Digital Publishing Startups are Redefining the Industry as Amazon Maintains Lead

The pursuit of hygge during COVID-19 social distancing has forced the Tsundoko-afflicted to dust off the books in their homes, and prompted busy readers to boost e-book sales worldwide. With Amazon shifting its attention to ‘essential goods and services’ and independent bookstores suffering due to reduced footfall, digital publishing platforms and reading services are flourishing globally. According to Emma Charlton, fiction sales in the United Kingdom have had a 30% increase while sales of children’s non-fiction titles surged by 66% in the United States. Even as digital libraries such as Internet Archive and JSTOR have provided access to millions of books and journals, Seagull Books is offering a book a day to readers worldwide. The million-plus subscribed Scribd has also pitched in with free access to its library.

JSTOR - E-Book Offer
Seagull Books - E-Book Offer
Seagull Books – E-Book Offer

Although the COVID-19 lockdown has positively impacted the global e-book industry, publishing startups have been re-drawing the boundaries of the traditional printing press and conventional publishing houses for years.

BlondePlotters
The Blonde Plotters

My VLF, winner of Bookseller’s FutureBook Booktech Startup of the Year, is the global online literary festival. Launched in 2019 by The Blonde Plotters, Gwyn GB, Kelly Clayton, Deborah Carr, who found travelling to literary festivals expensive from their residence in Jersey in the Channel Islands near France, My VLF provides free access to thousands of books and author interviews, similar to a venue-based literary festival. Co-founder of My VLF, Gwyn GB says, “Although the award has not made much difference in registered users since it’s an industry award, the recognition has prompted new publishers and authors to get in touch with us.” The Covid 19 lockdown has also brought collaborations with publishers who had scheduled book launches, and cancelled British book festivals coming together for My VLF’s Big Book Weekend.

Lee Constantine (Publishizer)
Lee Constantine (Publishizer)

As with most startups, gaps in industry paradigms often precipitate identification of technological solutions. My VLF is similar to Notion Press which was established when engineers, Naveen Valsakumar and Bhargava Adepalley were unable to find a publisher despite friend Jana Pillay’s father owning a publishing house. According to Publishizer’s Lee Constantine, “96% of book proposals get rejected by agents and publishers… And many authors are left to navigate this process on their own… So Publishizer started as a way for authors to crowdfund their own advance by selling pre-order copies… All of these happens before the book is written, so it’s a very lean approach to publishing a book.”

Jasleen Khurana (Qwerty Thoughts)
Jasleen Khurana (Qwerty Thoughts)

Among start-ups taking the unconventional route in the publishing industry is Qwerty Thoughts. The social book-reading platform’s discussable format of a book enables readers to simultaneously interact with the text and other readers. Co-Founder of Qwerty Thoughts, says, “Every book is a virtual reading room. We have incorporated chat rooms plus live reading. So while you are reading, you can see who all are reading a book at that particular time. You can directly chat with them inside the book; and if you’re reading the same chapter, you can directly have a live chat on that particular chapter or that particular paragraph even which you are reading together”.

Richard Nash (Red Lemonade)
Richard Nash (Red Lemonade)

The range of publishing startups include publishing start-up veteran, Pothi.com, crowdfunding publisher Unbound, and photobook printer Binder. Co-Founder of Canelo, Michael Bhaskar’s list of publishing startups includes more than 500 companies worldwide. While many companies on Bhaskar’s original 2014 list have remained active, companies like Red Lemonade found it difficult to continue operations. Richard Nash of Red Lemonade, who was unable to raise the capital necessary for business development, explains that “One of the biggest challenges that publishing start-ups face in the East and the West is adoption cycles. It takes a very long time for publishing start-ups to scale… Any investor, they want to see activity on the platform.”

Shubhojit Chatterjee
Shubhojit Chatterjee (Binder)

B2B publisher and founder of photobook publisher, Binder, Shubhojit Chatterjee agrees that it is more difficult to retain consumer clients than business clients. Citing Pothi.com as an example of how long it takes to establish a publishing start-up, Shubhojit says, “customer relationship management is really important. Whenever a customer has an issue, we ensure we respond immediately to address their concern… And customers remember that we went the extra mile to resolve their issue.” 

 

Abhaya Agarwal (Pothi)
Abhaya Agarwal (Pothi)

Among the first Print-on-Demand companies in India, Pothi.com, has come a long way since it was established in 2008, with nearly 12000 print titles and 8000 e-books presently. Co-founder Abhaya Agarwal attributes the platform’s success to “word-of-mouth publicity. We have always prided ourselves on our customer service and transparency. Because self-publishing can be a very scammy thing… There are tons of companies making huge promises and charging large amounts. So we have always been very careful. we can under-promise and over-deliver but never the other way around.” Abhaya is also proud of being able to provide opportunities to unconventional authors including graphic novel illustrators through the Comix India collaboration.

