Interview: Ether Books Plan to Out-Amazon Amazon & Take on the World

Kathryn Cave talks to Maureen Scott and Mike Jones, Co-Founders of Ether Books, about the future of publishing.

Maureen Scott and Mike Jones are bursting with enthusiasm for their product when I meet them at the Sloe Bar, upstairs in Paddington station on Wednesday. They believe they hold the future of publishing in the palm of their hands... and I'm inclined to agree with them. "We don't know anyone who has approached the market like this," says Scott who anticipates 1 million downloads over the next 12 months.

Ether Books is a native app which gives writers a platform, readers a community and publishers a new mobile distribution model. It hosts short writing - under 6,000 - from a variety of worldwide writers. The original (very basic) version launched three years ago, and generated 150,000 downloads... with no marketing. These came from a truly global audience - after the US, India was the second most popular country - 42.9% came from outside Europe and the US where smartphone adoption is far lower. Now things are developing quickly....

The company was listed as a top 50 start-up in the Dublin Web Summit last October, won a free stand through the Technology Strategy Board competition to last week's London Book Fair. And the second version of the app "went into the iStore the week before last - Android a few weeks before that." This is phase two and "For success we have to go viral..."

This is Amazon meets Goodreads (which the former has just acquired) and it is fully integrated with social media. This means it has all the self-marketing potential of wannabe writers and their extended communities. On top of which it already has some big names, such as Hilary Mantel, Sir Paul McCartney and Lionel Shriver on board, all of whom have supplied brand new short content. And as Scott explains, "The beauty of this is our writers are from all over the world. Readers might like to follow Irish writers, American writers..."

The True Potential of a Global Audience...

In the initial version of the app, 25.8% of downloads came from Asia, 2.1% from Africa and 1.4% from LatAm. In these regions (especially LatAm) smartphone adoption is still limited, but it is on the up and the release of the new Mozilla OS in June should only intensify this. There is also no underestimating the potential in local story telling, or how much people crave new reading material for mobile.

"We anticipate over 1 million downloads in the next 12 months due to the deep Facebook open graph integration and the stickiness of the new apps, which enable writers and readers to communicate with each other directly over Ether's platform (consumer apps.) We also are working with publishers to accelerate the overall number of writers on our platform and to piggy back onto their marketing budgets and efforts," explains Scott.

Ether Books has big plans and it looks like all the building blocks are in place to realise them. "We're going to go into Amazon's store and we're going to out-Amazon Amazon," she continues "They don't have the social integration..."

The Intense Power of Marketing, IT and Book-Lovers...

Maureen Scott and Dr Mike Jones have known each other for years and are both entrepreneurs in their own rights, boasting impressive success stories and diverse specialisms. Scott, CEO & Co-founder, has extensive experience in the mobile content industry, was a founder director of the Mobile Marketing Association and was involved in the first "direct booking" booking system for the airline industry. Jones, CTO & Co-founder, has been CTO and CIO at several start-up companies and large-scale operations. Recent entrepreneurial successes have included, OD2, acquired by LoudEye/Nokia and Exec Appointments, acquired by Pearson Group.

The dynamic is palpable; Scott is extremely voluble, whilst Jones, who architected and built the entire Ether Platform and Recommendation Engine to date, tends to focus more on specifics. In tandem they demo various aspects of the platform on a range of different devices. The effect is impressive and the platform is extremely slick.

"Everyone gets fixated on Apple or Android, but it doesn't matter," explains Jones "We could develop a Kindle app and you would have access to all the same content no matter what platform you're on." "This is different from Amazon trying to lock you into one device," chips in Scott, "We know people change devices. We're device agnostic and publisher friendly."

The most reader-writer- and publisher-friendly element of the app is the deep social integration, "It's little things like if you send the link to someone who does n't have the app it encourages you to download the app," says Jones "so it keeps on going viral." They are pushing this with on-going competitions for writers and other ‘status' tools to keep people on the app. "See these symbols," Jones demos, "the publishing industry don't like the term badges," "Makes you sound like a girl scout!" adds Scott "Dependent on how active the person is, those badges will slowly change colour." "We've gamed it!" she concludes gleefully.

