Lyron Bennett, Sourcebooks
Brandi Larsen, BookCountry
John Tayman, Byliner
Karl Weber, LID Publishing
a panel discussion recorded live at Digital Book World 2014 Conference
for podcast release Monday, January 27, 2014
KENNEALLY: On behalf of Digital Book World and Copyright Clearance Center, my employer, my name is Chris Kenneally. I want to welcome you to our program today called Examining New Business Models. I appreciate your joining us.
Just to remind you about the program notes and all of this. Until very recently, the core business model of publishing was in a steady state. In fact, it had been so for a couple of hundred years. Publishers acquired copyrights, sometimes risking cash to do so by paying in advance, they printed books, and they sold them.
Complexity came over time with the introduction of new formats, hardcover, eventually followed by trade and mass market paperbacks. And in past decades, audio books became part of the mix.
In the late 1990s, though, Ingram’s Lightening Source successfully introduced print-on-demand technology, and when Amazon launched Kindle in 2007, the e-book market came of age. The combination of these two developments created an opportunity for publishing without inventory.
Now, it seems in 2014, new models roll out regularly. Publishers in topical verticals are creating subscription offers, they are working with other suppliers of services for the same, and even selling memberships. They’ve created live events and tickets to readers to meet their authors.
Over the next 45 minutes here, we will discuss with innovative publishers what they are trying to do and how their new approaches move beyond simply selling books one at a time.
I’d like to introduce our panel here. Moving from the very far end, we have Lyron Bennett. He’s the business manager of Put me in the Story from Sourcebooks. Lyron, welcome.
BENNETT: Thank you.
KENNEALLY: Sourcebooks’ Put me in the Story is a personalized book platform that connects people to the brands, characters, and books they love in new and powerful ways. Lyron’s role is focused on creating partnerships with best-in-class content providers.
Earlier, he was the first editor of Sourcebooks’ Jabberwocky, the children’s imprint of Sourcebooks, as well as a business development manager for Sourcebooks’ EDU, the education division of Sourcebooks.
We encourage tweeting here, and I’ll try to give the handles for each of the panelists here. Lyron is on Twitter at PutMeInTheStory, and the hashtag of course for Digital Book World is #DBW14.
To Lyron’s left is Brandi Larsen. She’s director of Book Country. Welcome, Brandi.
BRANDI: Hi, Chris.
KENNEALLY: Book Country is the online writing and publishing community from Penguin Random House that connects writers to each other, gives them resources to write their best books and to publish. She’s on Twitter at BrandiLarsen, all one expression.
Then to her left is John Tayman, the founder and CEO of Byliner. John, welcome. Byliner is an online publisher of original fiction and nonfiction by some of the world’s best writers, including bestsellers by Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood, Jon Krakauer, and the list goes on to Sebastian Younger and many others. These Byliner originals are written to be read two hours or less and are sold in major digital bookstores and by subscriptions.
What’s interesting about John, and we’ll talk about this, is that prior to founding Byliner in June 2011, he contributed to many award-winning publications including Outside, GQ, Time, and The New York Times Magazine, and his bestselling nonfiction book, The Colony, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize. He is on Twitter at MotorMouths.
And finally to my right is Karl Webber. Karl, welcome.
WEBBER: Thank you.
KENNEALLY: He is chairman of the U.S. editorial committee of Lid Publishing – that’s L-I-D Publishing – which specializes in business books. He is also a writer and editor, specializing in topics from business, politics, current affairs, history, and social issues. His projects have included the New York Times bestseller, Creating a World Without Poverty co-authored by Mohammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.
He is also co-writer for the number one bestseller What Happened Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan, which he edited, rather, and as well, three bestselling companion books to acclaimed films, Food, Inc., Waiting for Superman, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, all of which he edited. He is on Twitter at KWebberLid.
With all of that by way of introduction, John Tayman, I do want to start with you. It’s an interesting story for Byliner. I wonder if you could start by very briefly telling us why you decided to go into the publishing business after being such a successful author. Why would you get into a business that’s having such a dramatically challenging moment?
TAYMAN: This is going to sound very self-centered, but I wanted to start a company that was solving some of the problems that I always experienced as a writer and as a reader. I’ll repeat what you said. Byliner, we work directly with leading authors to deliver their stories to readers. Our emphasis is on stories that can be read in a single sitting, two hours or less. And we use the authors themselves to personalize the reading experience, which is primarily on mobile. We’re subscription-based, but we have a retail strategy as well.
