August 29, 2012

BiblioLabs' New App May Redefine Libraries and Help Charleston Become a High-tech Hub

Stratton Lawrence  /  Charleston City Paper

Castles, Trains, and Mark Twain

Move over, Random House. Step aside, Penguin. Get the hell out of the way, Knopf. The publishing world has a new king, Charleston-based BiblioLabs.

"Today, we are the largest publisher in the world," BiblioLabs CEO and co-founder Andrew Roskill declares inside the tech company's Flagship 2 offices on Alexander Street. And he has the numbers to prove it. BiblioLabs has five million books, articles, and applications in their arsenal. According to Inc. magazine, that translated into $17.5 million in revenue for the 25-employee company in 2011.

Of course, Roskill and the rest of the crew have other reasons to celebrate. _Inc. _has just recognized the Charleston-based biz as one of the country's 500 fastest growing companies. And so they threw a party to celebrate both their recognition as the seventh fastest growing media company in the country (338th overall) and the release of an iPad app they hope will be a game changer in the world of online book sales. Two other local businesses also made the list: real estate software company BoomTown, which clocked in at No. 96, and Blackbaud partner O-Matic Software (No. 118).

While their audience noshed on platters of Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ and a free-flowing keg of Fat Tire, BiblioLabs' founders projected their iPad on the wall of the FS2 (Flagship 2) offices for a show-and-tell about their new app, BiblioBoard.

The question on many attendees' minds, however, was, "What exactly does BiblioLabs do?" The release of BiblioBoard offers the clearest explanation yet.

Available as a free download in Apple's App Store, it includes three "anthologies" free of charge: Castles, Trains: The History and Pleasures of Railroading, and High Seas Adventures: A Historical Collection of Maritime Life. Each anthology contains roughly 100 books, most of which are over a century old and thus part of the public domain. A tap on the anthology takes you to scrollable icons of the book covers. Click on A Voyage of Discovery Towards the North Pole by Frederick Beechey in 1843, for example, and the pages of the original parchment spring to life on the iPad's screen, complete with any stains and discoloration from a century-and-a-half of shelf sitting –- in this case, at the British Library.

In fact, it's that relationship with the British Library that has helped BiblioLabs get moving far faster than they otherwise might have. Last August, the two organizations collaborated to launch the British Library 19th Century Historical Collection app, which took the prestigious Publishing Innovation Award at January's Digital Book World Conference in New York. The app even garnered a mention in E.L. James' Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey.

After the protagonist's lover has surprised her with an iPad, she turns it on to discover an app he's selected for her. "Holy shit! The British Library? I touch the icon and a menu appears: Historical Collection," the passage reads. "Scrolling down, I select Novels of the 18th and 19th Century. Another menu. I tap on a title: The American by Henry James. A new window opens, offering me a scanned copy of the book to read. Holy crap –- it's an early edition, published in 1879, and it's on my iPad! He's bought me the British Library at the touch of a button."

One year later, that passage could have included the collected works of William Butler Yeats, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and countless others. BiblioBoard's initial release contains 84 anthologies, a collection they're adding to by the week, with an expectation of 100 each week a year from now.

BiblioLabs' curation software, Nuvique, allows users to compile their own collections of copyright-free work on a topic. The creators estimate that a quality anthology should take about 20 hours to curate. Most of the anthologies currently available cost $16, which curators receive a 25 percent royalty from for each purchase. Among the organizations currently in the process of creating tailored anthologies for BiblioBoard are Wake Forest University, which is compiling a collection on Chilean music, and the San Diego Air and Space Museum, which is cataloging works about Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

"People sometimes scratch their heads and ask, 'How can we build a business selling old books that have been out of print for 100 years?'" says BiblioLabs co-founder and chief business officer Mitchell Davis. "What we're doing is taking pretty esoteric products that had to be discovered via a very long tail and aggregating them together into something that's more mainstream. If you ask 100 people into fly-fishing if they've ever gone on to Amazon and looked for historical books on the sport, very few probably have. But if they got an e-mail from the American Fly Fishing Trade Association that they've selected 150 historical books on fly-fishing that they think members might want to read, there's likely going to be some interest there."

Deep Roots and Celebrity Dicks

BiblioLabs isn't Roskill and Davis' first foray into publishing, and it's not their only tech startup. In 1999, the pair, along with Bob Holt, who now serves as Chairman of BiblioLabs, began BookSurge, a company that offered print-on-demand publishing. Their concept was centered around the idea that books "made to order" would be more profitable than storing a massive inventory in warehouses. Furthermore, it allowed for quick adaptations.

When a Sex and the City episode referenced the book Love Letters of Great Men and Women From the 19th Century simply as Love Letters of Great Men, Davis and Roskill immediately went online and updated the title and cover. They sold more copies in the following week than any other book in BookSurge's history. Amazon liked the print-on-demand idea as well, buying the business for $10 million in 2005. BookSurge morphed into CreateSpace, still a major employer in the Lowcountry.

