One big way that book publishing startups can succeed now

It’s been more than seven years since the introduction of the first Kindle. Ebooks market share seems to be stabilizing at around one third of total books sold in the U.S. according to the latest reports. But ebooks are just the beginning–the detonator, in a way, of a decade-long disruption of the traditional publishing landscape.

Publishers and agents have certainly “adapted,” but have largely failed to carry innovation forward; distribution channels have been disrupted, but the creative process around books and the business model of publishing remain, for now, unchanged.

As it often happens when technology erupts in a non-tech-heavy industry, numerous opportunities have emerged for smaller players: namely authors, freelancers, and startups. To take advantage of the changing industry landscape, however, those small players will have to grasp the delicate mix of strong technology and intuitive user experience (UX) needed to succeed in a tech-unsavvy industry.

Publishers and “tech”

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, startup founder John Pettigrew from Futureproofs noted that “Until now, publishing companies, as any other big corporations, have been adopting several softwares that came with ‘how-to’ manuals.” Pettigrew was identifying the lack of technological innovation in the publishing industry, which continues to rely on the same old technology despite readers’ and authors’ changing needs.

Case in point? HarperCollins, considered the most forward-thinking publisher out there, has introduced Bookperk — its latest digital product that just happens to be a glorified email listserv. Distributors like Amazon, Kobo or B&N have been offering customers specials and customized recommendations via email for years. But publishers have have been held back by the limitations of outdated technology, along with an understandable reluctance toward investing heavily in digital (after all, most of their revenue still comes from print books and bookstores).

That leaves room for individual authors to take advantage of digital formats that bring control of the publishing value chain into their hands (i.e., selling directly to readers). And in turn, authors have created opportunities for startups by generating a market wholly nonexistent until the early 2010s: independent publishing services.

Addressing real needs with strong technology

Many startups that have thrown their hats in the ring have confronted one of two challenges: they know the market’s needs but are unable to build the technology, or they come with great technology but don’t know how to “geek it down.” Let’s give a couple of examples: Editorially and Net Minds.

Editorially was trying to solve an obvious problem: the vast majority of authors are still writing on Microsoft Word, software that’s not made for writing books and stories, and generates formatting issues when converting to EPUB and MOBI files.

Editorially created a beautiful collaborative writing tool and editing platform, and received VC funding most startups only dream of. But it went under because it “failed to attract enough users to be sustainable.” The technology behind Editorially was great, but for authors to embrace a new editing tool, it needs to look and feel like what they’ve been using for decades — only simpler and more effective. That’s what good UX means in the publishing world.

Net Minds had the opposite problem. It had the awesome vision that authors could share royalties with the editors, designers, and marketers who worked to bring their books to life. The founders had knowledge of the market, as well as a good network thanks to CEO Tim Sanders, a bestselling author and speaker. However, it failed for the same reason many startups out there fail: the founders didn’t get along. Or more precisely, the tech founders didn’t get along with the non-tech ones.

Creating the right UX

User Experience, in my opinion, is one of the top factors that will ultimately dictate any success or failure in this industry. Be it a marketplace, an online writing tool, or a distribution channel–and be it aimed at publishers, authors or other industry professionals–emerging tech needs to feel intuitive to its users.

One of the most impactful examples of UX taking the day is Smashwords, the startup founded by Mark Coker in 2008. “The rise of Smashwords is the story of the rise of self-publishing,” Coker wrote in August last year.

Smashwords basically allows authors to convert their manuscripts to the right electronic formats, then distributes them across all major e-retailers, aggregating the right metadata so authors only have to enter it once. Though some competitors offer more features and flexibility, Smashwords’ superior UX condemns these competitors to a narrower segment of the market.

There are few other industries out there as exciting and full of opportunities as publishing. It’s up to smaller players to inject the book industry with new vitality and carry on the disruption started by Amazon.

Ricardo Fayet is a co-founder of Reedsy, an online marketplace that enables authors to directly access the wealth of editing and design talent that has started leaving major publishers over the past few years. A technology and startup enthusiast, he likes to imagine how small players will build the future of publishing.

The platform-publisher race is heating up and LinkedIn is gaining

Social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat are trying hard to become publishers or to host content from media companies, but one of the platforms that has been quietly doing this for years now — and continues to grow that side of its business — is LinkedIn

RebelMouse wants to help media companies own their social graph

After leaving the Huffington Post, former CTO Paul Berry built a social-content management platform called RebelMouse to help media make their content more viral — and now RebelMouse wants to help them build their own niche communities as well

Snapchat hiring journalists to become its own publisher

Not content to rely on major brands for its new media exploration section, Snapchat is also planning on making its own according to a new report by Digiday.

