Transcript: A Book Apart

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Interview with Rochelle Grayson, CEO, BookRiff.com
For podcast release Monday, January 30, 2012

KENNEALLY: If you attend a publishing conference these days, you’ll hear about curation, a critical element in publishing that puts someone else, usually an editor, in the driver’s seat, deciding what you will read.

Well, a Vancouver based start-off wants to make you the creator. Joining us today on Beyond the Book is Rochelle Grayson, CEO since June, 2010, of BookRiff. She’s also an instructor and industry chair at the University of British Columbia Social Media program. Rochelle, welcome to Beyond the Book.

GRAYSON: Good morning, or good afternoon. It’s nice to meet you, Chris, and I look forward to speaking with you.

KENNEALLY: Well, we look forward to chatting with more about this whole notion of what BookRiff is about. So, put it on a bumper sticker. What are you trying to do with BookRiff that hasn’t been done in publishing before?

GRAYSON: What we’re trying to do is allow the consumer control over their reading experience. So in other words, a consumer decides what content they want to read, how much of it they want to read, and what they want to pay for. And they can take editorialized content, but it really is in their hands to decide exactly what that reading experience is like.

KENNEALLY: Well, this is an idea that I’ve been predicting is going to be coming, and here it is. Because what happened with the music business was, the evaporation of the compact disc. Essentially, iTunes – it happened prior to that, but really, iTunes gave it a business model. It took apart the compact disc, and sold everything in tracks.

You’re nodding your head. Essentially, this is the iTunesification of books.

GRAYSON: Exactly that. So, we are taking books apart. We’re allowing publishers to sell chapters of their book, instead of the whole book, or in addition to the whole book. But we’re also taking it one step further, and allowing, then, the users to mix and match that content and resell it to different and new audiences.

So in essence, a literary mix tape, along your analogy, that allows all of the artists to now get paid with a compilation that you, any DJ, has made.

KENNEALLY: Well, wait a minute. Now I can sell this compilation, as well as make it for my own enjoyment?

GRAYSON: That’s exactly it. So, that’s where we really see a whole new market emerging, this idea that you can actually license, if you will, that copyrighted content, and now make it available and resell it, and get a commission for marketing it to a new audience.

KENNEALLY: Well, let’s take this apart. First of all, are there certain kinds of content that are better suited for what BookRiff offers? Somebody probably wouldn’t want just a single chapter from a mystery novel, but if you were looking for the best ways to mow your lawn, you might take chapter one from one book, and chapter ten from another.

GRAYSON: Yes, the content that works really best for BookRiff is informational content, self-help, fitness, dieting, parenting, business. It’s definitely the informational, non-fiction content primarily.

On the fiction side, poetry and short stories are the most obvious choices, because you might want to do a poetry book about – with all your favorite love poems, or something along those lines.

KENNEALLY: And, from what I understand, I can also include my own commentary, an introduction, a foreword, some scholarly annotation if I wanted to do that.

GRAYSON: Absolutely. So the goal is that you become the curator. You create the glue that brings all of these pieces together. So whatever you feel is missing, whatever you feel you can add, you can add that, and in some ways, you can also price that, and make it a new piece of content available for others to use.

KENNEALLY: Right. So if think I’m particularly adept at choosing the best poetry of 2012, then I can make that offering as long the publishers give me the right to do it, and that’s the point that’s critical at Copyright Clearance Center and lots of publishers, is around copyright. Tell us how BookRiff handles that, and why publishers shouldn’t be concerned that their rights would be violated, in the same way that some music offerings might.

GRAYSON: So, we are doing deals with the publishers or content owners directly, and no piece of content will get into BookRiff without that publisher or content permission. And they set the price, they set the permissions, and all of the rules around how that piece of content can be used.

As a consumer, you cannot change it, you cannot excerpt it, you cannot make it smaller or bigger or mark it up. You can only use it as a publisher has actually set it out to be used.

So we are really clear about the usage of all this copyrighted content. And when you use it, we also make sure that we have all of the metadata to show where it came from. So we do all the bibliographic information to make sure people know where the original source was, original publisher, and original author.

KENNEALLY: What about the compensation model? So, let’s take just the example you’ve given, of a collection of poetry. And I include a foreword. How does the compensation happen? Because there would be a variety of rights holders there.

GRAYSON: So, the compensation happens. We manage all the rights holders, so when that is sold, we provide a commission to the riffer, as we – what we call the person who is curating, and then we take each of those chapters, and usually 70% of the revenue for each chapter is given back to the publisher, and 30% is given to BookRiff.

If we’re using a wholesale model, which in publishing is quite common, then they get their wholesale price, and we usually will mark that up a little bit for the retail sale.

KENNEALLY: Well, why would a publisher want to break up their content in this way? It’s clearly their choice, it’s not been broken up by some pirate or something like that. Why would they want to do that?

GRAYSON: One of the reasons is, we’re finding there are a lot of people who are not purchasing a book because there’s a lot of information in it that they don’t – so this is not about cannibalization of their existing book purchase –

KENNEALLY: I have to stop you, because that sounds like the old CD thing. I didn’t want to buy the CD, because I only wanted two songs.