The primary thing, as soon as everything moved to digital, the lack of flexibility to write a book the size that I wanted, release it when I wanted, how I wanted, led me to start Byliner.
KENNEALLY: I suppose it’s important to point out that in the mobile environment, books are competing with all types of media, and you have an emphasis on this notion of something that can be read – can be consumed, if you will – in about the time it takes to sneak away and see a movie some afternoon.
TAYMAN: Yes, that’s exactly right. We consider ourselves in many ways an entertainment company, and our competitors are Netflix and Spotify and Pandora. We want to be able to fit a perfect story into the reader’s life at the moment that they can most appreciate it. It may be 20 minutes on their commute, it may be 90 minutes in bed at the end of the day.
KENNEALLY: That’s a different way of thinking about the experience for the reader, but talk about the business model. That’s our title today. We’re examining new business models. Can you give us an idea about the real intrinsic differences that Byliner has from traditional publishing?
TAYMAN: Well, on the publishing side, there probably isn’t all that many. We function as a digital publisher, so we do many of the same things that you guys have been doing forever. We will work with authors to generate story ideas or to talk with them about various things, so we commission original fiction and nonfiction. The main difference is that it is always in that 5,000-30,000 word space. And if it’s nonfiction, we at times pay assignment fees.
The thing that’s interesting about it is it gives the authors flexibility and opportunities that they hadn’t necessarily had in the past. A good example, one of our first books was Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, and we timed that specifically to a 60 Minutes episode. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a book about Greg Mortenson and three cups of tea. But because it was built from digital up, eight hours after he finished it, we had it in the bookstores.
With authors like Margaret Atwood, she’s using Byliner to serialize her new novel, Positron, so it’s been coming out in episodes every few months.
Just the flexibility that they have, and then the consumers can just enjoy it however they want.
KENNEALLY: Right. Brandi Larsen from Book Country, tell us a bit more about what Book Country is offering to authors. It’s much more than a self-publishing experience, although that is part of it.
BRANDI: True. What we do in terms of traditional publishing versus what we do, we don’t secure copyrights, we don’t leverage a print inventory. The things in our business, we have three components. We help writers workshop their books, we help writers find their first audience and connect with each other, and we give them a place to self-publish.
Where we align in terms of the overall thrust of our work is really bringing better books into the world.
KENNEALLY: This workshopping notion, it’s about the readers in that community of Book Country – and something like 13,000 authors are now enrolled – being able to evaluate their competition, if you will, and they do a lot more than just say, that’s great or that isn’t so great.
BRANDI: Yes. I would say that instead of evaluating their competition, I think really what they’re doing is they’re understanding the genres in which they’re writing. We’re open in over 60 different genres, and one of the things that we do is we’re connecting people to each other and we’re helping them to understand what they’re writing in. So the feedback that they’re getting isn’t, yeah, I loved it, it was good.
A writer comes and they post their book to Book Country. It’s a work that’s in progress. They’re working on their manuscript and other people come and give them real feedback. What we’re seeing in terms of feedback is we’re seeing six drafts that people are putting up, and we’re seeing about 5.8 pieces of critique.
And they’re really long critiques. They’re looking about 500 words, so they’re really getting a true sense of what the book is about, the plot points, and to help them when they go back to restructure their draft to figure out how to make this book better and to make it a more sellable book as they move forward into whatever means of publication that is best for that book and that person at that time.
KENNEALLY: So the workshop environment is at the core of it, but talk about the business model for Book Country. How do you engage your customers and sell them services and so forth?
BRANDI: Self-publishing is one of the aspects, and that helps to power the overall community of what we’re doing, so there are those two different aspects to it. But really, the community is at the heart of what we do.
KENNEALLY: Moving on to Lyron Bennett then with Put Me in the Story, you could tell us a bit more about it, Lyron, and how it’s making an offering that is so thoroughly different from the traditional model that we were talking about, as Brandi recapped, acquiring copyrights, publishing an inventory, putting it into stores.
BENNETT: Sure. I think strategically, what Sourcebooks has been trying to achieve with all of our new business models is we’re really stressing internally the need to provide additional value to authors and retailers simultaneously, value that’s going in both directions.
