BiblioLabs | @BiblioBoard

We had a chance to speak with Mitchell Davis, the Founder of BiblioLabs – see the video below. Chatting with Mitchell really got us thinking about the future of digital publishing, and how it has and will continue to affect libraries and publishers alike.

As of 2012, more than 29% of US adults own a tablet or eReader. Using my rudimentary math skills, that comes out to more than 67 million people. With such a large market, it is surprising to find that libraries, and publishing houses to a lesser extent, have yet to really find the most efficient way to distribute all of their digital content.

Libraries in particular seem to be having a very hard time transitioning to the digital medium. While most do have eBooks and documents for download, often – at least in my own experience – a library will have one or maybe two copies of any particular eBook. Maybe someone can explain it to me in the comments, but I have a very hard time understanding this concept. Why should you have to wait for someone to return an eBook? Further, there has been a lag in terms of libraries sharing digital copies of unique and rare historical documents, books, and manuscripts with one another.

This is where BiblioLabs comes in. They have built a free iPad application – BiblioBoard – that gives users the ability to access hundreds of Anthologies. These Anthologies are curated collections of books, images, documents, artifacts, sounds and video related to a specific theme. BiblioBoard offers users free extended previews of all the anthologies, and offers them in whole as in-app purchases. Further, BiblioLabs has recently launched BiblioBoard Library. The library version offers unlimited multi-user access and unlimited printing and downloading for library patrons; all at a fraction of the cost of the traditional eBook databases.

BiblioLabs Chief Business Officer Mitchell Davis | Entrepreneur Interviews

TechFaster: What is BiblioLabs

Mitchell:  BiblioLabs is a company that has been around since 2007. As a product there is some background context to the company. All the founders of this company were founders of a company called Book Surge, which we started back in 2000. It was really the world’s first integrated global publishing and print-on-demand platform. Ironically it was a good time to get into publishing and not know anything about it because we didn’t have a lot of baggage that we brought into the process. We sold that company to Amazon in 2005 and I went out to Seattle for a couple of years and got what I like to call my Amazon MBA, which was definitely hard earned. I came back to Charleston in 2007 and regrouped with the original guys that we started Book Surge with and we launched this company. The initial focus then was on driving the cost out of putting up for sale historic reproductions and print on demand. There were a lot of large digitalization projects going on and lots of little pockets of historical content all over the place and we built a platform that basically made it really simple, easy, and inexpensive to package that stuff and put it up for sale and print. We used Book Surge, which became Create Space after Amazon used it. We also used other print-on-demand vendors all over the world to basically do retail transactions from local print-on-demand facilities. It’s not dissimilar to what we did at Book Surge except in this model we’re basically practicing what we preach. We don’t actually own any of the printing equipment; we’re just being a publisher essentially. We avoided doing digital in the early years because at the time the prevailing devices that we’re out there were e-ink device and most of this content is really majestic. A lot of these were original pages from books with inscriptions, marks, maps, and drawings and we just didn’t think that e-ink was sufficient for rendering that kind of content. It was really when the iPad came out that our imaginations lit up and we realized we could make this stuff work on these kinds of devices. Luckily, in the last couple of years the other companies have fallen in line. The whole industry is sort of lining up around that concept now.

TechFaster:  What is Biblioboard?

Mitchell:  We had done a really successful print on demand job with the British Library. We told that that we were going to try to invest something and that we’d love for them to be a guinea pig with us and they went along for the ride. We launched our first digital product in the summer of 2011 and Apple actually called us and asked us to push up the launch date, so we launched it in conjunction with their World Wide Developers Conference. It had almost 250,000 downloads in the first two weeks and almost a half million downloads to date. It really taught us a lot and Biblioboard has been born out of that experience. The first thing we learned was that a lot of these materials have historically been sequestered inside research environments. There were researchers looking for one particular book about one particular topic and they’d go in search of that book or some series of books. What we realized was that If you took this stuff and you packaged it creatively then regular people, not just researches, would find that stuff compelling. It was really a crossover project. If there are tens of thousands of these little themes within this historical content and if we could build something that made it really simple and easy for people to put that stuff together and just distribute it everywhere, that could be a really powerful and disruptive technology.

TechFaster: How does Biblioboard work?

Mitchell:  We have two core pieces of our technology platform. The first one is Biblioboard Creator, which is a platform for multimedia apps and anthologies that work in a browser in an incredible innovative way. Any museum, library, cultural institution or organization – we have basically taken developer costs and development project management out of the equation of those folks being able to create elegant, fast products that work in all those places. We think that’s a really disruptive thing. The second core piece of the technology is the distribution side. Once you’ve assembled all these things and you’ve uploaded your own content, you then publish that into an environment that makes those available as in-app purchases on the individual devices themselves. The anthologies basically bundle themselves into larger modules that we go out and actually sell to libraries, so we’re selling to academic libraries, to public libraries and emerging market libraries. Because we’ve brought so much efficiency to the process of creating these, we’re selling it at a price point that’s a fraction of what would even be considered to being close to competitors.

