Back when we first started batting around this Indie Heroes idea at the IU water cooler, the very first thing I thought of was the fact that, to my mind, CreateSpace has revolutionized the publishing industry. Many of you will know that CreateSpace was not an Amazon creation out of whole cloth, but was a very successfully streamlined idea that grew out of an earlier revolutionary concept, BookSurge. Created in 2000, BookSurge was the brainchild of Mitchell Davis and friends, and was the world’s first integrated, global print-on-demand publishing platform. Now, all of our brains work a little differently; mine works in stories, planting them and then growing them in my head until I have to write them down. I doubt I could ever come up with a new idea for a business, and certainly not one that would change an entire industry. Mitchell Davis’ brain, however, does just that. I decided to do a little literary brain surgery to find out just exactly how he developed his idea that has freed so many writers from the paralyzing grip of traditional publishers.
Mitchell, first of all, thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me. I have to admit, I feel a little like I’m sitting at the feet of a giant, so if I gaze up at you adoringly, just ignore that. My questions will be two-pronged, first about how you came up with your idea and then about how that idea has changed the world we know.
Melissa: Let’s start at the beginning. Who are your co-founders of BookSurge? How did you guys hook up with each other?
Mitchell: I had started a desktop publishing company right out of college doing tourism publications in Charleston, SC and as the Internet was born in the mid 1990’s it turned into an Internet and web marketing company. It succeeded creatively, but the business failed. When we finally closed up shop I luckily found a couple of mentors who helped me start BookSurge. The genesis really was my meeting a guy named Jeff Schwaner who I knew from around town.
He knew I was a self-proclaimed “Internet guy” (this was early 1999) and he pitched me on the idea of a digital book publishing company. He had worked in bookstores, was an author, and he was the editor / publisher of a local magazine at the time. One of my mentors had written a book and was motivated to get it published. I was a kid walking around selling tourism websites door to door at the time. I had no concept of the book publishing industry at all and could not have been more naïve or unexpecting of what BookSurge ended up becoming later. I got us all together and Greatunpublished.com was born (we changed the name to BookSurge after about 18 months).
Melissa: I’ve actually been able to find very little about the beginnings of BookSurge online. Whose original idea was it? How did you develop the concept?
Mitchell: Like any business that eventually works, it was a spark that changed a thousand times as it developed. Jeff definitely brought the industry knowledge, but the software and later the hardware, and then packaging all of what we were doing and selling it to people — those added new dimensions and demands. And then handling the myriad of unexpected things that start to happen when something starts to succeed – all of those were all evolutions that made it bigger than any one idea.
It developed very organically because none of us really knew what we were doing. There were some benchmarks along the way that let us know we were headed in the right direction, but it was a process that was equally exhausting and exhilarating. I think most entrepreneurs would tell you the same. It really has to be your life and then the concept comes and then hopefully a business develops. It is a weird combination of intense desire to see something work and the ability to not delude yourself too much along the way.
Melissa: I love that, and I can see how it all bloomed from that spark. Getting down to brass tacks, how did you develop the company itself? Were you able to pick up parts of it “off the shelf” as it were, or did you have to create all the bits of it on your own?
Mitchell: We created it all from scratch from a software standpoint. The entire thing was bootstrapped with our own money. I had no money at all and never made more than $28,000 a year before we sold BookSurge to Amazon, but one of the partners funded it in the early days. So we had to be creative and make it work quickly. We tried to use the early version of Lightning Print (Now Lightning Source / Ingram Content), but they were not really doing Print on Demand at the time.
When we realized we were going to have to print our own books to move forward we started looking around. At the time companies like Xerox were selling really expensive “in line” machines and claiming they did print on demand (i.e. – one copy on demand when it was ordered). They were really doing short run printing, not print-on-demand. We wanted no inventory and so we took a different road.
We would buy cheaper office printers and run them at 300% stated capacity until they died. Then we would simply replace them. This approach let us start with a small footprint and build slowly without a lot of capital. We jokingly called it a “sewing machine” approach. We realized the real key to making it work was the software. The brain that had to tie all these machines and people together. The machines were actually fungible. Of course, equipment has changed since, but these were early days and the established equipment companies were not going to do anything disruptive. We focused on doing it as efficiently as possible. This light footprint approach helped us later when we expanded into 5 other countries in less than 18 months.
