucked Company territory — these entities were generally not over-hyped, they did not needlessly squander cash, and were not over-inflated by investors — but nevertheless it’s been a rough ride for the tech entrepreneurs, and one wonders what knock-on effect there is from each new failure.

As the Canelo blog puts it, “What’s the problem? Is there a problem?”

And the very fact that it’s willing to talk “problem” is one of the reasons some of us think Canelo’s effort — although we don’t know it well yet in its first week — has a better chance than many: It’s hardly “running up that hill” with a merry yelp and a chorus of bright promises. No euphemism of “problems” as “challenges.” Eyes wide open.

In Bhaskar’s Medium post, we read:

Digital publishing is hard.
That’s the truth. Even when you’re a massive company — not just a conglomerate publisher, but a global giant like Sony — digital publishing is a tough environment. It’s competitive and there are powerful established players. So whatever happens, it’s never a straight line.

How refreshing to read that kind of clear-eyed view. Yes, Canelo may be a new home to authors and their support colleagues. And it’s not going to be easy.

Give me some honest hesitation any day, and I’ll follow you a lot of places.

Three Things ‘We Will Try And Avoid’

My favorite of these — quoted at the start of this article — comes first. This is where Bhaskar declares his and Canelo’s rejection of:

Disrupting for the sake of disrupting. Enough disrupting! Disrupting is the unthinking mantra of technology companies desperate to carve a niche…The downside of disruption is that it ignores a lot of accreted value and expertise in existing areas… It’s very easy for those outside publishing and the book world to see all these inefficiencies and think, ‘Wow, let’s get rid of it all and hey presto make millions.’ It never works because it misses a large portion of why publishing exists in the first place.

Any author reading this — any publishing worker who’s in the business for the right reasons — can be forgiven for rejoicing at the idea of a company determined not to slash and burn where it doesn’t have to.

A second point, one of the things the Canelo team says it does not intend to find itself doing is:

Overestimating the market. The number of conversations we’ve all had where people, from backgrounds outside the book world, guess the number of copies the average book sells, and get it wildly, wildly wrong, is alarming. How many? 30,000? No, surely 50,000 plus? How can anyone get out of bed for less than 100,000 copies, seriously? At least.

If only. If years of working in publishing teach you one thing it’s that being clear about overall sales expectations is the best platform for publishers and authors…So let’s be honest with our authors and partners.

In an industry that has a tradition of reporting print runs of “100,000 copies!” and “200,000 copies!” to Publishers Weekly when it announces new books — while insiders scoff at the lies behind many of those figures — this is tantamount to a shot across the bow. And good to hear.

The third thing the Caneloans say they’d like not to be caught doing?

Using tech jargon. …it can alienate people. It suggests that old practices are irrelevant — when often they are not. It doesn’t build bridges.

For my money, if these guys can manage the first two points, they can talk all the tech jargon they like, and we’ll just ask them what they said. But yes, noble is the goal of plain speech. All for it.

One reason I had guessed that Michael Bhaskar is the writer of this very Mediumesque post is that he is the author of The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network (Anthem Publishing Studies) from Anthem Press (2013).

Both his long stint with Profile Books in London and his extensive analysis in his book point to a rare level of comprehension about what this almost eerie moment in publishing’s digital redirection means.

There’s enough strength in the print market right now, you know, to cheer the long-live-paper folks. And there’s enough evidence that — as Jones has pointed out — “digital has helped revive and reinvent print” to embolden the digerati, among them our three Canelo-teers.

Substitute “disruption” for “disintermediation” in this passage from Bhaskar in his 2013 book:

The last major route for disintermediation is through new entities in the content market…We should consider the deeper question of whether, in the context of “the mass amateurisation of publishing,’ our conception of publishers needs rethinking.

And that’s just what Canelo is about.

Already anticipating a Week Two memo-via-Medium, it’s easy to welcome this new venture and wish it a light-footed dance across the flames. TC mark

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