Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
It was announced last week that MacMillan, one of the Big Five publishers, bought Pronoun, the New York-based publishing start-up—but not the right to the exclusive use of pronouns in the English language. We may rest easy in that regard.
Pronoun, the company, has an interesting history. It was incorporated seven years ago, in 2009, under the name “Vook,” a portmanteau of the words “video” and “book.” The fledgling company was started not long after the launch of the iPhone (2007), and Apple’s app market (2008) created excited speculation among publishing and technology pundits that enhanced books had bright prospects and that the digital future of publishing wasn’t staid ebooks displayed on e-ink screens, like Amazon’s Kindle, but rather books as apps for smartphones full of interactivity and multimedia capabilities, read on crisp, high resolution retina screens from Apple.
Marketing guru Seth Godin was one of Vook’s early customers, as were the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Vook’s mission was to publish digital books that combine text, video and links to the Internet and social media into singular applications available both online and as mobile applications. That is also a pretty good definition of what an “enhanced ebook” is or is supposed to be.
It didn’t work out that way. How wrong the pundits were. Readers embraced ebooks in significant numbers (now a quarter to one third of the market in English-speaking countries is comprised of ebooks—less in the rest of the world), but enhanced ebooks and books as apps never took off on a large scale.
They have their place, but they haven’t set the traditional publishing, self-publishing or app developer community on fire, remaining a tantalizing lure of what is technically possible without readers embracing them in large numbers. They are a niche that is slowly finding its place. (More on how readers interact with the format will be revealed in an upcoming post.)
Vook, in its original incarnation, started withering some time ago, with its founder, Brad Inman, leaving two years ago. The company started changing direction by acquiring Byliner in 2014. More interesting, though, and maybe more central to MacMillan’s interest, was the earlier acquisition of Booklr, whose CEO, Josh Brody, stepped up to be the CEO of Vook, which was then renamed Pronoun in May 2015.
So why did MacMillan buy Pronoun? This comment from COO Andrew Weber—that is, the number two in the company, after John Sargent—stated it as follows (Weber also holds a much wider role in the global Holtzbrinck group):
“We’ve been impressed with [Pronoun’s] data, analytics, and technology capabilities and believe they will be beneficial to our publishers and authors in addition to an expanding set of independent authors.”
Macmillan’s parent, Holtzbrinck, already owns two self-publishing platforms in Germany (epubli and neobooks), so this represents an expansion into the larger US market. But these ventures haven’t been very satisfying to Holtzbrinck, according to the German trade press. They have lagged behind volume and growth expectations and the publishing imprints of MacMillan have no shortage of talent, even before looking at the best that its self-publishing subsidiaries have to offer. Rather the opposite: most large publishers have an abundance of great books they could publish with editors spoiled for choice as to what to publish next.
So the interest is really in the data and analytics capabilities, which for some time has been a strategic focus for Holtzbrinck. Thus, the core asset of Pronoun lies in its earlier Booklr acquisition, so let us have a closer look at the Booklr capabilities that Macmillan acquired:
• Price Tracking. Real-time sales rank and price tracking across multiple retailers, including historic price changes of how more than 1 million books have been priced in the past and the impact of price on sales.
• Customer Behavior. Analysis of purchase patterns for individual titles and how purchase volumes (absolute and relative to other titles) are affected by changes, such as cover, format, book description and price.
• Retailer Auditing. Monitoring retailer sales and retail sites, and benchmarking their performance to others. Alerts when product pages are down or when the same title from another publisher is sold in unauthorized territories.
We can see why a large publishing conglomerate wants such capabilities, as they are becoming increasingly core to a data-driven model of publishing. Some publishers, like Random House, have chosen to build these capabilities in-house. Recruiting tech and software talent is not easy, though, so Macmillan not only bought a technology platform to improve its core operations, but it also hired a well-oiled team of 20 people that will now move to the Flatiron Building.
It has been no secret (and is clearly expressed between the lines of the announcement) that Pronoun was financially struggling even after its recapitalization and had little prospect of raising new funding form venture capitalists, so one can presume Macmillan paid what by Silicon Valley standards was a “bargain” price. Publishing is “cheap”—we all know it. It’s the nature of our industry. Sigh.
As for Pronoun’s self-publishing platform: Mike Shatzkin, in a recent blog post, highlighted how some aspects of the industry, such as distribution, have become commodities with ever diminishing margins. Maybe Holtzbrinck is hoping that by bulking up it can create a viable global operation. Penguin Random House obviously decided to get rid of the “toxic” Publishing Solutions outfit (an entirely different and less savory kind of self-publishing “beat”) that came with the Penguin acquisition.
By all accounts Pronoun’s self-publishing platform has been at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Author Solutions. Like platform, such as Reedsy, it has put the author and author’s success first and tried to provide value for money services (at Author Solutions, it was often not clear who, other than Author Solutions, benefited).
Disclosure: Pronoun presented at the DBW workshop “Data, Analytics and Algorithms” that I organized in January 2015, and my company Jellybooks has a business relationship with various parts of the Holtzbrinck group. I have also met Andrew Weber on several occasions, though he was not interviewed for this blog post and has not been asked for comment. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and not those of any company mentioned.
Earlier posts in the data-smart publishing series:
• “The Internet of Bookish Things”
• “Reading Fast and Slow – Observing Book Readers in Their Natural Habitat”
• “Start Strong or Lose Your Readers”
• “What Books Have the X-Factor? Measuring a Book’s Net Promoter Score”
• “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, But What About Readers?”
• “How Does Age Affect Reading?”
• “8 Reasons Why People Buy Books”
• “Data Vs. Instinct – The Publisher’s Dilemma”
• “It’s the Cover, Stupid! Why Publishers Should A/B Test Book Covers”
• “Foreign Rights and Reader Analytics”
• “The Great Amazon Page Count Mystery”
• “Reader Analytics Is No Silver Bullet”
• “Will an Open Web Liberate Reading Data?”
• “Who’s Afraid of Reader Analytics?”
To get all the ebook and digital publishing news you need every day in your inbox at 8:00 AM, sign up for the DBW Daily today!