The reason that we started Put Me in the Story was that when we looked at the totality of our sales, we saw about 70 percent of our sales coming out of print books, about 30 percent of our sales coming out of e-books. But when you drill down into those numbers, we saw that 54 percent of our adult fiction list was coming out of e, and only 3 percent was coming out of children’s. So to us, there was an obvious and real opportunity to create a digital enterprise, a fully digital enterprise, for children’s books that would really enhance those numbers.
So we created Put Me in the Story. Put Me in the Story is an e-commerce platform and an app, so it’s a full ecosystem. It pushes in both directions. It creates print-on-demand, one-off personalized titles for people both in the app, and we will print and ship you one.
For Put Me in the Story, what we’ve seen is that this has been truly additive revenue, and that is great news. After a year, we’re happy to report that we really have, I think, found a digital children’s model that’s truly additive. The authors are seeing new revenue out of this revenue stream, and the books that are on Put Me in the Story that we’re really supporting through online marketing had better sales at retail.
So for us, what we’re looking at is really a win-win, value in both directions.
KENNEALLY: This kind of personalized book isn’t so much a new idea, really. I was telling a friend about it and he remembered 25 years ago getting something like this from his grandmother.
KENNEALLY: And he was able to find it at his house, so people do really make keepsakes out of these things.
What’s new about the digital environment that you want to share with this audience here, and in particular how it will be shaping the business model that Sourcebooks is using for this?
BENNETT: That’s a great question, and you’re absolutely right. We hear it all the time and there’s people in my life who’ve had the same experience who’ve shown me personalized books that they got from the ’70s where you cut out a picture and you paste it in and you write the children’s name throughout.
Well, there’s some obvious technological things that we do to make that easier, uploading pictures, filling out fields and having the personalization flow throughout, being able to preview the entirety of the book on Put Me in the Story.
What separates, I think, what we’re trying to do from many of the other people who have tried in this space in the past and up till now is that we’re starting with bestselling content, content that we really know works for parents and children. Very rarely are we trying to build from the ground up something brand new, and when we do, we want to use really high-powered IPs to do it.
We’re partnering with Hello, Kitty and Sesame Street and Peanuts to create personalized experiences in those licenses. So for us, I think the real difference between what we’re doing and what’s been done before is really starting with that incredible content, content that moms and dads and kids already love.
KENNEALLY: All right. What’s interesting is the transition to Karl Webber. You’re talking about a kid holding a book in his hand or her hand and really being proud of that and really feeling excited by the fact that their name is in the book. You get a similar kind of response from your authors, only they’re a little bit different. Tell us about who your authors are at Lid Publishing.
WEBBER: Sure. Thank you. The quick and easy way to describe Lid is as a specialized publisher, which is somewhat correct but also very misleading. The Lid model was originated actually 20 years ago now in Spain. It since has migrated to 10 countries around the world. We’re in the process of establishing it here in the States.
What we’re trying to do is take a fresh look at what specialized publishing means. Traditionally, when you talk about specialized publishing – in our case, it’s business book publishing – people think of it as meaning that you’re going to restrict the kinds of books you do to a narrow subset of possibilities, in this case business books. Obviously, that would be building a business model by subtraction, which severely limits what you’re able to do and the revenues that you’re able to create.
Instead, Lid has asked, what can we do to redefine specialized publishing in terms of providing a broad array of services to a relatively specific market, in our case, a community of business authors, business readers, and business publishers.
We’re trying to answer that question through actually two different businesses. One is Lid Publishing itself and the other is a business that we’ve recently launched called Blue Bottle Biz, and I’ll take a minute to describe each of the two and explain how they interact.
Lid Publishing publishes traditional business books, but one thing that we specialize in is doing sponsored business books where we are working with an author to meet their objectives in creating a business book, which are usually quite different from those of a traditional author such as an author of fiction or children’s books.
In the case of a business book author, most often they’re writing the book not so much to sell books as to build their business, to get a message out about the marketplace, to get themselves better known. What Lid will do when it sits down with an author or a company is help them figure out, can a book make sense as part of your communications strategy to the world? Can we help you build a business, expand your reputation, and so forth? What kind of book would do that?
We provide the editorial guidance to help them achieve that, and then after publication, a complete array of publicity and PR services, which include not only the traditional getting book reviews and interviews with the author, but also helping them set up workshops, seminars, a whole array of things.
What we’re doing is helping them customize the book publishing process in such a way that that it helps them meet their business goals.
KENNEALLY: But Karl, if I can get in there and just make a point for you, which is that this is not a vanity press environment. We’re certainly familiar with all sorts of sales people publishing their books, but you’re talking about something that really is, if I could put it this way, a curated experience.
