Entrepreneurship in publishing

Recently I ran a class on entrepreneurship in publishing for the Publishing Studies department at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. I was assisted by Efstathia Pitsa from Cambridge Judge Business School. Effie’s introduction helped to establish a broad conception of entrepreneurship.

In particular, she pointed out that although the word ‘entrepreneurship’ typically calls to mind individuals – Richard Branson, Bill Gates – most successful examples of entrepreneurship involve teams rather than just individuals. Effie also argued that a defining feature of entrepreneurship was the creation of value, where ‘value’ may be defined in a number of ways – not only financially.

This conception informed my own typology of entrepreneurship, which comprised:

  • classic entrepreneurship (the Branson type);
  • micro-entrepreneurship (the development of small-scale businesses);
  • social entrepreneurship (the application of entrepreneurial behaviour to a social problem);
  • intrapreneurship (entrepreneurial behaviour within a corporation, by an employee).

As examples I used mostly companies with which my own business, The Professional and Higher Partnership, is involved. They included:

  • 24symbols (at present, micro-entrepreneurship – perhaps to become classic entrepreneurship);
  • Worldreader (social entrepreneurship);
  • paperight (social entrepreneurship, at least in part).

As my main example I used Wynkyn de Worde, the printer of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. My account of Wynkyn as entrepreneur, which draws heavily on the essay in the Dictionary of National Biography, ran as follows:

Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534/5) was probably born in Worth, Germany. He joined William Caxton in Cologne (1471-2) and later moved with Caxton to Westminster (1475 or 1476). He probably worked in Caxton’s printing shop until Caxton died in 1492.

Wynkyn took over Caxton’s business and in 1500/01 moved it to Fleet Street in the City of London. The move brought a change in publishing strategy, away from courtly material and towards religious, educational, and popular books.

Distinctive and innovative aspects of Wynkyn’s publishing included:

  • regular use of woodcuts
  • collaboration with grammarians
  • publishing English poets, including Lydgate and contemporary poets such as Skelton

Wynkyn established a trading network including businessmen in Bristol, Oxford, and York.

In his essay on Wynkyn in the Dictionary of National Biography, N.F. Blake concludes: “Wynkyn’s various qualities need emphasizing: after Caxton’s death he had sufficient vision to embark on a new publishing policy; to imitate his former master might have led to financial ruin. He was personable enough to get on with patrons from many classes and to run a heterogeneous household. No evidence of his involvement in litigation has been found. He was willing to give his helpers the credit they deserved, and he did not ignore their contribution as Caxton did. He probably knew several languages, and there is no reason to underestimate his learning and acumen. Previous assessments fail to give him due credit for his achievements”.

As we considered the example of Wynkyn, I was struck – and amused – by how little had really changed. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, the late medieval publishing scene remains utterly recognisable. Geography matters. Design (those woodcuts) can provide a competitive advantage (witness Apple): so can stakeholder management (establishing a supply chain built on long-term relationships; readily giving credit where it is due). Diversity (that heterogenous household) is to be embraced. And change is afoot: to continue merely to do what you’ve always done would, even for an industry leader, lead to disaster.

Though we’ve come so very far – Gutenberg’s press has been replaced by digital printing and by ePub and Kindle – it seems nothing much has changed. If you’re a wannabe publishing entrepreneur looking for a mentor, Wynkyn’s your man.


2 Responses to “Entrepreneurship in publishing”

  1. […] on December 4, 2011 at 11:38 in Economics of publishing, Micro-enterprise   |  RSS feed |   Respond   |   Trackback […]

  2. […] on December 4, 2011 at 11:38 in Economics of publishing, Micro-enterprise   |  RSS feed |   Respond   |   Trackback […]

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