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IP Scholars Conference

Posted by Lea on August 6, 2015

I’m in Chicago this week for the Intellectual Property Scholars Conference, where I hope to get some great feedback on my draft book proposal.

Download it here and email me your comments, at lbshaver@iu.edu:

Draft Book Proposal August 2015

My project examines “social publishing” – the world of non-profit publishers who are mission-driven to bring books to audiences that would otherwise be neglected by the mainstream publishing industry, because there’s not enough potential profit to be made serving those audiences, at least under current business models.

This might be so because the audiences have niche needs in terms of book format or language, and/or too little disposable income. For example, one social publisher might target blind readers, another might focus on children’s books in India’s many languages.

Pratham Books

From my preliminary research, I think the most interesting story to tell about this dynamic world of social publishing is the role of “mission-driven innovation.”

Social publishers are forced to radically innovate. To deliver books effectively in these difficult market segments where traditional business models just don’t work, social publishers have to develop new approaches to content acquisition, editing & production, and marketing & distribution.

They are at the forefront of innovating new ways to format books, to translate them, to leverage peer production, to deliver them to geographically remote areas, to drive down the costs of printing and distribution, and to develop alternative funding models. This business model innovation is hard work, and it comes with a high risk of failure.

So why do they do it?

Social publishers’ motivation to engage in the difficult work of innovation is not the conventional one of monetary incentives reinforced by copyright protection. (If your goal is profit, you should sell books to conventional audiences.) Instead, social publishers are driven by a strong sense of mission, to solve a social problem, and meet a particular social need.

In some contexts, the mission motive is actually more powerful than the profit one. Financial incentives have not been successful at motivating publishers to serve blind readers, or children who speak Maharathi. The economics just don’t pan out. But the motivation of social mission is generating real results.

Could this be true more generally? Innovation is expensive. And risky. Potential profits have to be extraordinarily high to make innovation a rational strategy for a profit-drive organization. Mission-driven organizations may be more willing to tackle innovative challenges, if philanthropic resources are made available.

The business-model innovations of social publishers may eventually be imitated more broadely by for-profit publishers, as the book industry follows the music industry through the digital transition. But the study of this sector may also point to a broader policy strategy for incentivizing innovation, through government support of charitable efforts tackling market failures.

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