The concept of “pain points,” specific areas of weakness in a business model, was a common thread at a pair of panels at the Digital Book World Conference and Expo onTuesday in New York City. Publishing startup entrepreneurs at the “Startups Working with Publishers” panel, as well as their counterparts at traditional publishing houses on the inverse “Publishers Working with Startups” panel both stressed the idea that a successful startup-publisher relationship relies on paying attention to what gaps can be filled. “Listen, and understand where their true pain points are,” said Jason Illian, founder and CEO of BookShout. “Really listen and help them overcome those...Our biggest successes have started with our publishing partners.”

“It’s understanding what the pain points are of the publisher,” said cofounder and CEO of Librify, Joanna Stone Herman, again calling out the buzzword of the day. “It helps if you start from the standpoint of, what can I do for you?”

This notion of forging partnerships by targeting specific shortcomings was echoed in the panel of digital executives on the publisher side, who advised on the best ways for startups to get the initial meeting. “Approach me understanding my weaknesses and how you can help,” said chief digital officer at McGraw-Hill Education, Stephen Laster. Still, he emphasized a balanced advance. “Know what I do well, know my strategy,” he added. “[But] don’t think that somehow I don’t get it. That’s a bad way to do the first date.”

“I’d say we’re don’t judge anyone before they come in the door,” said Leslie Hulse, senior v-p, digital business development at HarperCollins. “We talk to lots of different companies...and on a wide range of aspects of the business.”

The panelists on the publishing side communicated varying strategies for bringing startups into the fold. Because Workman is a midsize, independent publisher, it tends to go after startups before the “bigger guys don’t want to play yet,” according to Andrea Fleck-Nisbet, executive director, digital publishing at Workman. She seeks out nascent companies that will offer a new business model, a fresh opportunity for selling to different sales channels, and access to new customers.

At Perseus Books Group, chief marketing officer Rick Joyce takes a more tested road, piloting partnerships with startups by offering a limited set of material to give the company an opportunity to prove the value it can add. At the end of the pilot, a decision is made about whether or not to move forward. “I think startups should come at this thinking, it's a marathon with a bunch of stages,” said Joyce.

But not all of the entrepreneurs at the startup panel were banging on publishers’ doors. “We decided early on to actually not speak to publishers at all,” said Henrik Berggren of Readmill. “I have always been sort of a fan of the strategy of coming to the table with something tangible. There’s a true power in decoupling yourself from and being independent from the ecosystem at large.”

“A very big strategy for Readmill [has been to] win the consumer’s heart before the industry’s heart,” added Berggren. “The future power really lies with the readers.”

While the panelists on both side of the coin seemed to agree on the inherently symbiotic relationship between the traditional publishing houses and an ever growing cast of industry startups, they also addressed a dichotomy in expectation -- especially when it comes to pace.

“We do meet with publishers all the time,” said Andrew Rhomberg, founder of, a London-based service for sampling and sharing books. “We used to meet with very big publishers early on, but we stopped that. Once you reach the tenth meeting you come to the conclusion you’re wasting your time.”

“There’s two worlds colliding,” said Illian, of BookShout. “[The] traditional model and the digital world are coming together, and the two worlds speak different languages. It takes some time to do some translation between those two.” Illian added that as a “technologist” he wants to move faster, to show more data points, but understands that investing in outside entities is a major consideration for publishers, small and large. “From their standpoint, they’re trying to shift their model...they’re trying to find trustworthy people they can work with that can help them fill certain gaps,” he added.

“It’s not that publishers are slow, it’s that you’re asking them to do something that requires some thinking,” said Perseus’ Joyce.

From his vantage point at McGraw-Hill, Laster doesn’t believe the relationship between startups and publishers should be an adversarial one. “That’s a tired conversation,” he said. “The company that’s been around for longer need not necessarily be thought of as lethargic, and the startup need not necessarily be thought of as nimble and new...It’s about a deep willingness to understand your market and your customer today, and let go of your preconceptions from yesterday.”