Of course, Amazon, the tech behemoth that started the publishing disruption, is still going strong with “authors earning more than USD 300 million from the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select Global Fund in 2019, totalling more than USD 1.1 billion since the launch of Kindle Unlimited.” As Brian Heater & Anthony Ha assert, “Kindle can take credit for doing the lion’s share in changing our perception of what a book is.” As more publishing start-ups try to re-define the reading and publishing experience worldwide, the modern printing press of digital libraries and independent publishing is expected to incorporate more technological solutions that blend existing printing standards with innovations for the narrative of digital humanities.


 

COVID-19 illustration on World Map

Socio-Economic Distancing and Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of Red Death

As the Wadhawans raced across empty highways to their Mahabaleshwar retreat, media professionals across the country were furious at the flagrant disregard for the national lockdown. Accusations of crony favouritism pointed at elite privilege even as migrant workers trudged across state borders facing the uncertainty of life and livelihood. The socioeconomic distancing caused by the infectious Covid-19 has been evident not just in India but around the world. As Lorena Tacco, an Italian factory worker is quoted in Max Fisher and Emma Bubola report, “Who cares about the workers’ health, while the rich run away”, the rich sit in their high towers, mostly unaffected it seeme, similar to the protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death

 

As was true nearly two centuries ago, socioeconomic status has afforded barriers to Covid 19’s indiscriminate spread around the world. According to Irma T. Elo’s analysis of ‘Social Class Differentials in Health and Mortality’, while “educational attainment influences occupational trajectories and earnings…many researchers in public health and sociology interpret the income-health gradient to be causal from income to health,” since a decent income often “facilitates access to health-generating resources.” But Poe, the quintessential twister of tales, had other plans for Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death. Among Poe’s most allegorical works, the mid-19th century tale of social distancing delves into Prospero’s quarantine in a fortified abbey with more than a thousand royal compatriots and the celebratory mood-lifting party after months of isolation against the infection.

 

The Masque of the Red Death.jpegSet against the backdrop of the Red Death, a fictitious plague-like disease ravaging the populace in the kingdoms of Prince Prospero, The Masque of the Red Death explores the ubiquity of disease in the luxurious halls of Prospero’s royal hideout while his dominion outside, battles the burdens of widespread sickness. Describing the opulence of Prospero’s masked ball with its extravagant costumes and eclectic entertainment, Poe details the septuple imperial suite which served as the masquerade’s polychromatic venue. Furnished according to a particular colour theme, each of the seven chambers was lit by the stained glass in the Gothic window adjacent to each room, filtering light from torchfire blazing across the corridor. While the first six rooms corresponded to the colour of the stained glass in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, the seventh apartment… closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries, and scarlet panes… was ghastly in the extreme. Brett Zimmerman considers the polychromatic symbolism as alluding to the journey of life, from “blue representing Neo-Platonic notion of pre-birth and birth,” to “black as gloom, woe, death, mental degradation, criminality, and red as disease or plague, along with a red-black combination representing infernal love, egotism, and possibly even damnation.”

 

 

Perhaps the seventh room’s ebony clock itself was the allegorical representation, its dreadful hourly chime interrupting the merrymaking as the orchestra paused, the masked dancers squirmed, and it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. Coincidently, Poe’s ironic clock resonates in the apocalyptic Doomsday Clock as it presently contemplates the end of the world at “100 seconds to midnight.” The seemingly prescient Edgar Allan Poe describes the final moments of Prospero’s masquerade when the clock strikes midnight announcing the arrival “of a masked figure (who) had out-Heroded Herod” with accoutrements resembling the countenance of a stiffened corpse… besprinkled with the scarlet horror of the Red Death.” The sight of Red Death personified filled Prospero with rage, and he shouted, “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” Of course, that is not the end of Poe’s twisted tale! 

 

 

World Health Organisation - Coronavirus Tweet
World Health Organisation – Coronavirus Tweet

While the world grapples with Covid-19, it has already realised that although socioeconomic disparities can exacerbate the infectious spread, the virus is indiscriminate in its gong of mortality, as Poe stated a couple of centuries ago, “and now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night”, not unlike the coronavirus infection which had even the World Health Organisation fooled until January this year. There is still hope that the impact of Covid-19 can be curtailed, before reaching the pandemic devastation of the deadly Spanish flu in 1918, which killed more people than World War I at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. As millions cope with the havoc caused by the latest coronavirus, it must be said again– STAY SAFE! 