WEBBER: Yes, very much so. One of the reasons I’m involved with Lid is I’ve been in the business book world for close to 30 years now, and I’m involved to help ensure that everything that we publish at Lid in the United States is going to be to the highest possible editorial standard. And in fact, if that weren’t the case, the value of the Lid imprint on a book would rapidly go downhill.
The other business that we’re currently launching is Blue Bottle Biz, which offers several other ways for us to serve this three-part community. It’s a digital platform for an online library which companies and individuals can subscribe to where they’ll have access to – the recent count is 50,000 business books from 70 different publishers representing 80 percent of the market. They’ll have all kinds of interactive tools that they can use to create their own customized business books for use by their employees and by their clients.
What we found is that publishers are very excited about this as a new way of reaching and serving both authors and business book readers. What we’re looking at is a community approach to specialized publishing where we’re thinking about all the people who are participating in this world and asking ourselves, what do they really want? And then trying to find ways to achieve that.
KENNEALLY: And as far as the business model itself goes then, you really are relying on that business, that professional community.
KENNEALLY: Can you see this working in other categories of publishing?
WEBBER: I would think so, anyplace where there’s a very defined community of readers, authors, and publishers who have special needs that you can identify and meet. That might work in the romance world or the world of historical fiction. Those of you who have experience in all those different areas of publishing can apply your own creating thinking to that.
KENNEALLY: All right. John Tayman, talk about the publishing enterprise that you’ve now found yourself in the middle of with Byliner. To what extent is this expandable, as we were just discussing with Karl? Are you really going to stay in that niche with the short experience? Just talk about whether it supports a whole publishing enterprise.
TAYMAN: Sure. We think the main opportunity is in this time-sensitive reading, especially as things move to mobile. People pick up their cell phones, they pick up their iPads and whatnot in a different way, so providing a start-to-finish reading experience for that user at that time is the big opportunity. That said, the catalogue of things that’s in the library, the subscribable Byliner library, includes things that are beyond two hours or so.
But we’re finding the most traction, the most enthusiasm, the most excitement is around I’m sitting in, I’m dialing in, I’ve got 25 minutes. We know your favorite author. We know what you’ve been reading. We know what your favorite author has been reading. We personalize the experience, drop that story in for you so that you can have that thrill, that dopamine hit, of hitting the end every time you’re interacting with our product.
KENNEALLY: Lyron Bennett, what about that notion of supporting a whole enterprise here? Again, you started in a specific area. Put Me in the Story is focused on the children’s experience because of the success you’ve seen in the print side of things and the potential around digital with apps. But are you expecting this to grow in any particular direction or really sort of expand the offering as far as the licensing and the kinds of variety of offerings?
BENNETT: The way that we look at digital is really that digital works best in verticals, period. So, all the models that we are working on, including all of the new things that we’d like to do with Put Me in the Story, are really verticals-based.
We recently announced that Anne Geddes had joined Sourcebooks. Anne is an incredible, incredible author and photographer for a very particular baby environment and a particular kind of customer. For us, one of the real opportunities we saw right out of the gate was to build a baby version of Put Me in the Story, if you will, a baby vertical inside of Put Me in the Story, tag it, keep it as a separate tab, keep the experience similar, but have Anne Geddes as the tent pole within that.
So for us, we really do think that digital works best in verticals. We’re going to keep our verticals.
KENNEALLY: But as far as the publishing enterprise that you’re building along the way here, you’ve had some interesting experience on the customer service side of things, which I think is interesting, because you’re moving beyond the traditional relationship with the bookstores and now working directly with Grandma and Grandpa.
BENNETT: Yes, that was actually a real learning experience for us and something I think when you look at does your new business model, is it going to require new things of your company, there were certainly things that we could anticipate when we were doing Put Me in the Story, but we had an incredible promotion that we did over a two-week period where we had sold 30,000 vouchers.
So for 30,000 vouchers in two weeks, what was amazing to us was the incredible incoming customer care that was required, and exactly as you said, our customer service team had been built in a traditional publishing way as a means to service bookstores, libraries, our core customer. So when that all was inbound for us, they really had to pivot on a dime, and I mean pivot in the course of about five and a half hours, and a real testament to how agile that group was.
