Many startups that launched at the beginning of publishing’s digital transformation later pivoted to find a way to actually earn a profit. Some succeeded; many didn’t. One of the oldest of the many digital publishing startups is Open Road Integrated Media, founded in 2009 by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman and Jeffrey Sharp. Now led by Paul Slavin, the company has been gradually repositioning itself, shifting from its functions as a publisher to those of a marketing company.
That switch, Slavin said, doesn’t mean that Open Road is abandoning its role as a publisher of almost 11,000 backlist titles. What it does mean is that Open Road is devoting more resources to promoting e-book editions of backlist titles from other publishers.
Under its Ignition marketing services program, Open Road promotes titles from other publishers through its various digital platforms. When entering the program, publishers provide Open Road with a historical sales baseline for each title (such as 100 downloads per month). The publisher receives 100% of sales until the baseline is reached, after which Open Road and the publisher split the additional sales.
So far, surpassing the baselines hasn’t been a problem. According to the most recent data from Open Road, titles in the Ignition program have seen sales nearly triple from average sales before they were in the program. Thirty publishers put a total of more than 6,100 titles in Ignition last year.
One impetus for starting Ignition was that Open Road needed to find more content to promote to its readers. With a total of 24 million consumers viewing its six verticals last year, Slavin said, “we found we didn’t have enough content to meet demand.” He noted that every publisher that has participated in Ignition has put additional titles into the program. He believes publishers are attracted to Ignition because it helps solve their biggest challenge in the digital age: discoverability.
Open Road takes care of all of the marketing of titles in Ignition and places them in the appropriate settings. Its platforms include Early Bird Books, a daily e-book deals newsletter and website; The Lineup, aimed at fans of true crime, horror, the mysterious, and the paranormal; The Portalist, targeted to fans of science fiction and fantasy; Murder & Mayhem, for mystery and thriller readers; The Archive, for fans of history and nonfiction; and A Love So True, for fans of romance.
Slavin credits Open Road’s two data teams and its marketing group led by Mary McAveney for building a base of consumers. “Our job is to know what our consumers want,” Slavin said.
That knowledge has allowed Open Road to counter the downward e-book sales trend traditional publishers are encountering. “We’re not seeing any decline in e-book sales,” Slavin said. In January, sales of all of Open Road’s e-books, including those on Ignition as well as those sold from its own catalogue, rose 40% over January 2018, he noted.
The launch of Ignition also helped Open Road stay in the black after a number of years of losses. “We will never be not profitable again,” Slavin vowed. To that end, he is looking to add at least 7,000 new titles to Ignition this year from a combination of current publishers and new clients.
“I think we have the scale and understanding of the data to continue to drive this business,” Slavin said.