The company will produce high quality video, images, and text for people to view in the Discover tab. Theoretically, it will provide more content for Snapchat’s advertiser partnerships. Furthermore, it will help the company establish itself as a place to consume content, so it doesn’t just have to rely on its partners creating media specifically for Snapchat. As previously reported, the company is working with CNN, Vice, Buzzfeed, and a whole host of others to help them tailor content for its upcoming Discover section.

The company has been snapping up journalists for the endeavor, which explains why long time social reporter Ellis Hamburger left The Verge for Snapchat in November. According to their LinkedIn profiles, blogger Nicole James, videographer Matt Krautstrunk, Dom Smith, and CJ Smith, former MTV producer Greg Wacks, and even animator Kyle Goodrich will be joining him.

I’m curious to see what they create. Snapchat’s disappearing, finger holding format doesn’t naturally lend itself to media consumption. These people will have to get creative if they want Snapchat to become a second screen.

The recent leaked news of a soured Snapchat deal with Vevo, to create its own record label, also makes more sense now. It suggests that the company will look towards creating its own entertainment content in addition to — perhaps — journalistic. Music videos and comedy sketches are likely to be a better fit for the younger crowd then CNN reports.

Snapchat isn’t the only tech company pursuing a platisher (publisher meets platform) approach. Medium has faced criticism for its similar approach, and as Digiday pointed out Tumblr’s former platisher efforts failed spectacularly in 2013.

Secondhand ebook outfit Tom Kabinet races to purge illegal wares

The Dutch secondhand ebook marketplace Tom Kabinet has been ordered by a court to shut up shop this week, and is currently scrambling to get rid of possibly illegal stock so it can keep going.

As you may recall, Tom Kabinet started up in June 2014, predictably causing consternation in the country’s publishing industry — this is not how things currently work with digital goods, as terms tend to say people are buying only licenses to consume ebooks or audio files or what have you.

In July, a court refused to give the publishers an interim injunction against Tom Kabinet. However, on Tuesday the Amsterdam Court of Appeal produced a mixed ruling that said the site had to close down within three days or pay a daily fine of €1,000 ($1,160) – but also that Tom Kabinet’s business model appeared to be legal in principle.

Tom Kabinet’s justification for existing is the tantalising UsedSoft v Oracle ruling of 2012, in which the Court of Justice of the European Union (the EU’s highest court) ruled that customers who had bought a license for downloadable software could sell it on, just as if they had a boxed copy, no matter what the terms and conditions say.

The few European local courts that have subsequently tackled the issue have struggled with the implications of the ruling, particularly its reach. A court in Germany ruled in 2013 that it doesn’t cover ebooks and audiobooks. So far the Amsterdam courts have tentatively disagreed, saying that it’s certainly not clear that the CJEU ruling doesn’t apply to ebooks, and arguing that the CJEU may have to clarify its position in some future referral.

However, the appeal court did agree with the publishers this week about the fact that Tom Kabinet didn’t have sufficient barriers to people “reselling” illegally downloaded books through its platform. That’s why it told Tom Kabinet to shut down – much to the delight of the publishers — at least until it can shape up.

Therefore, Tom Kabinet co-founder Marc Jellema told me on Wednesday that the site is currently cleansing itself of all ebooks that it cannot prove are 100 percent legal. Tom Kabinet already watermarked the books it sells (which are all in the DRM-free ePub format) so that no-one can try selling the same thing twice through the platform, but now it’s going to have to ask sellers for paperwork.

“Technically there is no watertight way to differentiate between a legal and an illegal ebook,” Jellema said. “In order to guarantee only legally owned ebooks are on Tom Kabinet, we have to revert to ask a proof of purchase from our users. We are currently working to get that in place asap.”

This will probably have a significant impact on Tom Kabinet’s stock, though how much is yet to be ascertained. According to Jellema, so far Tom Kabinet has managed to convert more than 6 percent of its traffic to account sign-up and revenue, and its collection covers over two thirds of the Dutch Top 100.

“After the court ruling, that number is bound to change to a lower percentage,” he said. “We are now actively working on plans to get the number of relevant titles back on a respectable percentage.”