In the spirit of fostering book industry innovation, this year’s BookExpo America featured the first-ever BookExpo Startup Challenge, a contest in which 20 book-related startups compete for prize money and the opportunity to pitch their business model directly to venture capitalists. A digital startup called Librify organized the competition on behalf of BEA. Judges included David Roland, chief venture capital officer for Ingram Content Group, who provided the top prize of $10,000, and Dominique Raccah, CEO of SourceBooks, who awarded the runner-up a $5,000 prize. Choosing from among six finalists, including Bookmate, Kadaxis, Riffle, Snappily, the panel of judges awarded first prize to NextBigBook, with Qlovi (pronounced CLO-vee) as runner-up, and gave a special shout-out to Library for All for its work bringing digital learning and reading to people in developing countries. Below are brief profiles on the two winners and two other finalists.
Founded in 2009 by Alex White in Boulder, Colo., NextBigBook (www.nextbigbook.com) cut its teeth by using and analytics to understand the travails of the profoundly fractured music industry. Today, armed with several million dollars in VC backing as well as a just-inked agreement with Macmillan’s trade division, NextBigBook is focusing its capabilities on improving business decision making in publishing.
Now located in New York City, the organization, which employs more than 20 people, sells software that gives publishers a clearer view of which books are most likely to make bestseller lists and tools to influence the success of individual titles. Similar to the approach of a growing number of large consumer-facing companies, like P&G, NextBigBook combines variously sourced streams of data into one centralized dashboard that helps publishers evaluate critical business decisions. Sources include social media as well as daily physical and digital sales. Working with Macmillan CEO John Sargent and COO Andrew Weber, NextBigBook successfully completed a six-month pilot leading up to the signed agreement just before BEA.
“The biggest difference between the book and music industries,” White notes, “is the sharp increase in the number of entities you need to track and analyze in publishing. It’s not like J. Lo creates a new Facebook page for each of her new albums or songs. In publishing, the linkages among authors and titles pose most complex challenge, because individual ISBNs need to be linked to social profiles.” As a consequence, NextBigBooks takes more of a vertical-by-vertical approach for publishing.
By contrast with NextBigBook’s trade book focus, runner-up Qlovi (www.Qlovi.com) is devoted to K-12 learning, offering a blend of premium content and free software—a combination familiar to, if not always financially beneficial for, higher education publishers. Working with publishers and educators, the for-profit company provides free software to teachers who have already acquired Qlovi content. These software tools allow teachers to track and assess the development of each student’s reading and writing skills. Reportedly, more than 100,000 students have benefitted from these platforms.
“The most exciting thing is exposing students to authors through real-time streaming events,” says Shira Schindel, v-p content and acquisitions; partnership development. “These literacy engagements, featuring beautifully displayed content, get kids excited.” Qlovi content is sold on a time-based model, with each student getting six books for three months, at 99¢ per student. (The company is exploring six- and 12-month time frames as well.) “This way,” Schindel adds, “teachers can tailor content as needed to a wider range of student learning abilities or achievement.” Based on teacher and student esteem for Qlovi products, Schindel predicts that “books are not going anywhere, anytime soon.”
“Most metadata is done poorly and not done in a way that exploits how search engines work,” says Chris Sim, founder of Kadaxis, one of the six Startup Challenge finalists. Kadaxis focuses on the dynamic role of metadata in the discoverability of books. Kadaxis software scans a book’s content, pulls out the topics and themes of the book, and identifies the most relevant metadata for that title.
Sim was formerly the CTO of Bookish, the book recommendation and retail site launched by three major trade houses. Speaking of Kadaxis, he notes, “Our technology extracts data from the text, key phrases, topics, and organization, then we apply our expertise to get the right vocabulary for search.” Surveying today’s major search technology players, he says, “Amazon’s search focuses on keywords, not on descriptions. Google focuses a lot on description; book copy is important.” Kadaxis has built the extraction technology, and it is continuing to work on its search engine optimization component.
Sim is Kadaxis’s only full-time employee, and he uses a network of freelance contractors to round out the company. The venture is in private beta now and looks to go into public beta later in the year. In the beta period, Sim says, Kadaxis is working with a range of publishers, small and large, as well as individual authors. Citing NDAs, he declined to name clients. Kadaxis’s pricing is geared toward scale, with B2B deals priced to the number of titles to be processed. But Sims says he’s also very interested in the self-publishing market, and he’s in the process of testing prices for author/publishers.
Snapplify is another BEA Startup finalist. Founded by Wesley Lynch three years ago, the company is a digital distribution platform that offers publishers access to a global marketplace with an emphasis on selling content in emerging markets in Africa and South America. Snapplify, Lynch explains, has two components: the company offers pure digital distribution to a worldwide network of e-tailers, and it also develops branded mobile and Web stores for its clients.
The company distributes digital content drawn from all types of sources, from Rolling Stone and Car magazines to books published by Oxford University Press and Pearson Education. In addition, companies like Toyota use Snapplify to distribute digital editions of thousands of technical manuals. Snapplify’s particular niche is targeting fast-growing emerging markets around the world. It offers publishers a variety of financial services—including currency conversion and revenue collection in countries where credit cards are not prevalent—that are needed to participate in the international marketplace.
Lynch was born in South Africa, and Snapplify is based in Capetown, with a small office in New York City and with joint-ventures in South America. “All of our technology is in Capetown,” he says. “That’s why we focus on emerging markets in Brazil, Argentina, and Russia, rugged marketplaces that are similar to each other.” Snapplify also offers its content for sale in the U.S.
Pricing is variable, Lynch notes, and Snapplify will work with publishers whose lists range from five titles to 5,000 titles. The company also offers partnerships that provide tech support and financial services on a revenue-share basis, taking a 30% cut. “It’s like Apple, and publishers are used to doing deals like that all the time,” he says. “We want market share. We need as much content as we can get to engage readers. This is a long-play venture. If we can get new relationships, we know people will buy more and more books going forward.”