David vs Goliath

How one digital publisher hopes to thrive against the odds

By Molly Flatt 7 April 2015

In an industry littered with failed digital publishing businesses, the Co-Founder of Canelo thinks he has figured out how to take on the big boys.

There’s a cliché that everyone who works in publishing is nice.

Michael Bhaskar—who has been, variously, a reviewer, a literary agent, an author, a Digital Editor at Pan Macmillan and more recently Digital Publishing Director for Profile—is a very nice man indeed. The word that comes to mind, when swapping must-reads with him over a low-key black coffee, is affable; like most people in the industry, he still seems faintly amazed that he managed to turn being a bookworm into a career.

Great expectations

But he’s also very brave, because he’s just quit his job at Profile to launch a new digital publishing platform, Canelo, with help from marketer Iain Millar and technologist Nick Barreto.

The Canelo team talk an excellent talk, emphasising their open submission policy for aspiring authors and commitment to formal innovation alongside editorial quality control and generous royalties. But digital publishing startups have a notoriously short shelf-life, as Bhaskar is the first to admit.

Since 2011, he has maintained a rolling Google Doc of contenders in the space; an unhealthy proportion of the links redirect to error pages or wistful epilogues. His own Medium story laying out the vision for Canelo begins by name-checking the death of Blinkbox Books and Bardowl, and concludes with the bald reflection that “digital publishing is hard”.

So what’s a nice guy like him doing in a shark-pit like this?

Hard times

“We’ve been around in this space for years,” Bhaskar explains cheerfully. “There is a common patterning in publishing startups of people coming from outside the industry, seeing how inefficient everything is and thinking ‘Wow, this is going to be easy to disrupt’.

It’s not. Some things with long-form writing—editorial especially—are just difficult, time consuming and expensive to get right. Moreover we already know most books sell much less than outsiders think. Hopefully our background enables us to combine the best of digital with the best of the older publishing.”

Bhaskar admits that legacy publishing houses offer a cachet for authors and a quality assurance for readers that is at a premium in our content-overloaded times. But he also believes that the majority of those organisations are in a “gradual, managed decline”, despite their attempts to integrate digital into existing offerings via dedicated imprints and upskilled teams.

“We have a much better workflow and better systems,” he responds when asked to give the top three ways in which Canelo will steal a march on the big boys. “We have development knowledge in house, which means there is far more quality and reactivity in what we do. Secondly, we are paying authors much more than traditional publishers, both because we have a leaner process, and because we genuinely think they deserve it.

“Thirdly, we have metric-driven web-oriented marketing, putting our efforts into what works; because we build our own tech we can throw up a website or run a search campaign at the drop of a hat. And, what the hell, fourthly we are pursuing the kind of hardcore, crazy but innovative projects and platforms the traditional publishers have by and large given up on (if they ever went there at all).”

The old curiosity shop

Ah yes, those crazy but innovative projects and platforms. Isn’t the internet already littered with ‘transmedia storytelling initiatives’ that sound great on the grants forms but prove clunky and confusing once translated into code?

“These projects are tough,” Bhaskar admits. “Often the audience doesn’t really get what they are. You have to somehow combine the complexity of a new experimental product or tool with the simple pitch needed in a crowded market. But it is possible.

“Experiments I love include work from inkle studios like 80 Days (which I was involved in at my previous job) or games like The Stanley Parable. Both take interactivity and narrative in extraordinary new directions. Both have been huge hits. This is what digital publishing should be about.”

And although his time in the trenches has left him under no illusions about the challenges ahead—“publishing still fetishises the print book”—Bhaskar is infectiously optimistic about the emerging ecosystem of which Canelo is a part.

“There are a lot of subscription startups aiming to be the Netflix or Spotify for books, like 24 Symbols and Oyster. Someone will crack this model. Touch Press and Aimer Media produce wonderful apps. Made in Me and Nosy Crow are changing how children’s content is published. Spritz has developed a whole new system for reading. Companies like Whitefox and Reedsy are rebuilding the workflow of publishing. Lithomobilus is doing amazing things with multiple narratives. Trajectory is indexing books in extraordinarily sophisticated ways. I could go on…”

The beginning

The Canelo team have already secured “an exciting new crime series and a viscerally gripping techno thriller, amongst others”, and they hope to publish their first project in June. Their deeply considered and clearly articulated mission, combined with their reputation in the industry, means that their opening moves will play out under keen scrutiny tinged with long-held hope and, for some, creeping dread.

The moral of this story? Don’t underestimate the nice guys.