Vancouver’s BookRiff still ahead of e-book curve
Whereas the music industry’s digital revolution has been one of this century’s most widely felt cultural shifts, book publishing’s moves in the electronic realm still swing between intention and implementation. In Vancouver, the growing pains are exemplified by BookRiff, a web platform that allows customers to remix and curate reading material to assemble customized digital books, also known as “Riffs”—literary mix tapes, of sorts.
Early digital adopters in the publishing industry embraced BookRiff after its much-talked-about public debut in October 2011. But now, two months after the company’s CEO left for financial reasons, the platform is back in beta and in need of more capital to fund its next steps.
Mark Scott founded BookRiff Media Inc. in 2007, the same year he started as principal at Vancouver’s D & M Publishers. He has turned heads in the industry.
“I’m a big fan of his,” John Maxwell, an assistant professor in Simon Fraser University’s master of publishing program, enthuses in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “He’s absolutely revitalized the company and turned it into one of the most successful book publishers in the country in Vancouver, not in Toronto. Which is no mean feat in this day and age.”
Scott saw the transformative potential of digital publishing when his industry counterparts cringed at the thought of loosening their grip on intellectual property in a time of economic and cultural flux. Today, D & M boasts a strong digital-publishing arm and is Canada’s largest independently owned publishing house. Meanwhile, BookRiff, a company separate from D & M, faces funding challenges typical of other tech startups.
“Any kind of startup is very risky because you don’t have revenue and you’re launching into a new area,” Scott acknowledges at a coffee shop not far from D & M’s Mount Pleasant headquarters. The risk for BookRiff is magnified in the publishing industry, which Scott describes as “very conservative”.
“It’s a very old industry structured along lines that are in contradiction to the new digital environment,” he says. “It’s structured along country lines, and rights within countries and curation is within the hands of publishers. Publishers play an important role in curation, but this [BookRiff] model changes that paradigm in some ways. It challenges it. It says, ‘Maybe other people can curate content as well.’ ”
BookRiff manages rights and permissions and allows publishers or content creators to determine the price and rights around what they share on the platform. The idea is that publishers and authors upload content to BookRiff for free and determine how much they charge for the books or parts of books they share. Content owners are paid 70 percent of their set price and BookRiff earns 30 percent. Customers can’t create content on BookRiff, but they can remix and curate BookRiff content to produce custom e-books.
“It puts the creativity in the hands of both the publisher and author, but also in the consumer’s hands,” Scott says. “They can repurpose content in ways that you wouldn’t expect, just like YouTube or other mix cultures. People do things you can’t imagine.”
Scott is optimistic about the future of the startup, and so is Rochelle Grayson, BookRiff’s former CEO, who left the company in April. “For me, unfortunately, it was around a financial decision,” she explains of her departure. Grayson was CEO for nearly two years and left because the startup ran out of capital to fund her work. The startup’s main challenge, according to her, lies in asking publishers to adjust their traditional business model to accommodate a new, remix-friendly BookRiff.
“Even in the music industry, there is no service like BookRiff,” Grayson says. “There is no way you can create a mix tape with music and resell it.”
Grayson suggests the company might have seen more immediate traction if it solicited user-generated content or materials from self-published books. But such a move would have lost BookRiff the support of established book publishers. They told her they would share their content with BookRiff on the condition that it stood alongside other books produced by established publishers as a measure of quality assurance.
Meanwhile, in the music industry, independent musicians are able to upload songs to the iTunes Store alongside artists backed by mainstream music labels. But music went through digital transitions that the book-publishing industry has yet to reach, Grayson says.
“Even five years later after Mark had this idea, I still think BookRiff is a bit early,” she concedes. Publishers are currently grappling with digital books and electronic publication. But BookRiff’s idea of taking books apart and allowing customers to purchase and repurpose individual chapters lies a few steps ahead of where publishing’s digital evolution sits now. Publishers are still coming to grips with digitizing full books, let alone parts of books.
“I looked at the music industry and their transition from vinyl records, to CDs and digital music, and then their transition to iTunes,” Grayson recalls. “Prior to iTunes, there were quite a few steps, and a lot of transitions happened along the way.”