Shelfie CEO: Books Should Be ‘Format-Shiftable’

ShelfieShelfie is an app that allows users to take a photo of their bookshelves and get ebook and audiobook versions of physical books they already own for free or at a low cost. The app also gives personalized recommendations based on the idea that the best recommendations come from a full picture of the books readers already own and how readers naturally organize their books—essentially, a photo (or selfie) of one’s personal bookshelf.

“Every time we look at a ‘shelfie,’ we look at what else is on the shelf and say, ‘Oh! That’s really cool,’” says Peter Hudson, Shelfie’s co-founder and CEO. “It’s the experience of being at a friend’s house and looking through their bookshelf.”

Hudson believes this offline data of people’s bookshelves is a great discoverability algorithm.

Today, Shelfie has titles from more than 1,200 publishers and recently partnered with US audiobook distributor Findaway to host audiobook bundles of select titles from Blackstone Audio, Gildan Media, Hachette Audio, HarperAudio, Naxos Audiobooks and Scholastic Audio.

Hudson remembers when the idea for Shelfie came to him, which was during a drunken argument with a friend. At some point during their conversation, Hudson’s friend said he wished there were a way he could get digital versions of his print books on his phone. That actually seemed like a good idea to Hudson, who then began thinking about it more—specifically, about the transferability of music files and how he could apply that idea to books.

“I’m lucky enough to be born in the early 1980s, so I’m the oldest of the millennial generation,” Hudson says. “That gave me a unique perspective on content in that the first music I bought was on cassette tapes. Shortly after, cassettes went away and CDs came along. Then there were iPods and you could transfer music even more easily. Those transitions made sense in my mind. To me, content should be format-shiftable. It doesn’t matter if you bought a book 10 to 20 years ago. The future of content shouldn’t be tied to its embodiment.”

Hudson asked Marius Muja, a friend with a Ph.D. in computer vision (and now Shelfie’s co-founder and chief technology officer), if he wanted to collaborate. Soon, the two began developing Shelfie’s platform and business. After a few years, Shelfie slowly started signing up more publishers.

But its big break? That was all thanks to Joe Hill, an author, comic book writer and one of Stephen King’s sons.

Hill wanted to find a company that would give readers free ebooks whenever they bought physical books so, naturally, he tweeted about it. Someone replied saying that company already existed: Shelfie. Hill downloaded the app and took a picture of a book Shelfie happened to have listed (Given that Shelfie didn’t have many publishers signed up at the time, Hudson credits serendipity.) Hill loved the app and asked his publisher, HarperCollins, if he could have all his books available this way. Soon enough, HarperCollins gave Shelfie its entire backlist.

“We really convinced the people at HarperCollins that this is a big thing,” Hudson recalls.

With Shelfie, Hudson ultimately hopes to strengthen the relationship between content creators and content consumers.

“The future of publishing is a conversation between creators and readers,” Hudson says. “There are some conservative business models out there, but there are also some opportunities as well. What we were able to do is take advantage of that and provide the publisher that direct connection.”

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