The digital publishing landscape continues to morph and, inevitably, evolve, as new publishing ventures either gain traction and grow or look for ways to adapt. In July, AuthorBee, a storytelling and social media filter that launched in 2012, introduced a new Twitter application, while Vook, an early digital startup, went through an overhaul in May and emerged as Pronoun, a new digital self-publishing platform. And earlier in the year, Entitle, an e-book subscription service originally known as eReatah, shut down operations after struggling to attract consumers. Below, we look at how select digital publishing startups have fared in 2015 to date.
Lost My Name, a vertically integrated U.K.-based company that uses technology to create personalized books for children, snagged $9 million in financing from a group of investors in June. LMN is an unusual publishing venture; it launched in 2013 and sells one product: The Little Girl Who Lost Her Name (or The Little Boy Who Lost His Name, depending on the child’s gender), an illustrated, customized children’s book whose story is determined by the child’s name. The product is available only via LMN’s website, and the company has sold more than 600,000 units, including 140,000 copies in the U.S. LMN plans to add a new title in the fall and hopes to ramp up its marketing in the U.S.
Booktrack, an e-publishing venture that allows publishers and self-publishers to add customizable soundtracks and sound effects to digital titles, secured $5 million in investment funding in July from Coent Venture Partners and Sparkbox Ventures. The company has a library of 20,000 licensed audio and music files that can be used by publishers to create their own soundtracks (or Booktrack will produce soundtracks for them for a fee), adding scores or sound effects to books and turning the digital reading experience into something of a radio play.
As noted above, Vook, which launched in 2009 as an e-book and interactive content platform, went through a complete pivot and relaunched in May as Pronoun, a soup-to-nuts self-publishing platform. Pronoun offers its publishing services, e-book distribution, and a variety of digital tools to authors for free, while also promising a 100% royalty. The relaunch followed a year of acquisitions of content and technology that included the purchase of Byliner, the online literary boutique e-publisher; Coliloquy, a publisher of choose-your-own-adventure-style enhanced e-books; and Booklr, an e-book data analysis platform. Pronoun also saw the departure of longtime principals, including former v-p, business development Matthew Cavnar, to be replaced by a new set of executives, including CEO Josh Brody. Amidst all the changes, the company managed to secure $3.5 million in investment form Avalon Ventures in June.
Brody says that Pronoun makes money from Vook’s legacy businesses in data conversion and sales tracking, and it intends to focus on attracting authors: “Pronoun starts with the author at its core, and builds from there. We’re focused on building the platform, and it should be free to authors.”
Fast Pencil, a self-publishing platform founded in 2008 and acquired by the Courier Corp. in 2014, was reacquired in May by its founder, Steve Wilson, after Courier’s acquisition by R.R. Donnelley earlier this year. Fast Pencil has struggled since it launched. Courier paid $5 million for the company, eventually reporting an operating loss and a $6 million write down on the purchase. “It made sense to get the company back,” Wilson says.
Social Media, Data Tracking, Analysis
AuthorBee’s new Twitter application allows users to collect and organize tweets on topics and subjects that they specify. It stores them in a sequential “story” format, grouping related tweets together under user-determined headings. The AuthorBee Web application makes it easy for users to archive, locate, and navigate through a variety of Twitter-generated posts.
Next Big Sound, a venture that tracks social media data relating to music, was acquired by music streaming service Pandora in July. Next Big Sound is the parent company of Next Big Book, a platform that tracks social media data on books, as well as physical and digital book sales, for use by marketers. Next Big Book was the 2014 winner of BookExpo America’s Startup Challenge, a contest that awards $10,000 to a book-related startup. (Founder Alex White declined to comment on the impact of the acquisition on the company’s book service.)
Made by Mess, a Web development company, launched Momentum at BEA in May. Momentum is a subscription-funded service that can be used to generate “social unlock” promotional campaigns for publishers—i.e., rewarding Twitter and Facebook users who share, retweet, or comment on titles being promoted and tracking fans’ social engagement. Made by Mess CEO Jack Shedd says that the platform charges a monthly fee and is designed to “reduce the cost of managing and tracking social unlocks” by offering tiered levels of services and prices designed to attract publishers large and small.
There’s no shortage of new developments in the e-book subscription category. Hoopla, a digital content provider for the library market, is essentially an e-book subscription service for public libraries, offering anyone with a public library card access to all kinds of content. In June, the service launched an e-book service offering access to thousands of titles (including comics and graphic novels) as well as movies, music, TV series, and audiobooks. In July, DC Comics announced that it will add 200 of its graphic novels and periodical comics to Hoopla over the next few months, marking the publisher’s first deal with a library or a subscription service.
Scribd, after securing $22 million in financing from a variety of investors in January, added more than 10,000 comics and graphic novels in February to its $8.99-per-month all-you-can-read e-book subscription service. Next, it added about 10,000 Random House audiobooks to its inventory. Scribd followed up with the acquisition of Librify, a subscription e-book social-reading platform and e-book retailer that launched in 2014. At one time, Librify had a partnership with mass market retailer Target that offered consumers one free e-book (recommended by Target) per month plus 10%–20% discounts on download-to-own e-books. Since the acquisition in July, Scribd has declined to provide any additional information on Librify’s partnership with Target, or on how the firm will be integrated into the Scribd business model.
And, in a major setback for the romance genre, in July, Scribd was forced to dramatically reduce the number of romance titles it offers. Smashwords CEO Mark Coker says that Scribd cut 80%–90% of his company’s romance titles, because voracious romance fans have been “reading Scribd out of house and home.”
Oyster, Scribd’s most prominent competitor in the subscription e-book marketplace, opened the year with a content coup, announcing plans in January to add all seven Harry Potter e-books (as well as the Hogwarts library books) to its inventory, through a deal with J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore website. Oyster followed by adding a retail option to its app, allowing users to purchase e-books there. The new retail option includes titles from the Big Five publishers, including Random House and Hachette, whose books are not included in the subscription service.
In addition, in June, Oyster introduced Lumin, a new feature aimed at those who complain of eye strain and sleep disruption due to reading on the backlit color screens of smartphones and tablets. The Lumin technology automatically adjusts the mobile device’s screen based on the light around it. Oyster claims it improves low-light reading and makes it easier to fall asleep after late night reading. Oyster CPO Willem Van Lancker says the technology is “easy on the eyes and makes Oyster feel like reading a print book.”