TechFaster: How has digital publishing affected the library business?

Mitchell:  I think libraries haven’t ever really thought of themselves as a business. They do sort of have a charter for the public good and they certainly have expenses, but they haven’t really thought of themselves as businesses per say. I think that that’s changing somewhat. Given the current economic climate there are more and more libraries who realize that if they can deliver a really great experience to someone or if they have content that people find interesting, it’s okay to charge a fair amount for that and use that money to cover staff cost or digitize more things. The issue is that libraries have always had to compete for people’s time because they’re a physical place so you have to go there. You either had time to do that or you didn’t. That has changed a lot in the digital era. Who they compete with now are companies like Apple and Amazon who have driven enormous amounts of costs out of the media business and so they can sell you things for not much more that you could borrow on your library card in a lot of instances. We’ve all been struggling with computers for the last 30 years so we’re used to having things crash and not work the way they’re supposed to, so we have a level of tolerance there that doesn’t exist on tablets. The whole thing about tablets is that it’s built to be intuitive and it’s built to be the next generation of user experience so we won’t put up with those same irritations when we’re trying to access content digitally. If you look at the ways that libraries deliver content to devices today, it really models the way they’ve done things in the past. There’s this whole idea of going to the library’s website and long it and click on a vendor and do a search and check a book out.

TechFaster: How does BiblioBoard help libraries?

Mitchell:  One of  the unique features of Biblioboard is that when a library subscribes and a patron downloads the app, the first time they identify themselves as a patron of that library everything that library subscribes to is simply on their device and works. Today that’s 200 anthologies and almost 40,000 pieces of content so it’s not an insignificant universe of content, but we’re certainly hoping that expands exponentially. We don’t have 50 Shades of Grey, but what you are going to get are these very well curated historical experiences that are put together by our internal curators. Of course over time as this is successful and we get larger and larger, we think we will get better at being able to get rights to more modern content. The concept of reinventing that patron-library dynamic in that the first time you identify yourself as a patron, that’s the last time you or the library will think about media exchange. From then on it’s just going to be a really elegant, well-performing consumer product that your library has unlocked for you on your device.

TechFaster: Will traditional publishers adopt BiblioBoard?

Mitchell:  The thing about publishers – and this is not to be disparaging to publishers – but more traditional publishers have a pretty delusional sense of what they’re content is worth honestly. We saw this at Book Surge a lot. We brought back out of print books so we’d go to a publisher and they wouldn’t even know they had published the book, but we had done our homework. We told them that they had published a book that has been out of print for 15 years and asked them if we could bring it back to print and sell it on Amazon so people can find it again and it’ll generate revenue. And all of a sudden this book that no one every knew they had even published and was out of print for 15 years was now the most valuable thing that they owned and they wanted and advance and this and that. So to answer your question, yes publishers could utilize this technology. One you no longer have to have a big expensive backend infrastructure as a publisher, the agents typically are aligned from a business sense with the authors and more and more trying to take a leadership role in helping the authors unlock the value of the things they’re creating. I think there’s definitely a place for what we’re doing in the traditional publishing industry, but I’ve said in this business that they’re not our primary people. If they like what we’re going and they want to come along great. If I can put tools in the hands of ten thousand small historical societies around the world that each have 1,500 really amazing digitized artifacts and they’ve never been a publisher or gotten a check for anything that they’ve published, I don’t need that stuff to make the ecosystem work.

TechFaster: What are the constraints faced by digital publishers?

Mitchell:  I think the pace of change is relentless and I think the only way you can keep up with it is to, in your DNA, be a software technology company that just happens to publish things. Creating apps and creating apps for multiple devices and trying to reinvent the presentation layer of your content on the web are things that take large amounts of time to accomplish and by the time they’re finished, the whole playing field has already shifted again. Now you’ve launched something that isn’t as new as it was when you were drawing it on a board 18 months ago. So it’s I think the cost of keeping up with that pace of change. We think with Creator that we’ve introduced a real asset to the publishing ecosystem to handle that. Our goal is to have museums, libraries, publishers, or whoever it is grappling with intellectual and editorial questions about how we should slice and dice this and how should we put the particular assets into a different thematic context, not wondering if someone on a Nexus 7 going to be able to use this or if it’s going to break when iOS updates their operating system. Those are all the questions that we want them to not have to think about at all because that’s all we’re getting up and thinking about every day so hopefully we’re going to drive costs out of that part of it, but today I see that as a big constraint on the content side.