In his closing remarks, Frankfurt Book Fair director Juergen Boos said that 2011 was a strong year for startups at the fair. Among those startups, perhaps none had a better reception than Small Demons, in Los Angeles. “We couldn’t have asked for a better first Frankfurt Book Fair,” Small Demons founder and CEO Valla Vakili told PW.
Indeed, that enthusiasm came from all quarters of the fair—from the audience at Tools of Change, where Vakili presented, to the Twitterverse, to shout-outs from the Frankfurt Sparks stages, and many publishers that expressed interest in the exhibit halls. As the fair opened, Vakili confirmed that Random House had signed with Small Demons, its second major publisher, following Simon & Schuster, an early booster, which signed on last year, and Europa Editions.
So what is Small Demons, and what has publishers so interested? In a word, Vakili said, the venture is about “discovery.” SmallDemons.com pores through books, and maps the details—the places, music, art, artists, drinks, authors, cars, anything you might imagine—pulling it all together for cross-reference online. The end result, Vakili explained, is a deeper, more organic, and culturally significant brand of recommendation engine.
“Small Demons represents something new and innovative,” said Europa Editions’ Michael Reynolds. “It offers an alternative to social media ‘liking’ or ‘recommending,’ both of which, because they originate with people you already share certain affinities with, are rarely going to lead to real surprises. But beyond liking the idea for what it isn’t, I like Small Demons for what it is: an attempt to delve deeper into the ingredients of a book and to find methods of discovery and reasons for surprise that are unconventional. At Europa, we like to think that our publications offer many surprises and discoveries, so there’s a natural affinity with this kind of project.”
Magellan Media consultant Brian O’Leary said Small Demons can work because it helps readers connect ideas with the expression of those ideas. “It’s serendipity for the digital age,” O’ Leary said. “As a platform, Small Demons gives publishers an opportunity to connect books to other books, but it also helps books compete for attention in an environment flooded with other, more passive media. Publishing will always be at a disadvantage because reading takes time and attention. But Small Demons helps improve the likelihood that you’ll find content you like, and that you’ll like the content you buy—or will at least find it useful.”
On a broader note, the buzz around Small Demons hit at a larger trend that emerged at Frankfurt—a growing recognition of the value digital is bringing to all aspects of the book business, beyond the e-book question that has so dominated recent years. A young technologist with a love for literature, Vakili himself embodies that trend: the company’s name was inspired by Borges, he said, and the idea for the venture came to him while deep into a Europa Editions book: Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos. “To anyone who’d listen,” Vakili said, “I’d open up the book, point to the details inside, and say, ‘look, a book can take you anywhere,’ all we have to do is grab the details and connect them.”
To grab the details, the process begins with getting EPub files from publishers, and then setting to work. For now, Small Demons employees are pulling together the details, but at some point, Vakili said, the larger Small Demons community will be able to fine-tune the results. And the results could prove very interesting for publishers.
“The usefulness for us and for our publications is in its promotional potential,” Reynolds said. “It is publicity for books we believe in. And what’s nicest is that, from our perspective, it’s a kind of publicity that is enriching and fascinating in itself, in addition, I hope, to being effective.”