GRAYSON: Right. But what they’re finding is that people are just not buying the book. They’re either saying there’s free content on the Internet, and we’ll rather get that content, and so, now what we’re saying, instead of zero dollars in sales, you can actually get something in sales. So it’s actually increasing your revenue stream from that market, which has said, there’s not enough there for me to actually make the purchase in the first place, not the ones who are already buying into the content and the packaging that a publisher has.

KENNEALLY: We’re talking with Rochelle Grayson, CEO of BookRiff, and trying to understand how this very intriguing model works. What about the pricing piece of it? Again, for the publisher, I’m still committed to the print book, and I still want to drive sales of the print book. You’ve told me about what might be some of the incentive. But explain the pricing, and why this might be to my advantage to allow the pieces to be broken up.

GRAYSON: Well, there’s a premium placed on breaking things up as well. So when you break up a chapter, it is not just a dividing it by a certain number of chapters. There actually is a premium, much like I would say, travel size shampoo is much more expensive than when you buy it in bulk.

So, there will be a premium. They can make more revenues. And the goal here is, by letting it out into the world, you can get an army of marketers really promoting your content, and letting others discover. It’s a whole new discovery mechanism that we’ve never had before. We don’t even have it in music at this point.

KENNEALLY: Well, yeah, and in fact, discovery goes with curation. That’s one of the other challenges. We’re speaking today in the pressroom at the Digital Book World Conference in New York City, and we hear a lot of terms thrown about. Curation clearly is one of them. It’s one that publishers want to hang onto.

The other one that they really are concerned about flying away from them is discovery. How do you – again, explain that further. Why would the BookRiff model allow publishers’ content to be discovered? I’m thinking perhaps as a blogger, I might pull something together, and might – the people who follow me, my community, might then be directed to the book. Is that what you had in mind?

GRAYSON: That’s exactly it. There are lots of domain experts that exist that we may not know about, and have followings, anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of people who think that they know the most about a specific topic matter. Why shouldn’t they be able to cite and actually sell your content on your behalf to that same audience? It’s a lot easier for them to sell it than it is for the publishers to reach that audience.

So I’m talking about very niche vertical markets that historically have not been reachable by the mass book, because the mass book is made for the largest common denominator. And there may be other ways to slice and dice that, and rediscover and repurpose existing content.

KENNEALLY: It’s a great way for a publisher to let their work kind of go under – undergo a discovery process, an experimentation process, without having to do that themselves. Does it apply at all in the professional and business content, not on the B2C play, but on the B2B play?

GRAYSON: Yes, we actually find that a lot of businesses are thinking about using this as a way for publications in terms of thought leadership. So it’s a way to actually combine the best articles, the best book chapters on topics that might be of interest to your colleagues in a business or B2B environment.

So, telecommunications companies are looking at this as to what’s happening there, but really as a way for – almost professional development, for people to find out what’s the latest in what’s going on there.

KENNEALLY: Well, you – we mentioned at the top that you’re Vancouver-based. BookRiff began as a kind of in-house project of Douglas & McIntyre publishers, which has a variety of different imprints. And now, it got spun off.

What kind of content do you have on offer? Is it just D&M content at the moment, or do you have others as well?

GRAYSON: We have right now about half a dozen publishers that we’ve signed contracts with, so we have O’Reilly Media, which has been bringing a lot of technology content to our database. We’re working with Harvard Common Press in the cookbook industry. So we’re going – and we have some lifestyle companies, Sterling Publishers, and that’s all coming together, and we’re working with them to build these verticals so that people have a nice, big library of content to play with.

KENNEALLY: Well, Rochelle Grayson, you’re – if I can call it, a serial entrepreneur, and particularly with a focus on the arts. What attracted you to BookRiff beyond just the opportunity to do something new and exciting? I mean, did it tie into your own experience in the media world, in the art world?

GRAYSON: Absolutely. For me, this is the ultimate realization of the creative experience. And I think finding a business model that allows creative people to be incredibly creative, and for that derivative art, which happens all the time, and those derivative pieces to be done with credit being given to everyone along the way was just a business model I couldn’t pass up. And I think that BookRiff is dong a great job of allowing that to happen in a legal marketplace, where everyone is attributed, gets paid, and everyone can say, look what I’ve done, and show how they’ve contributed to a greater whole.

KENNEALLY: I love the idea that everybody’s a publisher, but everybody doesn’t have to be an author.

GRAYSON: Correct. Not everyone is a writer. But a lot of people are really great thought leaders and curators, and can pick the best stuff, and highlight the content that matters. And why shouldn’t they be able to create a book, or curate a book of what they think are the most important things? A lot of faculty members do this with their faculty course packs, and they highlight articles and chapters for their students to learn. Why should it be limited to the academic arena? Why can’t it be opened up to the larger consumer base?

KENNEALLY: Well, Rochelle Grayson, CEO of BookRiff, and instructor and industry chair at the University of British Columbia Social Media program. Thank you so much for chatting with us today.

GRAYSON: Thank you, Chris. It’s been a pleasure.

KENNEALLY: And this is Chris Kenneally for Beyond the Book and everyone at Copyright Clearance Center, wishing you a great day.