Startups Pitch a Brighter Future for Book Publishing
Business + Economy

Startups Pitch a Brighter Future for Book Publishing

Anyone foolhardy enough to talk of of building a future in publishing these days likely must first wait until the snickering around them dies down. That’s especially true now, as the industry watches intently while Amazon puts the squeeze to Hachette Book Group in a dispute over pricing.

Only after the laughter has died down and calm has been restored can they explain that simply because the Big Five publishers are struggling to make money in the digital age — with self-publishers applying pressure along with Amazon — that doesn’t mean there isn’t space for new publishing ventures to survive and even thrive.

Related: Will a ‘Netflix for Books’ Save the Publishing Business?

At this year’s annual BookExpo America, that space was in a corner of the vast showspace at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. While the bulk of the exhibit floor was still given over to conventional publishers and their carefully decorated booths, stacks of books, and celebrity author signings (from Billy Idol to “Goosebumps” creator R.L. Stine), some fresh industry ideas were tucked away in the show’s “Startup Alley.” There, 18 companies explained their concepts and business models to the publishers and others who drifted by.

“These companies aren’t necessarily trying to turn the whole publishing world on its head,” explains Ronnie Ricker, director of customer acquisition at Librify, a startup e-book retailer and social media forum targeted at book club members. Along with some of its own backers, Librify sponsored Startup Alley, giving a host of other publishing newbies the chance to strut their stuff.

“There are new businesses to help people publish books, to help readers find better books or books that they’ll like more, or to manage their libraries,” says Ricker. “There are companies that go beyond the book as an object to getting people to read, to read more, or to read in different ways.”

The 18 businesses pitching their visions of the future of publishing were a motley crew, ranging from the reasonably well established to the unknown.

A company called Beneath the Ink offered “Binks” — a way for publishers to insert visual content into e-books, so that if an author’s character is ambling through Hyde Park in late spring, up pops a “Bink,” or image, of the London park with horse chestnut trees flowering away and the roses just about to bloom.

Moscow-based Bookmate is focused on getting books to readers in emerging markets that have been particularly prone to piracy, using mobile phones and their networks as the delivery and payment mechanism. (It has just raised $3 million in startup funding.)

At the other end of the spectrum, Riffle, “run by a happy team of obsessive book lovers,” was presented to readers as a great way to discover new books — and billed to potential new investors as “a revenue freight train.” Sure, the site offers daily deals, but it also carefully places ads — lots of ads, targeted to your reading patterns and interests — and its clients range from the largest publishing companies to mid-list authors and self-published writers.

Six finalists from among the startups competed for $13,000 in funding from the sponsors, with $10,000 going to the first place winner and $3,000 to the company that came in second. That’s not a heck of a lot when set beside the median seed capital funding of $800,000 recorded in 2013, but the winners (along with the other four finalists) also walked away with a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval on their business plans and concept.

Next Big Book walked away with the big $10,000 prize, thanks to its marketing analytics model that tracks what’s happening in bookstores, on social media and elsewhere in cyberspace, from sales and retailer promotions to marketing events. The goal: to determine which factors are most important in a book’s success in the market. The award may simply be the decoration on the icing on the cake for the company, which announced a deal with Macmillan Publishers, one of the Big Five, during BEA.

Second place went to Qlovi, a literacy innovation company that offers lesson plans and other classroom tools to teachers who subscribe and pay for its ebooks. The Qlovi team, pitching their concept to a group of about a hundred entrepreneurs, venture investors and others, vigorously made their case for their business as more than just a social good.

“We built our own e-reader,” pointed out Shira Schindel, head of content and acquisitions, noting that their chief technology officer, Ricardo Rodriguez, is an alumnus of Intel’s software development group as well as the MIT Media Lab.

It’s unlikely that any of these companies will morph into the next Amazon — none of their business models is that comprehensive, aiming to turn every human being on the platform into a customer. Nonetheless, collectively, they could end up radically reshaping the way we read.

In light of that fact, I’m surprised these booths weren’t just as busy as those offering free copies of this fall’s must-read titles. Those will be forgotten in a few months’ time. The odds are pretty good that we’ll still be talking about three or four of these companies in a decade’s time.

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