BookTech Showcase: oolipo

BookTech Showcase: oolipo

"A new kind of platform that will give passionate story—and media—lovers an experience native to their mobile device.” Now, you're talking. Just as so many have looked for authentic enhancement in the world of ebooks, the search is on for ways to optimise mobile for literature. Molly Flatt opens her profiles of our FutureBook 2015 BookTech Showcase contenders with a look at oolipo, Ryan David Mullins' and Johannes Conrady's bid for mobile moxie. "Oolipo reimagines fiction for digital," Mullins tells Flatt. We're all ears.—Porter Anderson

"The future of the book is…the book,” sighs Ryan David Mullins, speaking from oolipo HQ in Cologne. “Leave the book alone. There’s nothing wrong with the book. It’s doing just fine.”

A surprising attitude, perhaps, from the co-founder of a bold new storytelling startup, but then Mullins is no conventional publishing entrepreneur. An academic philosopher originally from California, Mullins co-founded popular German e-reader app readfy last year, but soon left after the board resisted his attempts to innovate beyond the obvious.

“E-books, for me, are just awful,” he admits. “I force myself to read them because of the convenience, but the experience is just so bad. It’s a case of good intentions with a lack of imagination. Digitising your inventory and putting it on another platform doesn’t cut the mustard. In fact, for our target market, physical book sales are on the rise.”

So now Mullins has teamed up with Johannes Conrady, formerly of self-publishing platform BookRix, and Colin Lovrinovic, from music streaming service Simfy, to create oolipo.

“Oolipo reimagines fiction for digital,” Mullins explains. “We don’t create stories and then ship them through the pipe to our users. We’re creating a new kind of platform that will give passionate story—and media—lovers an experience native to their mobile device.”

In practical terms, this means developing two different bits of tech: a creator-facing tool, which makes it easy for writers to deploy elements such as videos, photos, geolocation and activity tracking in order to tell tales in new ways, and a consumer-facing app, which enables readers to discover stories they’ll love via themed channels, then interact with them seamlessly on the go across social networks such as Facebook Notes, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and Periscope.

The stories themselves consist of text split into small, digestible slices, each of which can be given a distinct design by adapting font, colour, size and background, and adding animation or sound. Slices are then augmented with additional multimedia content that’s contextual to what the user is currently reading, and the phone’s notification system uses hooks to keep readers immersed throughout the day. Content will come from both self-publishing storytellers and ‘Showrunners’ created in collaboration with big-name talent from traditional publishers and production studios.

The result is, according to the oolipo team, the YouTube of storytelling, or the Medium of fiction, and there’s little doubt that the platform will speak to a niche audience eager for fresh fictional forms. Quirky individual projects such as the currently unfolding Instagram novel Hey Harry Hey Matilda have already accrued cult followings.

But is there any real evidence that the majority of readers feel a gaping mobile-storytelling gap in their lives?

“The evidence,” Mullins responds sternly, “ exists on nearly every digital platform. Posting on Instagram is telling a story in a photograph. Facebook tells the story of your life on a social platform. Medium allows non-fiction storytellers to quickly gain a following. It’s artistic synecdoche. For me, it’s no longer a question of ‘mobile’. Mobile is nothing more than ubiquitous computation, and storytelling must be native to the platform on which it appears.”

Of course, oolipo is still in early stages, with the founders only just embarking on the first funding drive. There is encroaching competition, too; Thred, a mobile storytelling app launched by legendary game designer Will Wright, launched to widespread press fanfare this May. Mullins, who is chasing a more mainstream audience, admits that their real challenge will lie in the execution.

“The idea is fracking amazing,” he declares. “And our team is completely immersed and dedicated to this. But establishing problem-market fit is just the start. What about executing a product design that exceeds expectations to such an extent that people simply HAVE to share? Incentivising content creators to create value for the platform? Finding the right community managers? Finding herculean tech talent? And then can we scale? There are lots of barriers, but we have the right pieces. Now, it’s about internal leadership and passionate embrace of our mission.”

Certainly, when it comes to a passionate embrace of their mission, the oolipo team will be just fine.

The BookTech Showcase (#BookTech) is a new element of the FutureBook Conference. Hosted by tech and culture journalist Molly Flatt, the session invites eight book tech companies to take part in a live pitch-off for a panel of industry and tech experts. A real-time vote will then determine the winners of the bronze, silver and gold FutureBook Awards. The overall winner will be named The FutureBook BookTech Company of the Year 2015.

The judges of the showcase, who will interrogate attendees from the selected book tech companies, are Hannah Telfer, Group Director of Consumer and Digital Development at Penguin Random House UK; Dan Kieran, CEO and Co-Founder of Unbound; and Eileen Burbidge, Partner at Passion Capital and one of the UK’s most influential tech venture capitalists.

In Molly Flatt's series on the contenders:

To book tickets, visit the FutureBook Conference site.