What were some of the most interesting startups at SXSW held in Austin, Tex., earlier this month? We certainly did not get a chance to see everyone—if you sneezed in Austin, you’d likely be hitting a tech entrepreneur in the crowd—but we were intrigued by a number of companies, doing everything from mining the social Web for analytics (à la CoverCake) to bringing commenters together in one space, improving options for social reading, or facilitating a collaborative writing project. Here are a few:
Livefyre: Aiming to allow publishers to bring conversations about their content in-house, this two-and-a-half-year-old company out of San Francisco is currently more steeped in the consumer media landscape than business-to-business. With clients that include companies like the New York Times and News International (the corporate umbrella for U.K. newspaper like the Sun and the Sunday Times), Livefyre has helped to bring the comments section of the papers alive in more dynamic and varied ways. As founder Jordan Kretchmer explained, Livefyre allows publishers to build “live conversations” around their content and bring those conversations back in-house. Offering both a free plug-in for bloggers and major licensing deals with significant brands (which range in price from six to seven figures for two to three years), Kretchmer said there are roughly 40,000 publishers on the Web using Livefyre. Although book publishers have not been in the equation so far—Kretchmer said the company has not reached out to the book community yet—houses could use the platform to mine conversations happening about authors across the Web and bring them together on a single landing page or a widget, or both. Book publishers could also use Livefyre to access analytics, querying and collecting information about online chatter on specific authors. Currently, Livefyre is collecting information on Twitter and Facebook, and Google+ will soon be added to that list.
Umbel: An analytics-driven startup out of Austin, this new outfit has been working with major brands—like the Boston Bruins—to collect information on their fans/customers. As Nick Goggans, head of client development explained, the company is trying to create a “Nielsen for the digital audience.” Currently pulling information off of Twitter and Facebook (and somewhat off of Foursquare), Umbel is out to create, as it claims on its Web site, a map of the “digital genetic makeup” of a company/brand’s audience. So far, Umbel has largely been offering clients a way to make more strategic, and richer, deals with advertisers and sponsors. Taking the Bruins as an example, the team, using Umbel, is able to isolate detailed information about it’s fans, say, which group liking a specific player also likes a specific car brand. (All data collected is done on an opt-in basis, for users on the various social media platforms.) While Umbel is also not currently in the book space, Goggans said he thinks the technology Umbel offers is ideal for niche audiences. He also thinks Umbel, aside from offering book publishers the ability to collect a more thorough picture of who their readers are and what their other interests/likes/dislikes are, could potentially embed data-collecting technology in digital book files to deliver information on how long readers are engaging with a title, on what platform and even which “pages.”
HubPages: Although more under the radar than the big social networking sites, HubPages, which launched in 2006 in San Francisco, boasts some fairly impressive statistics. The Web site seeks to blend publishing with social networking—its tagline is “Publish Easily. Attract Readers. Earn Rewards”—and a revenue-generating element. The site has more than 6,000 micro communities devoted to an array of subjects, and its members join groups and interact with their fellow members, both commenting on, and creating, content. Community members can earn money from their content by sharing in ad revenue on Web pages in their Hub. While a number of community members have leveraged the site to make a living just contributing to HubPages, some book authors have been finding the site on their own to engage with potential readers around their topics of interest and knowledge. Aside from attracting enthusiasts and those who want to generate revenue from sharing their content online, the company has been in talks with a number of major brands like the Food Network to build out their presence on the site, creating their own page (similar to a Facebook page). Cofounder Paul Edmondson said book publishers have not been in the equation thus far, but he thinks they are a logical fit, whether they’re looking to interact with their own readers or drive readers to potential authors’ pages.
