Imagine a world in which anyone can sell ebooks and compete successfully with Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble. That’s the world Hummingbird Digital Media hopes to make a reality.
Hummingbird, a subsidiary of American West Books, was born when Stephen Blake Mettee, Hummingbird’s president, and his colleagues became inspired at BookExpo America.
“We recognized that three companies had a lock on ebook sales and everyone else was shut out,” says Mettee. “My son, Joshua Mettee, owner of American West Books, and our partner Christopher Robbins and I started talking about a way to change that.”
“Independent bookstores and others had dipped their toes into the ebook retailing market, but they hadn’t embraced less robust solutions for one reason or another,” Mettee continues. “This told us there was a need yet to be filled.”
After contemplating the idea for a couple months, Hummingbird formed and partnered with a 15-year-old company, Papertrell, to supply the technology for Hummingbird’s platform.
Hummingbird’s solution was to create a platform on which anyone can set up an online ebook storefront for free. Potential merchants can range from independent bookstores to nonprofit organizations and professional groups. Merchants get a branded storefront where they can sell digital books, and a branded app that allows their consumers to download ebooks and listen to audiobooks.
Whenever someone buys an ebook or audiobook from a merchant’s storefront, the merchant receives between 12 and 23 percent of the retail price.
“What we like to say is that we’re democratizing ebook retailing by unleashing the power of the many,” says Mettee.
For Mettee, democratizing ebook retailing is the equivalent of diversifying content and points of view.
“Amazon’s a wonderful company. We’re not anti-Amazon or anti-anybody,” Mettee says. “But when a company has 65 percent of the retail book market and close to 80 percent of ebook sales, it’s not healthy for the industry or society.”
“This is an industry based on getting information out to the public, and when there’s one giant player, they warp the industry,” continues Mettee. “We need to have a broader range of players in the industry so that people who have various outlooks on the world can get their view out.”
A challenge Mettee and his company faced was getting consumers to use the platform and buy books.
“A front-and-center challenge for Scribd, for example, is getting readers to recognize they exist and sign on. Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble can more easily reach readers because they’re already connected to large numbers of people,” says Mettee. “Hummingbird plans to have more than 2,000 merchants on board by the first quarter of 2017, each bringing their consumers into the Hummingbird universe.”
When it came to getting publishers on board with Hummingbird, Mettee says, each publisher responded differently.
“Nothing is easy in this world. Some publishers immediately said, ‘Yes, we want to be involved,’ and others—for one reason or another—were a little tougher to convince,” explains Mettee. “Some of the small publishers needed some explanation. But, overall, we had a really good experience. Today we have more than 2,700 publishers’ titles in our catalog, and many of the publishers who were looking ways for sell direct to consumers are coming on board as merchants.”
Throughout the last year, Mettee and his team have been taking steps to make sure their platform is a seamless experience, fine-tuning it to make setting up a storefront as easy as possible.
Or as Mettee puts it, “as easy as setting up a Facebook page.”
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