2015: 26 Digital Publishing Startups and 1 Epiphany Later

The start of a journey

This year I’ve feel like I’ve been around the digital publishing block and seen it all. I haven’t. That’s an indication of the sheer scale of this industry in which I currently have a minor stake (and unfortunately a great, unfaltering passion).

This year I’ve witnessed, noted and tested a range of products, both new and newer, that are bringing about significant changes in the world of digital publishing (and publishing in general) to revolutionise the way we build, write, augment, perfect, publish and distribute. Next to these there are a few interesting approaches to this commercial art form, but the difference between these two; between being novelty and novel is a considerable one.

Pagesuite is a platform I discovered in March and is a feature-filled solution for thousands of eMagazines/eNewspapers looking for a reliable cross-platform publishing service. When I flew out to New York in April and stayed with family it proved useful when my uncle asked for my help in hacking together a MVP for an online open dialogue startup idea.

In May I met the CEO of Zappar and discovered the great things they’re doing in the world of publishing: proving that if print won’t turn digital, digital will come to print in the form of AR. Their work with children’s publishers in creating interactive content around books inspired me to pitch a marketing campaign aimed at boosting the charitable image of publishing houses and encouraging the next generation to retain a love for reading.

Ideapod is a user-generated content platform I discovered in 2014 after meeting a junior architect who invited me to an event at the Prote.in in New Inn Yard, Shoreditch. When I checked out the now notorious Prote.in Feed I read about Ideapod, who’s campaign I went on to back on Indiegogo. Ideapod shows signs of hope the kind of information sharing that promises to explore the internet’s capacity for social good. Though it hasn’t necessarily exploded as they founders might’ve hoped, it’s exploring the void between Twitter and Medium in sharing thoughts and noteworthy ideas. I liked it so much I even made a proposal for these guys too.

When I stumbled upon Trip Book Smiles, as confusing by name as it is by nature, it seemed little more than a standalone experiment and click-bait topic for journalists than a product with genuine shelf life. Similarly, the Japanese book shop Morioka Shoten, which claims to sell just one book at a time was titillating but came off as little more than a piece of fleeting artistic PR for the owner with the same name.

Where ebooks are concerned, exploring the world of eReaders outside of the Kindle, Kobo, iBooks and Nook range has been revelatory to say the least. Apps like Aldiko show that advertising is creeping its way into the reading experience, while Bookmate is rethinking our approach to collections. Rook, which offers a free experience for readers of bestselling book titles, is something like an extended sample provider for coffee shop frequenters. Shelfie seems to be making strides as people take the selfie craze into literature. Leveraging the human capacity for vanity they’ve established what appears to be a healthy business model. Read is the perfect example of a no-frills MVP that provided me more insight than I originally bargained for — the default book is a collection of blog posts by Marc Andreessen giving the most comprehensive and straightforward advice for startup founders.

Together, the online platforms Pronoun and Grammarly (both well-designed and fun to use) enable any would-be author/long-form writer to build a well-drafted manuscript and universally published title. While services like Grammarly (and even Summly, now Yahoo News Digest) are omens of future software coming for the jobs of copywriters and copy editors, it seems it’ll be a while before they’re entrusted with such a sacred and respected role. This obviously depends on the advancements of Ai and technologists’ focus in that area.

At the end of last year Paper Later shut its doors (as did Mailbox but that’s another story). Even as an advocate for digital publishing it was a little sad that this service, which newspaper-fied digital content and delivered it to your home for screen-free reading on a Sunday afternoon, was over so soon. Whether all backward-facing products are doomed to the same fate is yet to be seen as the Hemingwrite (now renamed Freewrite), because of legal reasons I assume, prepares for shipment. I just hope that the slow journalism pioneer Delayed Gratification doesn’t meet the same fate, unless it chooses to go digital.

There is one that differs from all others I’ve mentioned in being little more than a news site. Its name is The Bookseller and it didn’t take me long to equate it to something of an authority in the world of book publishing. Getting the news on the closure of Oysterbooks, Blloon and Txr Beagle, as well as Touchpress’ major shift from a paid-for to a sponsorship model) allows me to start piecing together a trend in the literary world: less a wilful change of approach than an act of being dragged kicking and screaming in the direction of other major commercial sectors. The influence of The Bookseller can’t be ignored when trying to create any significant impact in the world of book publishing.

During Summer of this year I started working on a 3rd party widget for iBooks Author that would allow writers to deliver an intuitive audiobook feature from within their self-published ebook. The idea was to replicate the simplicity and ease-of-use of Amazon’s Whispersync. Since democratising audiobook production is an area that’s being largely ignored as Apple invests very little into their iBooks Author project, I took it upon myself and hacked together a working prototype using LibriVox, Bookry and Soundcloud. After showing it to a developer at London’s Silicon Roundabout I started working towards an MVP when I spotted a greater and more game-changing opportunity, and I pivoted. From there I rounded up a small team: an app developer, UX designer and an analyst. Slowly, I realised that, if executed correctly, my idea may reach untold heights, changing just about everything.

As a consumer (or even as a producer) you might dispute that you signed up for change, and that the current state of publishing works just fine for you. Throughout history there are times when we as people do not realise the challenge and the opportunity before us. Even I don’t fully recognise the potential of this project, but I know that by venturing down this foggy road at night— full of obstacles and unknowns — we’re sure to encounter a chance to make life better for readers.

With this in mind, I’m not asking you place your faith in me (doubtless I’ll be heckled for my lack of direct experience in the publishing industry) as much as I’m asking for your faith in the process of discovery that a young startup often goes through to find product-market fit and bring something of value to the world.

We’re all aware of Napster’s effect on the music industry, and if we can learn how to cross that bridge rather than trying to wade through the water below for fear of falling, then we’ll all make better futurists.

To be continued…

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