Readmill: Proving that not all startups at SXSW are coming out of Silicon Valley, or even the U.S., Readmill is a new social reading site whose founders are currently in Berlin. A version of Goodreads with a much heavier emphasis on the social reading experience, founder Henrik Berggren said the Web site, which publicly launched only three months ago, currently has “tens of thousands” of users. (In Europe, where the e-book market is in its infancy and Kindle tablets don’t have much market penetration outside of the U.K., many consumers are reading content digitally on iPads.) Readmill has a free iPad app (which can be synced with the Kindle) and, currently, you can only read/purchase DRM-free content through it. (This will change, and Readmill will open up to DRM content, though Berggren did not offer a time line on this.) Through Readmill, users can see what their friends are reading, as well as comments those friends have made about specific passages. Users can then comment on the comments—in a Facebook-like newsfeed. Berggren said a number of authors, both American and European, have found the site on their own and have been using it to connect with readers. Berggren has begun talking to book publishers about the site—more in the States than in Europe—but said the focus is currently on smaller publishers and those with DRM-free content.
BiblioCrunch: Originally launched last August, BiblioCrunch, a free e-book services platform, could be called a re-startup. Founded by Miral Sattar, a journalist and former digital project developer at Time Inc. who oversaw the launch of Time’s iPhone app, blogs, and video channel, BiblioCrunch is an easy-to-use DIY e-book production and distribution platform that allows pretty much anyone to create e-books in all formats (EPub, mobi, pdf), market and sell them through the BiblioCrunch e-bookstore, or distribute through the big online retailers like Amazon, Nook, and others. After the original launch, Sattar, who also gave a presentation on gender diversity at the pre-SXSW Mini TOC, told PW that people coming to BiblioCrunch had so many different needs—some required editing help, or design or conversion advice—she decided to retool.
Calling the revamped venture, “a Craig’s List for e-book services,” she’s added a network component to the site that provides listings for about 400 media professionals offering such services as design, copyediting, and marketing. Authors can post their projects and contract with the appropriate professionals on a project-by-project basis. BiblioCrunch is free, and authors/publishers set their own e-book prices. They keep 85% of the list price and pay an additional fee if they want broader distribution beyond the BiblioCrunch storefront. BiblioCrunch e-books do not have DRM but publishers can upload DRM e-books if they chose. Currently the site has about 100 titles for sale, “mostly from journalists and bloggers,” and while it attracts self-publishers, she noted that McGraw-Hill and the Council on Foreign Relations also use the service. Sattar said she has also signed nondisclosure agreements with two of the big six publishers who are also trying out the service. The revamped BiblioCrunch will launch in the next few weeks.
AuthorBee: Developed by Stephen Bradley—former president of the media research firm NPD Group, venture capitalist and longtime entrepreneur in interactive media and the entertainment industry—AuthorBee is a collaborative storytelling application driven by social media that allows associated individuals and loosely associated communities to write coherent stories that offer multiple entryways and points of view. Designed as a series of distinct applications aimed at different types of stories and storytellers, AuthorBee will have multiple versions of its application to target, say, teenage storytellers, screenplay writers, or community groups looking to produce a group or historical narrative with distinct individual voices. Bradley called the app a practice in “anarchy by design,” noting that “it’s reflective of real life. We share experiences to tell a story, but we have different angles on it, unique versions.”
The app will initially run on Facebook and allows, say, teen girls, who Bradley said tend to gravitate to group storytelling, to easily develop a common narrative with multiple viewpoints, while using Facebook functionality to organize members, notify them that new material is available, and facilitate reading and further additions to the narrative. Published authors can create a shared story together with their fans, he said, and do it without a lot of effort. “Authors could invite fans, make a few comments, and review the ongoing narrative, and be a catalyst for the story while generating goodwill from their fans,” he said. The service will be monetized through advertising support and by service fees generated from offering the ability to print or publish the collaborative story through AuthorBee. Bradley emphasized that AuthorBee “does not own the content that’s created; everyone owns their own content, while we provide a variety of services.” Right now AuthorBee has a “working prototype” of the software available and is going through user testing. Bradley says AuthorBee’s public debut is several months away. ■