"We think we've nailed the product," says Scott "The next phase of our company is - well, we're always fundraising because we're a start-up - but the next phase is customer acquisition. We'll drive this with our Facebook integration. We're going to spend money on Facebook advertising, because we're global and they're global...."

Three Things Writers Don't Have at the Moment...

The real driver for all this is the writers. As Scott stresses "Readers follow writers. [And] the writers love it." This is no surprise because this platform delivers three core things all in one place: firstly it provides a home for much denigrated short fiction; secondly it allows writers to build a true community for readers; thirdly it gives first time writers a chance to crowdsource their novels and potentially win serious publishing contracts and much coveted agent representation.

"The first time we went to the London Book fFair Hilary Mantel was at our launch. Why would Hilary Mantel do that? Well of course, at the London Book Fair it is all trade." Writers get their own page. They can change their picture and info simply by logging in and they can check their stats in real time (although this is slower on Apple devices). What is more, the audience can communicate directly. In a new release coming soon, readers will be able to set up reading groups and invite the writer, "Writers will eat that up!"

A Beat Ahead of the Industry Curve...

"We will be doing books," Scott clarifies "We're starting to talk to publishers, because right now the publishing process is backwards." It is true that high volumes of books are published yet at present at least 40% are pulped. But the last couple of years there have also been some meteoric changes in the changes in the publishing industry. Slushpiles have moved online, self-publication as now seen a real route to conventional publication. True crowdsourcing, as part of a fully integrated readers' and writers' community, is the inevitable next step for writers both to get in and to get on. The only thing which isn't new is that success is still largely a marketing exercise for the writers and on Ether Books' platform, which currently hosts 750 writers, Paul McCartney and Hilary Mantel obviously are top of the listing.

"We're starting to get writers come to us directly. But we're also approaching writers with large Twitter followings because we can monetise their followings. Twitter can't do that." says Scott. But this isn't all cynical marketing, both Scott and Jones are clearly passionate about their writers and have their own favourites. "Bag for life!" says Scott "I went wow, because the twist is incredible and it's only..." she scrolls through "277 words."

"We have more Erotica selling per the number of writers than anything else," says Jones and although they made the whole system anonymous. "A lot of people don't care!" "I know Erotica sells, but I want science articles on here," continues Jones "What I want is my peer colleagues to write science without the equations..." 6,000 words is longer than a lot of reports, longer than a lot of Sunday features and longer than the first two chapters of a lot of novels. This is only short-form content in the book world and this type of platform should provide something for everyone... on mobile.

Global Data Driven by Writers Could Be a New Leap in Publishing...

Ether Books just signed its first deal with UK publisher Constable and Robinson on 15th April. "To the publishers we are positioning ourselves as not a retailer. We have a very disruptive business model with the publishers where they will keep the content revenue, kind of like ebay. We are a friend to the publishers since we will share consumer behavioural data with them so that they know faster what consumers are interested in reading around the world!"

The real differentiator is data though. "We have all the data. 360 degree data - Amazon don't have the data. " This enables smart serving and smart targeting. Down the line the company envisages utilising location information and developing a complete self-contained community including rewards and the billing through its own platform. The potential does seem incredible...

"We are opening a new global market for Publishers and a direct channel for writers to get published, get paid, and reach a growing global audience that we are currently acquiring," summarises Scott. Not surprisingly investors are circling. Mark Gretton, former EVP Engineering and Main Board Director at TomTom is already on board, along with Fabio Torlini, Chief Marketing Officer at Rackspace... and the big official launch hasn't even taken place yet. There is a secret splash planned for that...

And as Scott concludes, this is their "Simple cunning plan for world domination."


By Kathryn Cave Editor at IDG Connect