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A startup takes on publishing, with help of Atari's founder

Net Minds says it can help authors take more control of their work, and Nolan Bushnell has already climbed aboard for his first book.

Atari's Nolan Bushnell.
Courtesy of Nolan Bushnell

If there's an industry more stuck in the past than the music industry, it has to be book publishing.

It's with that in mind that a Pasadena, Calif., startup is trying to upend the traditional, often unpleasant publishing model that's more like a gauntlet than a process.

Authors typically have to beg an agent for representation, beg a publisher to take their book, hope for an advance that covers expenses, write the book, in many cases find their own editors because the publisher's editors are too busy to pay attention, do their own marketing and promotion if they're not a big name, and, at the end of all that, hope to make a little money from sales -- since the publisher will take the bulk of those earnings.

Net Minds, which is making the rounds with the press this week, is sort of an Amazon self-publishing service on steroids. A prospective author -- say, an executive -- creates a project file on Net Minds' system. By way of that file, the author explains the book, and, if he or she is looking for a ghost writer, shops the project around to roughly 500 freelance writers who have joined. Authors can also find editors; illustrators and cover designers; and a sales and marketing team for promotion; while the publishing of the actual book is outsourced. The physical books are distributed through a partnership with the publishing giant Ingram.

Authors start with 80 percent to 90 percent of the royalties and set up their own publishing team from the list of prospects. The team can be paid a flat rate or a share of the royalties.

"It's your show," said Net Minds CEO Tim Sanders.

Sanders knows a little bit about publishing. A former Yahoo exec who came into that company through the acquisition of Mark Cuban's, he's written four business-related books. He said his experience in the publishing industry made it clear just how ripe book publishing is for disruption through Amazon, other self-publishing outfits, and his own, self-financed startup.

"I really keep thinking that what's really lacking in publishing is transparency at every level," he said. "It's a big old black box." His company, he believes, could put control in the hands of the writer.

That appealed to Nolan Bushnell,the founder of gaming pioneer Atari and a serial entrepreneur whose other businesses include Chuck E. Cheese's.

"I am and I am not a control freak," Bushnell said. "I like to understand all the moving pieces. If people are screwing up, I like to be able to fire them. You have no recourse in traditional publishing."

Bushnell is also known as the guy who gave young Steve Jobs a job. Bushnell's first book, "Finding the Next Jobs," which he said is a collection of personal anecdotes and discussions on innovation, will be available next month.

"Too many people believe innovation is about a thunderclap and a light goes on.... It's not that at all," Bushnell said. "It's about putting together an environment and an ecosystem in a company that fosters and nurtures creative ideas wherever they come from."