Electric Book Works Publishing reinvented for the digital age

Does publishing create change? It depends how the money moves.

We say we work on ‘books that create change.’ What does that mean?

Well, we manage publishing projects for organisations whose books aim, first and foremost, to effect change in the world. For example, CORE Econ publishes open-access economics textbooks that focus on inequality and flip the boring way economics has been taught historically. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime publishes research and analysis to tackle crime and its effects. And one of our favourite projects, Survive the Century, inspires young adults to take action on climate change.

In each case, the publishing team’s decisions prioritise impact. Where books are sold for money, that’s secondary, or just part of the broader change-making strategy.

The limits of commercial publishing

For most of us, when we visualise ‘publishing’ we’re thinking about commercial publishing – agents, bestsellers, the Booker prize, Barnes & Noble. The driving force behind commercial publishing is how it turns books into more money than it takes to make them. When a team can’t do this, it shuts down.

Commercial publishing has many wonderful side-effects: spellbinding books, rewarding careers, and important thought leadership. Those side-effects attract lovely people to work in commercial publishing, where they do beautiful and important work.

Unfortunately, the revenue models for commercial publishing are narrow. Most of the time, the goal is to get individual people to pay for individual copies of a book. It’s hard to overstate how fundamental this model is to commercial publishing, and how specific and narrow it is.

As a result of this model, as a commercial publisher your publishing operation is funded by customers who both have money and already believe what you believe. So you’re almost never reaching people who either can’t afford your books or whose minds you want to change.

It’s extremely rare that you can use a commercial-publishing business to effect genuine change, unless that’s a happy (and unexpected) side-effect. Even in the field of self-help books, your customers already want to improve – get rich, stay calm, achieve more – and you’re riding the wave of their motivation.

Strategic publishing prioritises change

Strategic publishing is very different. The primary aim of strategic publishing is not to turn books into more money, but to effect some kind of meaningful change in the world. Usually, in strategic publishing, the money that pays for the books doesn’t come from the books’ end-users.

As publishers, as soon as we measure success in terms of change (aka ‘impact’) instead of sales revenue, an enormous array of things change – from how we edit and design books to how we distribute and promote them. Projects come with a completely different set of stakeholders, incentives, and priorities. The changes run so deep that strategic publishing is a very different field and competency to commercial publishing.

This presents a serious challenge for change-makers who work with books. If the dominant way of thinking about publishing is commercial, we can find ourselves using the wrong thinking and planning tools for our work.

For example, I know a non-profit organisation that produces research on African development. Most of their funding comes from philanthropic grants. They have long published that research in books that they sell. They make no profit from these book sales, and even the work of selling them (admin, logistics, customer support) probably costs them more than they make back in sales. Some of their leaders believe that solving this financial problem involves selling more books, and producing them more cheaply. In contrast, I maintain that they are applying commercial-publishing thinking to a strategic-publishing organisation. They are not designed, as an organisation, to make money from selling books. If they were, they would be creating very different books! Rather, they are designed to change the way people think about African development. Their real customers are their funders, who want to see impact. The only sustainable model for their publishing is to drop entirely the costly work of selling books; to make their books more accessible (free online, free PDFs, low-cost paper editions, highly shareable and quotable); and to ‘sell’ the impact of that to their funders.

Book Dash, the award-winning children’s book publisher that grew out of Electric Book Works, is a great example of a strategic-publishing mindset being more appropriate than a commercial-publishing mindset. If Book Dash had set out to pay for its operations by selling books to end-users, it would never have got off the ground. Book Dash is financially secure because it has got very good at selling the impact of its books to funders, and in sharing the costs of book production among partner organisations. The team’s strategic-publishing mindset affects almost every decision they make, from tiny operational decisions to big policy decisions.

Two young girls sitting on a brick floor beside a bookshelf. One is showing the other a book and smiling. Reading books produced by Book Dash and distributed for free with Book Dash partners.

Why we specialise in strategic publishing

As much as we enjoy working on commercial publications at EBW, the expertise and technology we’ve developed over the years is especially well-suited to strategic publishing. First and foremost, we specialise in publishing books as websites and printed editions simultaneously, and this is especially useful for strategic publishing, which usually wants its books to be free for anyone to read and share. And there are other tangible and intangible ways we’re better at strategic publishing than commercial publishing. Not least, we just love changing the world, one book at a time.

For more on strategic publishing, see ‘Should your publications be web books?’ and ‘What is strategic publishing?’ And tag me on LinkedIn to pick up the conversation there.

Arthur Attwell 14 July 2023
The photo for this post, showing two girls reading Book Dash books, is provided courtesy of Book Dash. Visit bookdash.org.