After two years at Amazon, the entrepreneurs began work on their next project. Inside an 800-square-foot Cannon Street apartment with their server next to the toilet in the bathroom, they launched an array of new software and products in the digital publishing realm.

One of their creations, Project Webster, even caught the notice of a Gawker reporter, who encountered the book Celebrities with Big Dicks like Jay-Z, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, and Many More, edited by former BiblioLabs contract employee Dana Rasmussen,_on Amazon. The writer also found similar Rasmussen titles like Motorboating the Big Tits of Female Athletes like Gina Carano, Serena Williams, Malia Jones, Katarina Witt, and More and_Neurotic Jews Who Will Become Zombies like Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Howard Stern, and More.

In the Gawker article, BibloLabs' Davis explains that Project Webster used human curators like Rasmussen to collect Wikipedia and copyright-free content into published books on topics ranging from baseball to, well, big tits. Although BiblioLabs has currently suspended Project Webster, its history serves as an example of what could happen to the currently elegant collections within BiblioBoard as it attracts citizen curators. Wikipedia entries, for example, are currently off-limits, apart from their use as an introductory description of an anthology.

"At the end of the day, we want to be a platform, and we're certainly going to build ways into that for people to review and rate anthologies," says Davis. "There are natural ecosystems to police quality, but that's not to say there's not going to be challenges that emerge. This is a brand new kind of product."

BiblioLab's impressive $17.5 million revenue stream stemmed largely from print-on-demand historical books, an aspect of the company that Davis expects to soon be surpassed by BiblioBoard sales. Many of the books found within BiblioBoard are available in print via Amazon (with BiblioLabs as the seller, who then places the order with one of several print-on-demand suppliers around the globe), but Davis sees a reduced appeal in print copies once readers realize the advantage of experiencing historic books on a tablet.

"The iPad allows you to do things that would not be possible with analog books," says Davis, spreading his fingers across the tablet to hone in on a Navy football player's unzipped fly, a detail that would be difficult to spot on the same image of the 1919 squad in print. "Beyond that, for the price of a single paperback or e-book, you get this entire universe of content. It's a huge reinvention of what people would expect to get on a tablet."

In a media world where services like Netflix and Spotify allow users to pay one price for access to a vast array of movies and songs, it's logical that books would also move toward an anthology method of distribution. What Harry Potter fan wouldn't want an app that gives them access to every book, as well as thousands of images and articles about the characters and their creation process?

Still, Davis doesn't see books moving toward the same sort of subscription plan as music and films.

"Books are inherently different. They're slower to ingest, so it's very hard to get value out of a subscription," he explains, adding that he doesn't see much point in "multimedia books" that try to insert video and audio into text. "It seems silly to try to get a book to do something that the web has done perfectly for 15 years. We're not trying to make a book something that it's not. We're putting books within a universe where it's easy to move from one to another within a theme."

Silicon Harbor

Within BibloLabs' growth plan is an ongoing effort to incorporate even more contemporary authors, rather than relying solely on those whose copyrights have expired. They're currently reaching out to major publishers with the pitch that "you don't have to be a dead author to have an anthology."

Traditional publishers, however, are wary of the new technology, just as music industry reps are cursing streaming services that cut away at the last remaining dregs of album sales. The way Davis sees it, however, publishers that don't adapt to digital distribution's advances are already standing naked like the "emperor with no clothes." He cites the demise of Borders last year and a belief that Barnes & Noble will be soon to follow.

"The old publishing and book sales business models are crumbling, and it puts us in a position to be a voice of authority," says Davis. "Agents are going to be publishers. They're the people that have a relationship with an author, and now they won't have to know how to format books to bring a product to market."

Publishing's new landscape also frees up authors, allowing them to include as many photographs as they see fit and to incorporate new information and ideas that arise late in the process.

At BiblioBoard's launch, Charleston Digital Corridor Executive Director Ernest Andrade lauded the company's success as validation of his groups' efforts to dub the Lowcountry as "Silicon Harbor." Our city's growing reputation as a hotbed of tech startups is underscored by Inc.'s recognition and the growing popularity of the Corridor's Flagship and FS2 incubator office space.

Currently constructing its permanent office on upper King Street, employee-management software company PeopleMatter got its start at Flagship. Among his peers, CEO Nate DaPore praises BiblioLabs' employee-to-revenue ratio in particular. "We're seeing a real nucleus in Charleston, where we have a core group of tech companies, people going out and starting new ones, and folks moving between them," says DaPore. "That's a sign of vibrance."

By title count alone, Roskill's claim that BiblioLabs is now the largest publisher in the world may very well be accurate. The company has already gained plenty of lofty media recognition for their work, even before launching what may prove to be their truly ground-breaking product BiblioBoard.

"Honestly, I feel like BiblioLabs is 100 times more disruptive than BookSurge," says Davis. "With BookSurge, you still had to have written a book, which is a pretty high bar. In BiblioBoard, anybody with expertise or a unique outlook on a topic can curate an anthology. This is a world that's evolving at light speed."