We Have No Time to Stand and Stare

It has been a month now since life started slowing down for me, thanks to the pandemic. With the numbers still spiking in my home state where my parents live, I wake up with anxiety and go to bed hoping for the pandemic to come to an end. However, on the other hand, despite all the extreme inconveniences, I am still grateful for things especially this standstill in our days. I now have time to sit outside my door and watch those squirrels playing around. The street dogs who happen to be my husband’s best friends tease me with their yoga stretches. I play cat and mouse with those evil cats in the neighbourhood. Every time I hear the sound of a truck, I go out without fail to check what they are selling. At times, I sit in peace watching the leaves sway, the butterflies flutter while not yielding to those big bees who try to perturb me. I soak in some sun and I keep wondering how this pandemic has taken me back by 25 years at least.

 

Growing up, we didn’t have a television at home. It was our parent’s decision that there won’t be a TV until we finished our education. In the current times, it might sound like a bigger sacrifice, except it wasn’t that big a deal when we grew up. Guests would ask why did we not buy a TV and then they would be impressed with my parents’ answer and that would be it. We did buy our first TV a few years back after me and my brother graduated. But, not having a TV at home meant that I wasn’t able to relate to Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Jungle Book or any such tele/cartoon series that my friends now feel nostalgic about. I did occasionally sneak out and catch a few episodes of Chandrakanta or Shaktimaan from my neighbour’s home, but those experiences barely make me nostalgic.

 

Instead, I followed ant trails trying to find their hidden treasure. Sometimes, I would place my little finger in the trail to see how the ants got back to their trail. Even before I learnt science, I was convinced that they left behind a secret scent for the rest of the group to follow. I would also try straightening our pet dog’s tail and see how it would stay straight before it curled back. I was also convinced that if I did it daily, it would become straight someday. In the evenings, when the koel started calling out, mimicking her used to be my favourite evening activity. But before she was koel, I knew her as “Akka Kuruvi”. Someone told me that the koel had lost her family tragically and she missed her sister dearly. Apparently, since that day she had been calling out to find her sister or Akka. That is how she came to be called the Akka kuruvi. I always responded to her hoping she will come to think of me as her Akka and be at peace someday. I was very convinced of my theory when one evening I found her outside my grandmother’s home where I was spending my summer vacation. But, now I can’t remember when the dear Akka Kuruvi went on to become koel. Anyway, coming back to my younger days, when I was done with the animals and birds, I sat outside our home and watched people who walked by but then, I grew up in a village, which meant most of the times the streets were quiet in the day time, just the way it is right now in the streets of Bangalore. So it’s no wonder that I feel like the world has gone back by 25 years.

 

That is not all. Those days without tv and with not too many friends to play with naturally led me to read. I read newspapers page to page, including the ads and obituaries. Sometimes much to my mother’s annoyance, I even read from bits of papers that came wrapped in groceries. I always finished reading my language textbooks in the first week. I read the Bible from Matthew to Revelation. And then I topped the scripture test in my school and I was given the Old testament. Again, I read from Genesis to the end. I began to borrow books from friends. I read the book their parents read, most of them, spiritual literature. When I discovered that my school had a library and they were ready to lend books to students, I was the happiest. Every Saturday post-lunch, I bugged Indrani Miss who was in charge of the library. I had a partner in crime, Tamilselvi. We always picked the biggest books in the library, two each. Those kept me going through the entire week. That’s how I ended up finishing War and Peace over a weekend in barely a day and a half. I wept through Uncle Tom’s Cabin but waited for the Saturdays to come. Saturdays became the favourite day of my weeks. Even after being introduced to TGIF, Saturdays continue to be my favourite day, and just like those days many years ago, the pandemic has blessed me with the privilege to sit down and drown myself in endless pages of words.

 

In the last few weeks, I caught myself exclaiming how there is so much peace around although my neighbourhood has always been peaceful, except for my husband’s four-legged friends. Now when I think about it, it wasn’t the peace outside. It was truly the peace from within, or should I say the meme-worthy ‘inner-peace’. Even as we continue to work from home, there is an undeniable sense of calm and quiet that has settled in these days. Even though workload continues to be the same and sometimes even worse, I must say there is less to be stressed about. I do miss the fun of being in office. I do miss going out. I do miss those movie halls I had given up on after the advent of Netflix. I do miss the chaos on the street. And there are times I am just too bored that I end up falling asleep. But despite all the inconvenience and anxieties that fill our days, there is an invisible bliss. I might sound insensitive but I am being honest that I have longed for all these running and chasing to stop for a while. I have wanted life to come to standstill and as always life has a weird way of granting your wishes. To call these days a blessing, I know is a privilege especially when the world is paying for it with thousands of lives every day. Nevertheless, I am not sorry for the strange sense of peace it brought to my doors. I shall go when my time comes just like the many others before me, but for today, I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.