Brad Feld launches a new publishing house, with at least the right financing for a quality imprint

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 26, 2014

From The News Desk

There's no un-horrible way to say this. Brad Feld is starting the Techstars of publishing.

I know, I know. That sentence sounds like an industry drinking game or a startup madlib meant to mock lame pitches. (Famous founder/investor) is starting the (established successful thing) of (totally unrelated industry). 

But groan-inducing sentence construction aside, it really is the best way to describe today's launch of FG Press, the new publishing imprint from Techstars co-founder Feld, and his partners at Foundry Group.

FG Press will publish around a dozen books a year, loosely focused on tech and entrepreneurship, including non-fiction management books, but also fiction about startup-life. Think less about, say, the Social Network and that horrific near-fictional Bravo show and more what John Grisham did for the sweaty Southern lawyer genre. It'll also publish some up-and-coming science fiction.

Just as Buzzfeed's Jonah Peretti talks about the same person enjoying kitten videos and hard hitting political news, Feld believes there's a market for the broad types of books people like him like in much the same way that McSweeneys has become known for "stuff Dave Eggers likes."

"We want something super high quality and curated," he says. "I am a huge fan of Dave Eggers and McSweeneys, and grew up reading books from speciality presses. Just like what's happened with boutique investment banks, they've all been gobbled up by big companies.

While that's not a new idea, it's one seldom done well and one the big publishing houses have set aside in the name of republished Internet memes, political memoirs,  and high-paid celeb tell-alls. FG press is channeling the classic imprint model, where a publisher's logo on the spine means something. And it's something a lot of people have been promising of late, whether Byliner, Atavist... even Medium to a degree with its purchase of Matter and hire of Pulitzer finalist Matt Bors.

Bors also edited the comics special for our recently published PandoQuarterly, a publication we inherited from our NSFWCORP acquisition. NSFWCORP similarly sought to publish books, magazines, and pay-walled Web content across a loose federation of interests for a smart reader for one flat subscription fee. All of these companies want their brand to stand for a certain type of work, and FG Press is no less aspirational.

When it works, this kind of publishing is a godsend for new talent that doesn't yet have a big name, because they can ride the coattails of an imprint that already stands for good work.

But -- as Paul Carr has written at length-- a lot of these efforts disappoint. Either the quality isn't consistent, or more often there's a hard commercial reality. Imprints rely on reputation, consistency, brand, and trust, which all take a lot of money and time to build. Meantime, good work costs money to create. Why is there so much bad writing on the Web and in the annals of self-publishing? This very problem.

While a lot of these efforts, including NSFWCORP, were lucky enough to raise venture cash, most get the Goldilocks equation wrong. They raise enough venture capital but have to chase big growth milestones to get that next round but they don't raise enough to be solidly in control of their own destiny.

This may be the biggest strength of FG Press. It's bootstrapped by a dude who can keep investing in it out of passion. "As with anything we've every started, we think it could be meaningful, but even with TechStars in 2007, we didn't have a fucking clue what it could become," Feld says. "We just thought it'd be an interesting experiment. Eight years later, we've developed an approach that we think is a powerful way to build companies and get them funded."

And here's where we come to that TechStars analogy. The incubator was the antidote to shitty angel funding, where investors put down a small amount of cash that adds no real value but with a chance to double down if something hits. TechStars and the better incubators like it invest heavily with time, mentoring, introductions, and guidance. Years in, they've created a community of hundreds of companies and thousands of employees that can cross hire, partner, acquihire, and support one another. And the TechStars brand, like Y-Combinator, stands for something. It's like an imprint that can lend unknown entrepreneurs some gravitas and cred. Sound familiar?

The other thing that bodes well for FG Press is that Feld isn't just some wild-eyed DISRUPTER! He's a five-time author, who has been shocked at how antiquated the publishing industry is. And he's right. The proofs of my first book, published by Penguin in 2008, were done solely on paper and FedExed back and forth between San Francisco and New York. My second book, published by Wiley, had a slightly more digital process, but not by much.

Beyond that kind of waste and inefficiency there are two big problems with traditional presses. The first is the economics. Authors like Feld sell way more books than expected and earn out their advances quickly, then watch as publishers take a disproportionate upside of the remaining economics. Authors like me -- regrettably -- often receive big advances that are never quite earned out. It's a system where some authors get almost none of the value they create and some authors get all the economics. They are meant to balance each other out, but advances for big celebrity books are swelling, helped in no small part by Jeff Bezos's industry-crushing wallet. That's not sustainable.

But the other problem Feld has seized on is less obvious: In traditional publishing there is often zero direct relationship between the reader and the author. Authors have no marketable database of fans, way to cleanly communicate with them, and in most cases don't even have a clear read of how many copies they've sold. It's downright byzantine, particularly for people like Feld who got into publishing via blogging.

That said, self-publishing isn't a great answer either. There is no support or help in terms of editing, marketing, and distribution. Worse, there is zero quality control. FG Press is meant to be somewhere between these two poles.

FG Press will not pay advances. It'll absorb costs and split the net revenues 50-50 with authors. That means it's a fairer eat-what-you-kill structure, without the Wild West of self-publishing. An author like me or Paul Carr or Adam Penenberg would never sign up for this. Our day job is writing and we can't take a year off to write a book with nothing up front. That's OK. FG Press isn't designed for people like us, and it doesn't have to be for everyone. "TechStars isn't right for every entrepreneur either," Feld says. "A lot of people can't leave their job and work for sustenance wages. But we think we do something special for a lot of the market."

FG Press is really filling a hole in the current publishing landscape more than it will eat Wiley's lunch. For every Brad Feld or Ben Horowitz who gets a book deal and goes through the antiquated process, there are professionals who love to write who don't quite no where to start and so they just keep blogging. In the off chance they get a deal, the advance is in the $5,000-$20,000 range, and only part of that is paid up front. So these people aren't quitting their day jobs to write anyway.

So FG has a lot going for it: A clear identity of who its reader is and a model that's based on consistent quality. The right financing structure to methodically build that brand over time. Some insights about where publishing is broken. A clear focus on the type of author it'll commission, and who isn't a fit at the same time.

The biggest risk about the whole thing to me is the editing part. FG Press is a lean company with some management and part-timers that will rely heavily on a crowd-sourced, peer-review editing system. Authors in its network will be incentivized -- by brand and some profit sharing-- to help make every book commissioned great. It's a nice idea, but editing is laborious. Great readers and great authors don't automatically make great editors.

But if it doesn't work, I have no doubt FG Press will iterate and hire more pros. That's the beauty of a bootstrapped company standing on the shoulders of a successful venture fund with a long-term focus. "We don't really know what the direct impact will be on our other businesses, but that's part of the fun of it," Feld says. "I'm a big believer in the value of content. My books don't give us direct deal flow, but they give us visibility and a way to give back to the ecosystem. We believe long form is as important as blogging."

As I wrote in a recent newsletter, the biggest asset any startup has is time. So ultimately, my enthusiasm for FG Press goes back to the fact that it doesn't have impatient VCs on board, and yet it has enough resources to make this more than a hobby. With time, experiments can be run and the rest can be figured out. The writer in me has gotten excited about the promises of imprints like Byliner before that have ultimately disappointed. Time may allow FG Press to actually deliver on its promises and elude the plague of platform disease.

[Image courtesy TechCocktail]