For those in the know, one of the sleepiest corners of the country’s largest annual book trade show is rapidly becoming its most interesting.
Without Gloria Steinem, Julianne Moore or even Snooki on hand, the hordes of booksellers and bloggers just whisked right past Startup Alley at last week’s BEA 2015, charging from one end of New York’s cavernous Javits Center to the other.
In doing so, they missed the chance to investigate some fascinating ideas developed by the 20 groups of entrepreneurs, who compete for a $10,000 grand prize by demonstrating their business models.
Some of the startups target authors publishing their own books, like Bublish (which will help writers do everything from designing their book to marketing, even helping them to build a brand in an increasingly crowded market). BookHive takes this a step further, offering to get a self-published manuscript in front of eight or ten targeted “test readers” and providing a 35-page report “full of feedback” – all for $499.
Others are designed to appeal to publishers, offering features like in-app purchasing. Lithmobilus enables a reader to move between the books they’re already reading and buy additional, related content before moving back to that original book – seamlessly. Given all the content already available or being churned out – such as short stories featuring characters in favorite fiction series, or even academic commentaries on scholarly works – that could be offered in this manner, the potential is endless.
If there is one theme that clearly emerged as the Holy Grail for new businesses this year, however, it was the pesky question of how to connect readers with their next great book. That’s the business driving Librify, one of the Startup Challenge’s sponsors, and it also underlies several startup business models. Clearly, both readers and publishers are struggling to find the best ways to connect with each other.
Enter startups like Find My Audience, a company whose goal is to help marketers develop more targeted campaigns and identify precisely the right kind of readers for the books you’re promoting – the kind who will respond to it and, in their turn, promote it themselves, because they tend to be active in tweeting or blogging about precisely this kind of book.
Then there’s Bookmarq, a “social book discovery platform” that founder Mike Eidlin described as being designed explicitly to avoid the “panic moment” when readers realize that they don’t have anything on hand to read next. Another venture offering the same a similar service, LibrarianBrain.com, is still raising money via a startup funding campaign ($2,650 to date); its unique selling is that its founders are librarians, who, its website brags, read three times more than “anyone else on the planet”.
Bookmarq made it to the final four and was offered the chance to make an elevator pitch to a panel of judges, including an author and some venture capitalists.
The three other finalists offered an intriguing glimpse at the kinds of issues on the minds of the publishing community at present. Aer.io offers anyone the opportunity to create their own online bookstore – they don’t have to compete with Amazon.com.
“We beat Amazon’s price and enable the user to build a trusted relationship with the end customer,” says Ron Martinez, its founder. “There’s no reason why The Wall Street Journal shouldn’t embed a list of bestselling books on its own media platform, for instance. If House Beautiful is doing coverage of summer entertaining, we can embed a store of books within their content.”
Slicebooks, a familiar face to those who attended last year’s Startup Challenge, was back with a new business model: the not-yet-launched YaBeam, which is all about e-book geolocation. In other words: imagine arriving in New York, hopping into a cab at the airport that’s equipped with a beacon, and having your smartphone inquire whether you’d like to purchase a guidebook to the city, or a history of the city?
The winner? A company that, unlike many of those showcasing their business, isn’t relying on credit cards, crowd funding campaigns and family loans to keep their dream afloat. Querium has already raised $1.5 million in capital from Ingram Content Group’s venture financing arm – a key source of funding for these new publishing ideas – and plans to seek another $2.5 million toward the end of the year; it’s also formed a relationship with a big publisher, Macmillan. Its goal is to provide students in science and math new ways to master critical skills, meshing artificial intelligence with mobile technology to provide 24-hour-a-day tutoring assistance.
The technology can be embedded in publishers’ textbooks and workbooks, making them more interactive and personalized. “As soon as a student makes an error, the technology identifies it, and gives them a hint,” CEO Kent Fuka told the judges. “We can then recommend which sections of the book the student needs to review.”
Even though only Querium walked away with the laurels at the end of this year’s three-day-long BEA, that’s really not the big story. The small cluster of booths – lacking all the glitzy polish of those of the big publishers – are where anyone interested in solving the problems that beset those big publishers should head first, as well as anyone interested in the future of publishing itself. The entrepreneurs manning them may not have all the answers, but they’re not pretending that book publishing, which full of turmoil and uncertainty, is not undergoing a new century makeover.
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