It’s not always a group that you believe needs to be an incredibly agile part of your business, but man, do they ever. This is why your whole enterprise needs to be agile, is because we weren’t able to anticipate that. Maybe if we had a little more foresight, we could have, but the bottom line was, in about five hours, they had gone from their normal call volume to about six times their call volume, and then again to 12 times their call volume.
And now, at the far other end of that time frame, they have a call center that they run. They are fully functional as a customer care unit, as somebody who’s very accustomed to dealing with an individual customer who’s trying to figure out how to upload a picture into Put Me in the Story.
KENNEALLY: And Brandi Larsen at Book Country, workshopping and self-publishing has been most successful so far in the digital age in genre fiction, and there’s reasons for that and you could talk about that a bit. But I know that Book Country has now expanded the types of genres that it is working with. Does that change the business for you?
BRANDI: It definitely changed the scope. When we started, it was really important to us that we started inside genre, because we knew that people in genre were comfortable workshopping their books online with strangers. They knew, they understood, what the Internet was. It wasn’t the two hops of let me explain to you how to upload something, and then let me also explain why you’re comfortable.
So we were able to create a community that understood the Internet, believed and felt value from it immediately, and also set a tone that we really wanted. That tone was really one of collaboration.
As we expanded out this year, we’re now in 60 different genres, the majority of fiction, all of their sub-literary categories, but also some of the ones that we’re seeing pop up like memoir, narrative non, and also travel, because we wanted to give people the ability to collaborate with each other. So we chose literary categories that would help people where there value would be needed.
It would be interesting, Karl, to hear how as you create a community around business, how those two communities function and work as an ecosystem.
KENNEALLY: And in this 13,000-member community, we could have people commenting on work that’s like their own work, but also commenting on work and working with writers who are really doing something very different from their own work.
BRANDI: Yes, and that’s been one of the things that’s fascinating. I think writers as a whole can switch genres, and writers who are writing in one genre generally really understand what they’re doing, but there are also some tenets of writing that are true whether you’re writing a romance piece or you’re writing new adult or even if you’re writing sci-fi or YA. So being able to cross those genres and really to see writers give each other support around their work has been really fascinating.
KENNEALLY: Right. And I know the way that Book Country talks about it is you’re building readers, but you’re also building their first fans, and that seems an important part of the model.
BRANDI: And I think that’s been one of the things that we had set up at the front and we’re just starting to see happen. We had a writer whose book was traditionally published by Penguin, and we saw her hit the BookScan lists immediately upon her debut novel. We also saw the community of Book Country, the writers mobilizing all across social media. They were inside our walls, but then they went out and they were on Goodreads and they were on Twitter and they were on Facebook, and we saw them saying to each other, giving reviews, this book is really great. You should buy it.
We saw that and then we also see it in our own bookstore. For Book Country authors who have workshopped their book with Book Country and then chosen to self-publish, we’ve seen them have more sales than other writers in the store.
KENNEALLY: That speaks to the real value there of community in Book Country. Karl Webber, when it comes to the infrastructure that Lid needs to be successful, you’ve spoken about it very briefly. Perhaps you could tell us more about it. There’s an editorial side of things and then there’s what I’ll call the promotional, press, media relations piece of it. You’ve had to build both parts of that to be successful.
WEBBER: Yes, very much so. In some cases, it’s taking some of the skills that traditional publishers have always practiced and just expanding, specializing, and increasing those. For example, Lid has its own unique speakers bureau, which actually arranges speaking appearances for our authors, something that, again, most publishers are not able to do.
We’ve also had to take some of the traditional publishing skills and accelerate them. One of the frustrations that many business book authors have is the length of time between submitting a manuscript and getting a book published. At Lid, we’ve been able to cut that in half in most cases.
We provide expert authorship and editorial services to people who want to create a book and have the expertise, but don’t necessarily have the ability to write the book.
In addition, on the Blue Bottle Biz side, we’ve had to develop quite a few software and networking infrastructure tools that will enable both the authors and the readers of the books to work interactively with the content so that at Blue Bottle Biz, not only do we have 50,000 business books available, but also other kinds of information such as government statistics, reports from government agencies, reports from brokerage firms and consulting companies so that a client of Blue Bottle Biz is able, for example, to pull together a special report on a topic that’s of interest to them, let’s say quality control. They can pick 12 chapters from 12 books from 12 different publishers, combine it with statistics from government reports, make it into a unique e-book that only this company’s clients have access to, do this quickly and simply using our infrastructure, and without having to get permission from all those different sources.