Melissa: Amazing. I had no idea you were actually doing the printing yourself, but it makes sense. Up until then, there was no POD, so you had to literally invent the entire concept. I’ll bet that was a wild time.
What was the original motivation behind the development of the company? What were you aiming to accomplish? And did you do that?
Mitchell: It was an accident and honestly energy in search of a task. I had no concept of accomplishing what we ultimately accomplished. The reality is Amazon finding us was the perfect thing. Very few people in the industry understood what we were doing or either they were threatened by it. Amazon did not have all those filters and they got us immediately. Had that not happened I really believe we would be another company that was lost to time.
Melissa: It really was a tremendous case of serendipity, wasn’t it? All the planets aligning at the right time, etc. Did you realize, at the time, that your idea was going to turn the publishing industry on its head?
Mitchell: Not when we started it, but certainly after we started to talk about selling to Amazon. I moved to Seattle and as I put the pieces together I realized that they had just leapfrogged so much inefficiency it was going to be hard for the rest industry to catch up. It is also interesting, that at the time I was in Seattle, Amazon was getting ready to launch Kindle. We lived very much in the shadow of that project and Amazon’s POD operations and CreateSpace still live in the shadow of Kindle.
Melissa: I think that is true. I know some writers don’t even publish paperbacks anymore, just go the eBook route (although I will always do paperbacks). But I’ve also heard that the numbers of eBooks sold over paperbacks is not continuing its upward spiral, so it sounds like paperbacks are making a comeback.
Since the impact of your idea wasn’t obvious at the outset, when did it come home to you that it was a game-changer, both for the established publishing industry and for indie authors all around the world?
Mitchell: That is a great question. Really for me, not knowing much about how ‘the game’ of publishing worked, it never seemed like a ‘game-changer’. I remember early having the thought – ‘books will be sold on the Internet. Those books don’t have to exist until they sell. That reverses the whole transaction model and takes the risk out of publishing.’ That occurred to me very early, but I had no idea how disruptive this was until much later in the process.
And I also realized pretty early that the barrier of entry to publishing had been removed. We were printing university press and self-published books side by side. My first trip to NYC was in 2001 for my first publishing conference. Jeff did a panel and talked about what we were doing. He was so confident and I was so intimidated and it was really inspiring. A person asked “don’t you think self-publishing will make it too easy to publish a book?” Jeff answered: “That question implies there is some fear we are going to flood the world with bad books. Guess what (pointing around the room), the world is already flooded with bad books”. There was definitely a feeling around that time that we were “rebels” of some sort and it was very inspiring.
Probably also when we partnered with NBD and Centraal Boekhuis in the Netherlands, it hit me that you could sell a book anywhere in the world and print it locally. I saw our books being printed in the Netherlands using the same software we used in the USA. A few months later we saw the same thing happen in the UK, then Spain, and then Australia. It was pretty amazing.
Melissa: And Jeff was absolutely right. All you have to do is remember when Monica Lewinsky’s book came out and bookstores amassed huge piles of remainders. Same thing with Sarah Palin’s book and, lately, 50 Shades of Grey. The gatekeepers didn’t really keep the world safe from them, did it?
What kind of pushback did you get as you were developing and refining BookSurge? I can’t imagine that blazing this new trail was easy, and I suspect you got a lot of negativity from people who thought it couldn’t be done. What kind of reactions did you get, and how did that affect you, if it did?
Mitchell: Of course it was hard, but strangely, our new business has been harder in many ways because I am less naïve now. I had thrown myself at work for as long as I could remember (and still do), but I had no real concept then of how much resistance there was. Now I can see it clearly and it is actually harder to deal with psychologically. I had no reason to believe it was not going to work at BookSurge. Now I see that really smart people invent reasons for things not to work and actually work to hinder the evolution of these business ecosystems so they can maintain control.
Melissa: That makes perfect sense. That naiveté was probably your greatest asset. I can remember my husband and I moving across country a year after we were married with only $300 in our pockets. We didn’t think it couldn’t be done, so we did it. And it worked.
Okay, now I have to ask: do you write?
