Looking for a way to grow its business in a stagnant marketplace, Random House is placing a bet on the mobile phone information business. The company, through Random House Ventures, has made a minority investment in Vocel, a San Diego, Calif., company that develops software that enables text-based interactive messages to be transmitted to cell phones. In addition to its investment, Random's Living Language and Prima Games imprints have signed licensing agreements with Vocel.
Richard Sarnoff, president of RH Ventures, said sending information to cell phones is one way to reach today's technology-savvy young adults and teenagers. One application envisioned by Sarnoff is for customers to use their phones to view material from a Prima guide while playing a video game. He acknowledged that cell phones are best suited for delivering "information snippets.
"Vocel's primary offering to date, content from Princeton Review, sends a test question that can be asked and answered in three or four seconds, said Vocel founder Carl Washburn. He said five minutes is about the maximum time consumers will view information on cell phones. To date, Vocel is available only to Verizon Wireless subscribers, but the company will soon be adding more carriers, Washburn said. The company is also in talks with publishers and other content providers. Sarnoff expects the Living Language and Prima Games content to go live with Vocel this summer. Pricing has not been set, although Vocel charges $5.75 per month for a subscription to its Princeton Review service.
Separately, Random has filed suit against Sean "P-Diddy" Combs, in what the publisher said is its first advance-recovery project in five years. Random signed the producer/mogul for a memoir in 1998 but has not received a "syllable," according to a Random spokesperson Stuart Applebaum. "The complete lack of constructive responsiveness from Mr. Combs and his representatives triggered us to the courthouse," Applebaum said, noting that roughly a dozen letters have been sent to P-Diddy over the years. Applebaum recalled the last time a Random imprint sued to recover an advance, which he said elicited an unexpected check for $125,000 from Roy Orbison's widow, Barbara.
Insiders point to how the story underlines an aspect of celebrity publishing— such authors are often not writers and another person (and ego) needs to get involved. Indeed, the proposed book came about after Combs and a Rolling Stone writer who profiled him, Mikal Gilmore, sold it to Ballantine. According to the claim, Gilmore was paid $180,000 (to P-Diddy's $120,000) as the first part of the advance. But the collaborators fell out, and in 2001, Combs sued Gilmore for not pulling his weight. (That case was dismissed.)
It's unknown if Gilmore's alleged debt to Combs is part of the reason Combs has (also allegedly) declined to give the money back to Random. But it's telling that the house pointed out in its claim that "Random House was not a party to the collaboration agreement between Combs and Gilmore and bore no responsibilities thereunder." Combs spokesperson Ron Shuster was not available for comment at press time.