That was something we had to specially create and something that, again, facilitates the serving of this unique community easily and quickly.
KENNEALLY: With that Blue Bottle model, it sounds like a kind of iTunes for e-books.
WEBBER: That’s a good comparison, and because of the fact that we’re specializing in this business niche, it means we’re able to meet the special needs of that audience better than I think anyone who was trying to do it on a more general basis would.
KENNEALLY: I’m particularly interested in the point you made before about the speed to market and the frustration that traditionally the authors would have experienced because it just took so long to see something out there in the public. What kind of time frame are we talking about? How quickly can you get a book out?
WEBBER: Usually we can go from manuscript to books in bookstores and available digitally in something closer to three to four months as opposed to the six to nine months that most publishers require.
KENNEALLY: John Tayman, when it comes to infrastructure, Byliner has to work with authors and agents to be able to pay them out their royalties in both the e-book side of things and the subscription side of things. You’ve had to build some infrastructure around all that. Can you talk about that?
TAYMAN: Sure. Our primary relationship is with the author whenever possible. We’re a by-invitation publishing arm for top authors, but we also deal with leading publications. We have a co-publishing agreement with The New York Times. We’ve done co-published books with Esquire and New York and McSweeney’s and whatnot. If a piece of content enters Byliner, we track who the primary rights holder is, and if we’re selling via retail, we’ll divvy up the spoils that way.
We track page reads through our subscription service as well.
One of the things that we try and do with these authors is change the metabolism of their relationship with their readers, and we make use of their periodical work to do so, almost as lead generation for their longer things, whether it’s a longer title that’s with their traditional publisher or whether it’s one of our size titles that we’re doing as Byliner originals.
It allows the reader to get fresher content at a higher rate. For somebody who is attuned to going to Amazon or iTunes or into their bookstore once every six months because their favorite author is publishing only once a year or once every two years, it gives them a reason to think about that byline, to think about that writing, and to deploy some of their really wonderful writing that may not be accessible anywhere else but Byliner and use that to tighten the relationship.
And then you open up the community of readers that this aggregate of authors has, very much in the way that Brandi was talking about, so you have an almost cooperative social marketing arm to the company, too.
KENNEALLY: John, you introduced Byliner by saying you were trying to solve some problems that you experienced as an author yourself. I wonder if you can look specifically at that whole royalties, management service that you’ve got to pull together there. That must be a point of real concern for authors and their agents at this particular moment, and when you put that together, did you build it inside Byliner, or how did you manage that?
TAYMAN: Yes, we did. It’s our own system. We built it from the ground up. We built it to accommodate whether it’s periodical work, whether it’s a bylined original fresh work that’s done specifically for us, or whether it’s work we’re distributing through the Byliner ecosystem, and then on top of that, whether it’s a relationship Byliner has directly with the author.
We’re not a self-publishing platform, but we have some of our top authors that are doing projects directly through us even as they’re maintaining projects with their traditional publishers or publication. So we’ll have relationships directly with the author, we’ll have relationships with their publisher in some cases. In some cases, the arrangements are agented, in others they are not. So there’s a whole matrix of different things, and they may have 100 pieces of content that fall under 16 different matrixes that we track and pay.
So it’s much more contemplated than I naively thought at the very beginning, but now that we’ve built it out, it’s very powerful because we can use the data in all sorts of different ways. We can do services for some of our partners, and there’s a level of transparency in an interesting way that empowers the authors.
KENNEALLY: Complexity of rights and royalties is something we understand at Copyright Clearance Center, so I feel your pain.
Lyron Bennett, when it comes to the infrastructure required to make Put Me in the Story successful, I suppose customer service was a piece of that. There were some things you could anticipate and some things you couldn’t anticipate. You probably didn’t anticipate the explosion in the call volume. Tell us about some other things that have happened that you either prepared for or just found happening to you.
BENNETT: Sure, things we did right and things we learned, basically. I think when you look at infrastructure, what’s required to go about your new business practices, I do think by and large, you’re going to be able to anticipate some of it, and some of it’s going to surprise you. I think that’s the nature of it.
Outside of Put Me in the Story, when we wanted to take the number one college guide in the country, the Fiske Guide to Colleges and we wanted to create the Fiske interactive college guide as both an app and a Web service, we knew that there would be some new infrastructure we could anticipate.
