Whether you fall into camp Brown or camp Buffet, it's tough to ignore the publishing industry’s ongoing identity crisis. Have tablets brought an end to books, or are they revolutionizing the way people read? Can newspapers fix their ad-based revenue model, or are online pay walls the solution?
But where there are problems--ahem, opportunities--there are usually entrepreneurs. Here are three start-up companies aiming to solve some of the industry's toughest problems.
Flipping the advertising model on its head.
Headquarters: New York, NY
Problem: Print publications can’t sell ad space, which is how they pay for and distribute content.
Solution: NewsCred licenses written content from publishers, and sells it to advertisers to distribute.
Shafqat Islam, founder and CEO of the content marketing company NewsCred, says that the print industry needs a new middleman.
Previously, he explains, publications held an advertising monopoly; brands bought space in newspapers and magazines because it was an easy way to reach their target audience. Now, social networks like Facebook and Twitter allow advertisers to engage consumers directly--cutting out the publishers.
This is bad for two reasons, says Islam. First, advertisers who are still learning to communicate directly with their customers risk over-promoting, or bombarding their target audience with unwanted and repetitive ads. Second, the quality content originally commissioned by news and magazine editors loses its primary source of income.
This is where NewsCred steps in. The company buys up existing articles from publishers like the Associated Press, Reuters, and the Huffington Post, and shapes them into brand-relevant packages for advertisers. For example, Zurich insurance hired NewsCred to source content for its email newsletters--alerting homeowners to hurricane weather patterns that might affect their area. The articles were licensed from the Associated Press--a relatively unbaised source--but still relevant to Zurich's audience.
"People just want really good content. They don’t care where they read it," says Islam. "Preserving editorial content is a huge priority for our company and our business model. All we’re doing is finding a new home for it."
Bringing quality content to the cybersphere.
Headquarters: San Francisco, CA
Problem: Social media news feeds, agregator sites, and blogs of dubious credibility have created a read-it-with-a-grain-of-salt attitude toward online content.
Solution: Byliner is an all-digital publishing house that curates short narrative fiction and non-fiction, and commissions original work by award-winning authors.
A good read can be hard to find online. "The digital revolution in publishing has been a wonderful thing. It has made it very easy to publish something… at the same time it increases the amount of noise in the system," says Byliner founder and CEO John Tayman.
Byliner is a digital publishing company that curates short--5,000 to 30,00 words--fiction and non-fiction narratives into digestible ebooks and Web anthologies. Authors include notable names such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Lewis, and Susan Orlean. And membership is by invitation only.
Tayman says that for him the main objective is helping people who love to read find stories that don’t waste their time. He wants to create for readers what Netflix has created for movie lovers. "What is the reading experience of sneaking away in the middle of the afternoon and watching a movie," Tayman asks. That’s what he’d like to build for Byliner’s customers.
Like Netflix, Byliner charges a monthly subscription for access to its Web content and original ebooks. The publisher commissions new articles and stories from their nationally recognized authors to build a library of exclusive content. Subscribers also receive recommendations for new authors based on the stories that they read and enjoy.
"We want to create an environment that makes it as easy and frictionless as possible [for people] to read more by their favorite authors," says Tayman. "We are building a story machine powered by the world’s best writers."
Making digital guides better.
Headquarters: San Francisco, CA
Problem: Publishers are struggling to adapt textbooks, travel guides, and how-to manuals for mobile devices.
Solution: Inkling provides an online store for digital textbooks and interactive educational material--and the back-end tools publishers need to build them.
Maybe you’ve experienced this: You need help completing a task--be it tying a bow tie, or building a deck in your backyard--so you look it up on the Internet. Chances are you get some hit-or-miss responses.
"Some content is great, some content is okay," says Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis. "But if you’re looking to build a patio on the back of your house, you don’t want to use Wikipedia to do it."
Previously, MacInnis explains, people relied on textbooks and instructional manuals to help them understand complex subjects like human anatomy or car mechanics. These are the types of guides that can’t be crowd-sourced, he says.
Inkling is a cloud-publishing platform and store for textbooks, travel guides, cookbooks and other instructional materials. "Anything that merits the love and care of being built properly," says MacInnis.
What sets it apart from a traditional book publisher, or ebook publisher for that matter, is the fact that Inkling’s content is interactive. Inkling doesn’t create its own material--it partners with guidebook incumbents like Lonely Planet or Bates for content--but supplies publishers with the back-end tools they need to create interactive diagrams, maps, practice quizzes, and supplementary material for each of their texts.
"We didn’t think we were going to have to bite off such a mouthful," says MacInnis, "But we had to either solve these giant problems for the industry, or wait for someone else do it." Naturally, he says with a laugh, he chose the former.