The Dutch publishing industry is one of the most conservative in the world.
The Fixed Book Price law, which maintains a collective resale price, has continued to reinforce the classic business model of paper books sold through specific retail channels in the region. And whereas ebook marketshare in the US and the UK has reached up to 25%, in the Netherlands it has never exceeded 6%.
That might be interpreted as a very good thing for established publishers and booksellers - except for the fact that, from 2009 to 2015, the Dutch book market contracted from more than 650 million euros to about 498 million. While readers and authors were broadening their horizons, the traditional industry's shrunk.
Step up the Dutch General Publisher’s Association (GAU). Last year, the GAU teamed up with startup accelerator Rockstart to create Renew the Book, "the first and only accelerator program dedicated to startups leveraging new and creative business ideas around all the elements of book publishing." The competition's inaugural winner was Bookarang, an Amsterdam-based company that develops book recommendations based on big data and AI, and this year, the field looks to offer a bumper crop.
"We found that the startups that entered last years the competition were very different in their development to this year," reports Martin Voigt, the coordinator of the program on behalf of the GAU. "Some had only an idea and a prototype, others some business traction and maturity. For this edition of Renew the Book we have actively searched for startups that were beyond the idea/prototype-phase, and that are ready to grow."
The shortlist of four, drawn from 53 applications across 25 countries, includes Story Tourist, the Swedish augmented reality "Pokémon Go for stories" that won a Highly Commended at FutureBook's own BookTech pitch-off in December. The other finalists include WriteReader (Denmark), which enables kids to publish their own digital books; Writing for TiNY (Ireland), a startup using bespoke software for highly personalised children's books; and Zola Books (US), which offers a set of proprietary tech products enabling anyone to easily sell any book in any format from their website.
All four will now go forward to take part in a 40 day accelerator program, which has been designed to both nurture and challenge the young companies. "We have interviewed more than 40 publishers, retailers, authors, printers and marketers, and asked them where they think the innovation possibilities are for the Dutch publishing market," Voigt explains. "The outcomes of these interviews have been distilled into the ‘Innovation Grid’, that forms an outline of our approach.
"We also asked companies in the publishing industry (not only publishers, but also retailers, e-tailers, printers and authors) to join the program as experiment sponsors. So, if the startups want to validate or test one of their business assumptions or technical assumptions in the market, the experiment sponsors will provide them with their network or systems to actually test it."
It's a much-needed project in an industry where opportunities for investment and incubation are scarce. It might even mean that this modest and super-conservative region becomes a pioneer in bolder, smarter publishing. "The Netherlands is a small language area, a relative small market," Voigt agrees, "so we have to learn to cooperate."
The winner of the program, which will win €15.000, will be announced on 30th March. Watch out for our exclusive report from Story Tourist on what they learned.