We knew that we needed app developers and Web developers. We needed new ways to slice and dice the content. We wanted to build the content out into a database, so on and so forth. That we were able to anticipate, and we really chose very early on in almost all of these instances to do that internally, to bring that expertise in-house so that rightfully, we could build on that expertise as we went along to do any of the other things that we wanted to do.
For Put Me in the Story specifically, I think the largest change in infrastructure took place at the content level, what I think traditionally would be called production, which we call content delivery. I think that speaks a lot about the way that we are trying to think about how infrastructure impacts new business models. We want to be a company that delivers you content. Producing a book is one of the ways that we do that.
Put Me in the Story added 696 hours of new content delivery work. That team took that work on. It’s 17 and a half business weeks additional. They took that work on and they had to go look, and they said, OK, here’s the efficiencies we can add, and here’s the new resources we need.
I think customer service is a great example of what happens when you get surprised and you learn. I think the content delivery team’s a great example of what happens when you have transparency down to the work-hour level and your team can say, here’s what we have to do and this is what it’s going to take. We’ve always chosen to build those additional resources in-house. All of that has stayed in-house.
So for us, the new infrastructure challenges are really exciting. It’s what allows us to flex our agile muscles.
KENNEALLY: Right. We’re talking about new business models here, and it strikes me that though the panelists we have are all in one way or another calling themselves publishers, but the competition you have now, Lyron – and I think this is true for everybody else here – is really beyond publishing and books itself. Talk about that and the specific example of Put Me in the Story. When Grandma or Grandpa gets on there and wants to get a very special gift for the grandchild, they’re not looking for a book particularly.
BENNETT: Absolutely. I think you said it great, and I think John alluded to this when he said his competition is Netflix.
Again, I think this is things you can anticipate and things that are going to surprise you. When we started Put Me in the Story, we knew that there were people in this space in personalized books. We knew that. We knew that going in. We were able to anticipate that there would be other places that you could do this.
But I think you hit the nail on the head. What we’ve learned a year later is, our competition is really anywhere and everywhere online you can buy a great gift. We’re competing with anything that you would want to give to your grandkid as a keepsake.
So for us, that understanding, when the switch flipped for us and we said, OK, you know what? Our competition isn’t just X and Y companies that are engaging in similar enterprises to us. Our competition is really all of these companies who are vying for the time. That was a huge boon to us moving forward.
That really let us drill down to the most important thing. What does my customer want? And I think in the case of Put Me in the Story, we believe we have an answer, which is they want to buy the best gift possible. And when you get to that question, what does my customer want, that you can orient your whole business around.
KENNEALLY: And Brandi Larsen, you’ve got lots of obvious competitors in the self-publishing field, but to that question that Lyron just put, which is what does my customer want, I think the way Book Country answers it is, they want to be able to write the best book possible, and that’s the distinguishing factor for you from any other self-publishing outfit.
BRANDI: That’s it exactly. We feel like we’re a third way. Book Country removes that isolation that writers have with publishers. It removes the isolation that they feel from other writers. By doing that and by having them work together, we have this new process where they can create better books, and by that, we all benefit because it means there are better books that are coming out into the world.
KENNEALLY: And Karl Webber, for you, that whole notion of competing with self-publishing, it sounds to me like for the professional, for the business person, being their own publisher is kind of that old adage about when you’re your own attorney, you have a fool for a client.
WEBBER: It’s interesting. As our model has evolved, I think what we’ve found is that we are both competing with and cooperating with other business publishers, the McGraw-Hills and John Wileys of the world, but also with every other source of business information, which could be companies that do newsletters, seminars, workshops, and also public relations and publicity firms. All of them work with us cooperatively, and there are times that they offer services that are in some way parallel to what we do.
In a sense, competition is not quite the right word. That’s the ecosystem in which we now participate.
KENNEALLY: Fair enough. I want to move out into the audience right now to see if we have any questions from the floor for our panelists. If you want to raise your hand, I’ll come to you with the microphone. Any questions at all? Well, you’re going to go out and start your own new business based upon what you’ve just heard then, it sounds like.
I want to take an opportunity to thank our panelists today, Karl Webber. He’s the chairman of the U.S. editorial committee of Lid Publishing, John Tayman, who is CEO and founder of Byliner, Brandi Larsen, director of Book Country from Penguin Random House, and Lyron Bennett, business manager of Put Me in the Story from Sourcebooks. Thank you all, and thank you for coming.
BRANDI: Thank you.