STARTUP TO WATCH

WEbook: Turning Publishing on Its Ear

“Claiming itself to be a next-generation publisher, WEbook has successfully roped in venture capitalists to invest in their business,” Deepak Thakur, senior research analyst in ICT Practice at Frost & Sullivan, told the E-Commerce Times. If the dot-com burst and the more recent Wall Street fiasco have taught us anything, it is that investor confidence is not necessarily a harbinger of success. So if being flush in venture capital funding isn’t the benchmark or the bookmark, what makes WEbook a startup to watch?

WEbook, in a word, is a publisher. The difference is that it publishes community-sourced content. “We hope to do for publishing what ‘American Idol’ did for music,” Sue Heilbronner, president of WEbook, told the E-Commerce Times. “We believe there are millions of talented writers whose work is ignored by the staid and exclusive world of book publishing. Putting the power to both create and choose published content into the hands of our users is nothing less than revolutionary.”

Revolutionary? Really?

WEbook is targeting the US$50 billion U.S. publishing market, yet “the innovative model founded by Mr. Itai Kohavi does not face any direct competition in the marketplace,” according to Thakur. That in itself is remarkable, as the publishing industry is grounded in the very roots of civilization and has tried everything from aggregated content and citizen journalists to a smattering of eBooks — all to little or no avail. From bookstores to newspaper stands, the publishing industry has the distinct smell of decay.

Immense Potential

So, what got investors interested in a company hailing from a dying industry? “The potential seems immense, since the model is a collaboration of successful niche social networking business and a platform for aspiring writers,” says Thakur.

Aspiring writers? You mean the very writers legions of agents and traditional publishers won’t touch because of the time-honored theory that only writers with brands, fans and platforms sell?

That may be one of the core reasons traditional publishing is failing and next-generation publishers, like WEbook, will prevail, Thakur suggests.

WEbook has more than 1,500 book projects, thousands of authors and editors, thousands of reviewers, and a platform to bring them together. With a target of reaching 1 million hands, said Thakur, WEbook “seems to emerge as a fruitful business concept with high growth rate in the future.

“Their unique model provides an opportunity to explore multiple revenue streams that range from publication, premium subscription fees and advertising,” said Thakur.

And the pay-off for users?

“For members, it provides an opportunity to reach reviewers and possibility to bypass the traditional form of publication where the odds of unknown talent getting published are 15,000 to 1. WEbook shares 50 percent of the profits with the creators of the books,” said Thakur.

For the Writers

Perhaps the business model is not all that surprising, given the founder is a writer himself.

WEbook was founded by author and entrepreneur Itai Kohavi. He founded and successfully exited two venture-backed startup companies before WEbook. Kohavi holds a Bachelor’s degree from Tel Aviv University and an MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University and regularly lectures on marketing at Columbia Business School. He is the author of two novels and a children’s book, and, oddly, he is an enthusiastic rider of a mountain unicycle.

While working on his latest novel, Kohavi realized what a lonely pursuit writing can be. He thought writers would have a better time — and produce better work — if, instead of laboring in isolation and then sending their precious manuscripts off to complete strangers with no idea what the fate of their work might be, they could get continuous input from potential readers during the writing process. Even better if those readers, rather than anonymous folks in suits and ties, were the ones deciding which books deserved to get published. Voila — WEbook was born.

Before Heilbronner joined WEbook, she was executive vice president of sales and marketing at TIG Global, the leading provider of interactive marketing services for hospitality. She also previously served as executive director of business development with Discovery Communications and co-authored two books on Internet marketing. Heilbronner received a bachelor’s degree in government from Oberlin College and both a law degree and a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University. “I did practice law, as a criminal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, but that’s a story for another day,” quips Heilbronner.

Collaborative Project

WEbook began with a software development team based in the Silicon Valley. After they worked out a basic platform for writers to work in a collaborative online space, WEbook assembled a team of talented young writers to join an alpha testing community. These writers successfully wrote a novel together — Pandora, WEbook’s first published book. Pandora was co-written by 17 authors and 17 other contributors. The company’s corporate headquarters were established in Bethesda, Maryland, and it brought on editors, marketing professionals, and product development specialists.

“In April 2008, the site launched to the public — since then, we’ve seen an explosion in activity, with hundreds of thousands of registered users and over 15,000 active projects to date,” said Heilbronner.

WEbook is backed by Vertex Venture Capital, Greylock Partners Israel, and a number of angel investors.

The major focus for WEbook will be identifying partners for distribution of the wealth of community-sourced content being developed on the site, Heilbronner said. “This will include bricks-and-mortar print book distributors as well as next-generation outlets for digital and audio content,” she added. “We think WEbook’s ability to create and make available community-vetted and sourced content will afford it and its users extensive distribution options associated with what we believe is the current shift in publishing.”

The publishing industry has not yet seen a truly innovative catalyst to upend the lugubrious publishing process. WEbook changes that by bringing democracy and transparency to a previously obscure process. “Whether it’s WEbook or another upstart startup, the company that facilitates the evolution of the industry on the creation side, as Amazon has done on the distribution side, stands to hold substantial value within the media industry,” said Heilbronner.

“In the short term, WEbook will be putting some great books out on the shelves, discovering amazing new authors, and partnering with established authors and others in the world of publishing,” she said. “In the long-term — who can tell? Anything’s possible. We anticipate revenue from a number of sources, including book sales, strategic partnerships, online revenue streams, and a variety of literary services.”

Readers read, always have and always will. Where and what they’ll read is the prevailing question. WEbook just may have that pegged, and the future of publishing may lie along the path it has chosen.

1 Comment

  • Competition is actually good thing that validates this new industry; and webook has real competitors, check out StoryMash.com, I’ve been publishing there for almost 6 months, and on webook for a few weeks, but my first love is StoryMash, it’s like the open version of webook, and StoryMash pays more.

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