Until very recently, digital had been a bit of a dirty word in the publishing industry. We were the D-capped little rogues in the corner, and it took some time for publishers to play with us.
I started working in publishing because I loved books. I actually asked my mum, when very young, if there were a magical job that would have me reading books all day, every day. I was worried she’d retaliate with her usual line on the majesty of becoming a doctor; instead she was thrilled.
I left home at 17 and worked every spare hour (in between the prerequisite studenting and waitressing) to get a job in traditional publishing. I practically camped out at one literary agency, flailing about in its slush pile. What followed was a decidedly not-digital decade. So it’s strange to find myself at the helm of a tech startup.
In its original guise, The Pigeonhole was posturing as a publisher. Ours was an ambitious project, one that aimed to disrupt the industry by inverting the publishing process. We planned to digitally serialise all of our books to gauge and build an audience. An ebook launch would follow and, based on its success, perhaps a paperback. If, and only if, the book had made enough money to justify the print run, we would produce an incredibly beautiful gift-edition hardback.
The point was to move away from the deficit created by trying to squeeze an incredibly expensive and untested edition into an unknown market. The relatively cheap digital serialisation would create a buzz and the profit from each format would justify the next, meaning we would also be doing away with the horror of unearnt royalties – and the impact this has on a subsequent publishing deal. Our approach would release authors from this anxiety, creating a meritocratic publishing system.
As with any new idea, what has grown from those early roots is a very different fruit from the one we originally planted. Think yucky kumquat to yummy blood orange – I’ll now stop with the clunky metaphors. The beauty of digital is its flexibility. Within a year, what started as an inversion of the status quo – a digital to physical model – had morphed into a social reading app.
We decided very early on to leave the job of printing “actual books” (in the words of one editor) to the very talented publishers out there, and instead concentrate on building something truly innovative. Two years on, what we offer our publishing collaborators is something new: the chance to host author to reader conversations through the paragraphs of a book; dynamic, multimedia extras to enhance every story; a serialised journey through the pages, so that any book can fit into any life; and most importantly, detailed data feedback.
Just to give you an example, in a few days we’ll be publishing Starstruck – a book of 10 literary shorts by Rajeev Balasubramanyam. Every morning for 10 days, his readers will receive a little bit of brilliance direct to their pocket. Each story has a celebrity at its heart, and the encounters will have people LOL-ing all over the shop. Rajeev himself has picked songs and videos to accompany the stories and will be reading along and answering comments. Then, once it’s over, we can tell him all about his readers.
Beyond the book, only digital publishing can tell you what happens to a title after it’s left the shelf. We can see how people are interacting with any book – minute by minute – including how fast they read, at what time and on what device, where they are and when they stop. Utilising this information means there need never be another pulped book. Think of all the trees we could save.
And yet this is a mad space to inhabit. The job of innovating is febrile and fickle. It’s great to entertain ideas. There are so many, any one of them could be boss. Though there is a trick to it. If an epiphany turns out to be the drunken bigot at the party, get rid of it. Immediately. Because the digital sphere regenerates constantly, and if you don’t fail fast your whole company will fail. In the last six months, I can name a dozen would-be competitors which have folded – and a further 10 which have sprung up in their place.
Groupon founder Andrew Mason said something smart a while ago and it’s always stayed with me: “The internet is basically 20 years old… It’s still a gold rush. Any hick can show up and find a nugget.” So here we are, the hick pigeons, pecking at gold dust, changing the way people read – one byte at a time.
Picture credit: Aurore Belkin Photography, 2015
About the author
Anna Jean Hughes
Anna Jean Hughes is co-founder and publisher of The Pigeonhole, a social reading platform that changes the way you read, write and discuss books. Anna has been working in the publishing industry for over a decade. There was a brief fling with the Erotic Review, a minor assignation with Condé Nast and a long and complicated relationship with Random House. She then swapped sides and went to see how the other half lived at Peter Fraser & Dunlop, before jacking in the traditional and going rogue with The Pigeonhole. In 2015 she was named a Rising Star and shortlisted as Digital Achiever of the Year.
Reach Anna on Twitter: @ThePigeonholeHQ