[ Edit: Reading this back, it occurred to me that what I described could also be considered a pivot, which is very much en vogue among the lean startup crowd. Since, however, there is some confusion as to what pivoting really means, I'll stick with my evolution analogy.
Just over a year ago, I was working on a new marketplace for ebooks, mostly because independent authors were being under-served by Amazon and Apple’s iBookstore.
They still are, actually, but every author I came into contact with really, really wanted to see their work sold there.
As one author put it to me, “If it’s not in iTunes, it’s not real.”
So the site struggled to get content, and without that, it didn’t attract any readers, either.
Listening to Clients
The problem (in my mind, anyway) was that the site’s clients (i.e., the authors) were asking for something that didn’t fit into my preconceived notions of what the marketplace should be:
“Can you get my book in Amazon?”
“Why did Apple reject my book?”
“Do you have connections to Amazon and iTunes?”
“Can you help me format my book?”
Eventually, though, those messages did manage to reach into my brain, and I realized something important.
People want to sell on Amazon and iTunes, but they don’t have the technical know-how to do it.
Both Amazon and iTunes require authors to submit epub files that pass validation.
Since, however, the people who wrote the epub spec insisted on going with a uncompromisingly strict approach, it created a situation where producing an epub file is easy, but getting it to validate was hard.
So while the original marketplace didn’t survive, it demonstrated a problem that needed a solution.
That led me to build a different type of site, one where authors could create valid ebooks without knowing how to program.
As I’ve written before, it’s not only popular with users, but also generates revenue.
Those Pesky Off-Topic Requests
But once again, I started getting a stream of suggestions that went against my neat worldview of what eBookBurn.com was supposed to be.
This time, it was a variation of “Can you help me sell my book?”
Unlike before, though, I didn’t have a clear vision of how I could help, or even if I could (and it’s not a problem for just independent writers: mainstream authors and established publishing companies struggle with this as well).
One author who has solved this problem is Amanda Hocking.
She admits to being baffled about why she succeeds while other, similar authors fail, and suggests a combination of “good covers” with “similar [cheap] prices”.
But Amanda’s books stand out to me for a different reason: her books have hundreds of reviews on Amazon, in stark contrast to other ebook-only titles.
And she has a strong presence on both Twitter and Facebook.
So would it be possible to mobilize people to read, review, and tweet about a given book?
Enter BookHunch.com, which I recently opened to a small set of beta users.
The basic premise is that authors and publishers submit new or pre-release books to a community of book lovers, who in turn read, review, and share their opinions.
Readers get points for participation, which determine their level of access.
Points mean privileges, including special access to content, and, eventually real-world rewards in the form of gift cards or donations to favorite charities.
And all reading is social: readers can invite their friends, with whom they can make and share notes about the book, right alongside the text.
It’s also possible just to read the book and ignore all the community aspects of the site, so even digital hermits are welcome.
On the other side, authors and publishers not only get social media exposure and explicit feedback, but also analytical reports of readers’ implicit behavior: how many pages people read, where they stopped reading, how long they took on a particular chapter, etc.
And implicit behavior is interesting, in that it probably has more to tell an author than all the written reviews and notes do.
As this notable study of netflix habits shows, people tend to claim that they want to watch highbrow films, but when it comes to choosing what to watch right now, they usually wind up with something less refined.
More likely to survive and reproduce?
The initial response for invite requests has been encouraging, and I’ve already gotten some useful suggestions.
Here’s a preview article on the Digital Reader blog.