Noted GigaOM staff writer Laura Hazard Owen has just run a piece in paidContent on Open Road Media, the pioneering all-digital publishing house founded in 2009, also picked up here in TeleRead. After my previous pieces on the marketing and promotional firepower now being directed at e-publishing, I decided to take a closer look at Open Road.

Open Road
Jane Friedman, Open Road’s CEO

First off, Open Road is no woolly, wide-eyed startup. Jane Friedman, co-founder and CEO of Open Road, was formerly “President and Chief Executive Officer of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, one of the world’s leading English-language publishers and a subsidiary of News Corporation,” as well as Executive VP of Random House Inc. Open Road Chief Marketing Officer Rachel Chou was formerly VP of Online Product Development for HarperCollins. Chris Davis, COO, was formerly a Senior VP with The AOL Huffington Post Media Group. Make no mistake: This is Big Media.

Open Road built a strong early lead in buying up and e-publishing backlists, and “has published ebooks from legendary authors including William Styron, Pat Conroy, Jack Higgins, and Virginia Hamilton.” But it has also developed as an editorial platform, with a hitherto unpublished manuscript by Pearl S. Buck to its credit, as well as some sallies into poetry e-publishing, and employs a fluid mix of e-book, print-on-demand and pure print production, according to the needs of each specific property.

Open Road states that it achieves its results partly through a highly social media-capable proprietary marketing platform. For those without a marketing background, a proprietary marketing platform, so termed by analogy with proprietary formats in IT and software, is a combination of computer-based and traditional paper-and-people methodologies that mixes the two according to the particular company or agency’s own secret sauce. “Using Open Road’s proprietary Marketing Platform, content and assets are continuously aggregated and created, curated, packaged, and syndicated to content sites such as blogs, social networks, and portals including AOL, the Huffington Post, MSN, and New York Times blogs,” says Open Road’s website.

Now, I have no idea how effective, or truly unique, Open Road’s proprietary marketing platform is. What I do know is that any self-publisher has not got one. Without independent data, I have to go on Laura Hazard Owen’s article for the information that more than half of Open Road’s 40+ employees are engaged in marketing. That’s 20+ fully-focused fully-equipped marketing professionals to push Open Road titles against most self-publishers’ one-person part-time unschooled self-promotional attempts. Worse, Open Road’s backlist properties are already known and often loved authors, competing in many cases against complete unknowns.

Open Road also “serves as the digital marketing partner to the top tier of the more than 80,000 independent publishers in the U.S.; bringing their ebooks to a larger market through digitization, design, distribution, marketing, and original video production.” In other words, if you’re a trad publisher without the money or manpower to master this new medium/new marketing stuff, Open Road will do it for you. And it is currently extending this role internationally, signing deals in April with French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish publishers.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in any of this: It’s business, and good business. If a publishing house no longer has to print or distribute, this is exactly what it should be doing. But independent authors should be aware how fast and how ferociously Big Media is catching up to the e-publishing game. Self-publishers who think that the world is theirs for the zero cost of one Twitter account can think again. The future is an Open Road.

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Paul St John Mackintosh is a British poet, writer of dark fiction, and media pro with a love of e-reading. His gadgets range from a $50 Kindle Fire to his trusty Vodafone Smart Grand 6. Paul was educated at public school and Trinity College, Cambridge, but modern technology saved him from the Hugh Grant trap. His acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013, and his second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published in 2011.