Introducing Rooster: Bite-Sized Literature Delivered to Your Phone

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The number one reason Americans say they don’t read more: lack of time.

Half of Americans cited that impediment in a USA Today/Bookish survey released last year on reading habits. And an internal customer survey commissioned by a Big 5 publishing house also found lack of the time was the biggest barrier to reading.

But we do have time. It’s just broken up in little chunks throughout the day. Our time gets dissipated on Facebook, Twitter, email, texting, instant messaging.

As writers and readers, our San Francisco-based team felt that there was a better way to read — especially given the pervasiveness of smartphones, which have become so intimately embedded into our lives that they’ve almost become a part of our bodies.

I marveled when I started reading on the current generation of mobile readers. Books! Instantly! Anywhere you have Internet!

But over time, I came to real that these readers still largely mimic physical books, with apps descended directly from the print era. Many of the most popular reading apps even animate turning pages. Personally I found that skeuomorphism beautiful when I first saw it, but the fact that I have should itself give me pause: it’s comforting because it’s a link to the past of reading, a way to pretend that nothing has really changed. Just as early television programs were essentially radio shows transported onto the screen, the early days of digital publishing are simply replicating print publishing, failing to take advantage of the flexibility offered by the new medium.

We created Rooster, a curated reading service for your smartphone, in part to see just where that medium can take us. Some truly excellent digital storytelling experiments have already paved the way. The Silent History showed us what storytelling native to the smartphone could be — fresh, evolving, perfectly fitted to the phone. Device 6 showed how visuals and sounds could become as important to the tone of a story as the words themselves.

Established publishers understand the need to chart new storytelling territory too, and I was heartened to see at Digital Book World just how eager they now seem to figure out what fiction can become as mobile technology opens up new avenues. As Andrea Fleck-Nisbet, Workman Publishing’s digital director, said at the session “Publishers Working with Startups”, “We love working with startups.” As an independent publisher, she noted, “It’s very important for our business to find new business models and new channels.” In assessing companies, Andrea said they look at the three “Rs”:

1) Rights. Do they have the rights to the works?
2) Resources. Do they have the internal resources to get a partnership off the ground?
3) Revenues and royalties. As Andrea explained, “We have a fixed amount we have to pay our authors. We have to look at the income coming in. Based on the resources we are using internally.”

Our own approach to building a better mobile reading experience has three parts as well, but they’re not as alliterative.

First, our editorial team curates and recommends great books for you. These are books we love, and we are sharing them with you in the tradition of the great hand-selling of independent bookstores. Finding something good to read is often a daunting task.

Second, the books we share come in to you small installments that can be read in the small breaks you get throughout your day — whether on a commute or waiting on line at the supermarket. A 500-page novel may seem daunting to dig into when tackled head-on, but when broken into 15-minute segments, it seems a lot easier.

Third, we push the installments to you at a schedule which is convenient to you: whether it’s every day before work or on weekend evenings.

Like most of the people we talked to at DBW, we don’t see old and new publishing working at cross-purposes. What we heard over and over on panels and in private conversations were variations on a piece of advice a fellow startup co-founder gave me privately: “If you build the demand, the supply will come.”  Leslie Hulse, senior vice president of digital business development of Harper Collins, made much the same point from the other direction: “It was much easier to clear ebooks rights, once they started selling.”

The way we see it, the most important thing we can do for the reading economy is to create an audience of eager readers who want high-quality fiction. Our hope is that instead of procrastinating on Facebook or playing Angry Birds, people will turn to Rooster to pass their free time. So far, the idea has struck a chord with readers, who have called it “frictionless fiction” and a “more enriching use of subway time.” If we can use this “frictionless fiction” to turn some non-readers into readers, everyone in the reading economy stands to benefit.

In fact, that almost could have been the theme of DBW this year: everyone stands to benefit. It was an inspiring message to walk away with.

P. S. Rooster doesn’t publicly open its invites until next week, but Digital Book World readers can get an advance preview by signing up at readrooster.com/invites/dbw. You’ll need a device with iOS7 to run it. (No Android yet. Sorry.)

Digital Book World readers are also invited to the Rooster launch party at South by Southwest in Austin on Sunday. RSVP required. Details can be found here.

Jennifer 8. Lee

About Jennifer 8. Lee

Jennifer 8. Lee is the publisher of DailyLit and a former New York Times reporter. She is the author of the bestselling "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" on how Chinese food is all-American. She was also part of the launch team of Upworthy and was lead judge of the Knight News Challenge.

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13 thoughts on “Introducing Rooster: Bite-Sized Literature Delivered to Your Phone

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  8. Sounds like a good idea. I suspect the $4.95 price (like that of soon-to-launch Inkbok) will prove to be the sweet spot in the market. The current trend, $9.95 for subscription ebooks, will prove too much. We’ll pay more for Netflix because we can share it with others. We read books by ourselves.
    Left unsaid, here and on the Rooster website, is how authors can submit titles. My most recent book, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer, would be ideal. I deliberately wrote it with short chapters centered on a single one of my young patients. Anyone who’s cared for such children can’t help but be moved.
    This is the big question. Is Rooster ‘by invitation only.’ Or can authors ask to be included?

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