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.


 

Siamese Compassion Cover Art

‘Reviewing’ Poetry with Siamese Compassion


Is it possible to ‘review’ poetry? Every time I sit to write about poems or stand to speak about poetry, this question confounds me. A friend sent a poem of his about 4-5 years ago and asked for my opinions. I read it, a critic would have perhaps trashed it owing to its form. I asked my poet friend if he had written what he thought of and what he thought like. He said yes. I told him it was good. With poems as with any other form of writing, I try to see through the feelings and the honesty in expressing them. If there is a match, I am up for more from you. However, if I find a mismatch or if I feel that the work has become a matter of form over emotions, I am turned off.

The category where form dominates feelings – I call it ‘attempt to poetry’. Attempt to poetry and poetry stand so close at times that it is often impossible to distinguish between the two. Most often attempt to poetry passes off as poetry and readers end up spending time either reading structures, rhymes, rhythms, cadences, and meters or bore themselves to dislike poetry once and for ever. Like for any other form of creativity, it is sad but it is true. I have never attended a poetry workshop, so I keep wondering what they teach there. Teaching to read and write your feelings? Must be an arduous task.

Now, to ‘review’ poetry is in a way reviewing emotions. ‘Reviewing’ poetry is ‘reviewing’ the innermost expressions whispered from the communion of mind and the heart – technically possible but spiritually speaking, it can only be an ‘attempt to review’. To review what the poet views is not plausible unless you become one with the expressions of his poems. One may decide for himself how easy or difficult that is.

I wrote a reply to the poet singing his songs inside the pages of the book that I have on my monitor at present. It is I believe the final draft of the book in a pdf form and has been published in kindle and paperback versions on amazon. The paperback version is a tad heavy on your wallet. The kindle version is sweetly priced and you may want to own it at the earliest. The reply was an answer to the poet on his enquiry on the status of the review that I had committed myself to. The ‘review’ comes much delayed than expected on a ‘conventional scale’ of time as I was reading the poems slow. While Kafka turned into a vermin while writing Metamorphosis, I turned into a snail while reading Kaushal’s poems. I was hit by the strongest of forces ever known to humanity – the force of reality – the nice, the ugly, and the vulgar. I withdrew like a snail each time on being hit, I came out again after some time until at last, the repetition of the lyrical attack found a pattern and I became used to the world of Siamese Compassion. Kaushal Suvarna wanted to check on the progress of review. I offered him my thoughts on ‘reviewing’ as excuse to buy more time and continue with my withdrawal-perseverance game with his creations.

The poems make you think about a lot of things, about a lot of people, about a lot of lives, and about a lot of hypocrisies we exhibit while living this life. From the cover to back and back, the reader never feels left at the mercy of an idealist. You are on a journey of reality and the poet puts you in the zone and leaves you alone there by the end of every poem. You have two options in that room – you either say this is enough and quit or you decide that you want to continue. If you quit, the stage of realism is auto-saved in your mind and you can always come later to resume from where you left. You will find the poet with his arsenal of realism-devices standing there, waiting for you. In case you choose to continue in the world of stark realities, you find the poet standing there nevertheless. However, he doesn’t make a promise to stay with you in between the pauses of two creations. He leaves again by the end, leaving you alone with your thoughts. Now, you have the same two options again. Either way, you will have to come back and continue. If you are not prepared to die today, you will come back to die tomorrow.

If you ask for my suggestion on where to start, start with the title-poem ‘Siamese Compassion’ and then spread your wings toward other pages in the book.

“Sure, one man’s martyr
Is another one’s terrorist
And horses must be shod
And bulls castrated for their own benefit
For society’s a venomous centipede
Whose legs can’t be knocked off the stool
Lest we all tumble in mindless anarchy

 You may have suffered greater tortures than I
Your degree of fortitude may be greater than mine
But I felt your cuts deeper
While you endured in silence
Are we not both brothers in pain?”

(Siamese Compassion, reproduced from Siamese Compassion by Kaushal Suvarna)

These thoughts must have matured through myriads of experiences of life and the shape they have taken in the poems of Siamese Compassion, make Kaushal one of my favorite contemporary poets of the present time. He is honest with his feelings and hence naturally, feelings gain primacy over form, not that I have any complaints against the form. It is also a sad commentary over our system that promotes a superstar culture where mediocre works are making millions through traditional publishing while such work of finesse has to be self-published. I don’t want this book to get lost in oblivion. The poems are to be read on loop until we see through our sins and take the first step towards washing them away. Once more, that brings me to a question. Is it possible to wash away our sins? Is there a hope somewhere to live a life untainted by the artificial idealism that we are born in and taught about but keep violating all our lives? You might have to turn to this book to find that out.

 

The problems of Vishu Mishra!

Vishu Mishra is out in the world with his second book, named as Beauty, Youth & A Beautiful Mind: An insight into the urban blights of our age. A short, swift read that this book is, I couldn’t take my eyes off until the last drop of words had been assimilated. However, this book is not a fiction, the swiftness is the high point of the narrator and not necessarily the subject’s. The subject matter runs risks of getting prosy-dry and preachy-wry if not dealt deftly. To mull on some of the most in-our-face problems of present times powered with his skills of a master storyteller is what the author does Continue reading “The problems of Vishu Mishra!”