Mitchell: Ha, yes. I was an English major in college and started my professional life as a journalist, writing freelance for a business magazine. Most of my writing now has some business motivation, but I try to be creative and have style nonetheless. My hope is to have a “gap year” before I am 50 and write a short novel. I think it would be pretty good. I have many literary heroes and read a lot (mostly real print books to be honest).
I also started an indie production company called Organic Process with my wife in 2005 and we have produced several documentary films that have done film festivals and won some awards. My wife and I have published a book of poetry. I have helped several local creatives and spiritual teachers in Charleston publish their books as well. I play in a band. I am a soccer fanatic. I have found my ways to be creative and release stress beyond just working, but I do want to write that short novel.
Melissa: I hope you do! It’s a great feeling (although I’m sure you’ve had similar feelings over the companies you’ve birthed). You’ll have to let us know when your book’s ready.
Now, I have to wonder if you know how liberating independent POD publishing is for so many of us authors. My first two books were published by a NY house in the 1980s, so my career has spanned the entire evolution of the industry, from the iron-fisted gatekeepers to the wide open freedom we have now. I speak from experience when I say that independent POD publishing is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I can still remember the days of sending out query letters, sending manuscripts to my agent, waiting, waiting, waiting for a response — any response — for weeks, months, even years. While I obviously continued to write as I was waiting, looking back on it now, it seems I spent years of my life just sitting on my thumbs, waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone else to make it happen. Now I write a book, send it out to beta-readers for feedback, do my editing and tweaking, work with my cover designer on the cover, and then upload the whole smash and I’m good to go. It’s like breaking out of prison; it’s being set free. And you started that. I just wonder if you ever think about what you’ve done for us writers, and if you know how eternally grateful we are to you?
Mitchell: No, not really. There are literally hundreds of people who contributed to making CreateSpace a reality and who still do. I remain close with some of the people who still work there and am thrilled to see them still succeeding in such a demanding culture. Working at Amazon is hard. But that is why they are so great at what they do.
I spend a lot more time now thinking about how to solve problems alongside our library partners. With BiblioLabs we want to help libraries build something transformative and we are doing it. Libraries are becoming the place where indie content is created, shared and uploaded to the world. We are convincing publishers to license content to libraries in friendly ways that let eBooks support programming and encourage real community engagement. We are doing really innovative things in the Open Educational Resources (OER) world. It is very exciting and hard.
Melissa: That’s the next giant to cut down to size. We indies have talked a lot about how to get our books into libraries, so we’re glad you’re tackling that one.
On the flip side, how do you feel about the fact that you and your buddies delivered a staggering blow to the publishing industry as it was? I know traditional publishing is alive and well and I don’t expect it to ever go away, but it’s certainly not the robust colossus it used to be. Do you ever feel a teensy bit guilty, or are you just glad you could open up new avenues for writers?
Mitchell: I will steal a line from a recent Hugh Howey interview in saying that I love intellectual honesty. What we did was intellectually honest and it worked. Publishers benefit from it as much as authors today.
Melissa: Hear, hear! I’d much rather see more of that honesty and less manipulation in the world.
And finally, do you ever just sit and think about how you’ve changed the face of an entire industry? I can’t imagine what that must feel like. Proud, humble, pleased, relieved, excited, lucky, passionate, determined? Okay, I know you don’t just sit around and giggle to yourself; I know you’ve got other ideas (like BiblioLabs) and other plans for the future. But in those rare quiet moments, how do you see the whole picture? How do you see yourself in the scheme of things? What do you think time and history will say about Mitchell Davis?
Mitchell: I am super proud of what we built and how Amazon has leveraged it to help authors and publishers all over the world. I am super-happy to still be in the middle of all of this change in books and media. I am amazed at all the relationships I have formed doing this for almost 20 years now. I am truly in this for the work and I love being an entrepreneur. My life has exceeded any expectations I ever had.
Melissa: Wow. How many of us can say that? You’re a lucky man. Lucky, and talented.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I know wearing a title like Indie Hero can be daunting, but I do believe you’ve earned it, and no doubt we’ll see by the rest of this series that you’re in good company. I do hope you’ll keep us in the loop as you move forward in other endeavors, breaking new ground as you go. You’ve certainly got my appreciation, and I would guess that of hundreds and thousands of other writers as well. I wish you every success as you keep thinking up new ideas.