BookTech Showcase: Shulph

BookTech Showcase: Shulph

Publishers "need to start representing themselves to the world in a way that protects their heritage yet speaks a modern visual language." So says Shulph founder Emmanuel Kolade to Molly Flatt in this, the second of eight articles on contenders in the new FutureBook BookTech Award. Here is Flatt's introduction to these profiles. Her first article in the series was on the company that calls itself "oolipo." These start-ups' names may offer gentle irony this week, when the man who calls his company "Shulph" tells Flatt, "Presentation is critical."—Porter Anderson

The concept of bundling print books with their ebook versions—either by including a download licence in the price of the print purchase, or by offering complementary discounts—is hardly revolutionary.

In 2013 Amazon introduced Kindle MatchBook, followed a year later by Barnes & Noble’s Sync Up! scheme. Last July HarperCollins launched a pilot project with Vancouver-based bundling startup BitLit Media, swiftly followed by more than 300 other publishers, including Macmillan this May. But although the economics of bundling make sense, there’s little evidence so far that these schemes are making a noteworthy impact on either the volume or way that consumers buy and read.

So is new British contender Shulph, “an aggregator of a book lover’s print and digital bookshelves” gearing up to launch early next year, flogging a comatose publishing horse?

“I wouldn’t say people are clamouring for better bundling, but what I would say is that the reading experience certainly needs to evolve,” insists founder Emmanuel Kolade, who juggles his entrepreneurial ambitions with a full-time position in user experience and design at professional services behemoth PwC. “The Shulph platform is less about bundling and more about enabling and engaging readers in a more compelling way.”

In a world where brands and retailers from other industries are making huge efforts to integrate their on- and offline experiences—from RFID tags on shop-floor clothes to instant delivery services—Kolade strongly believes that readers are getting impatient with publishing’s inadequate attempts to bridge the physical-digital divide.

“My physical bookshelf is larger than my digital bookshelf, but there are several overlaps,” he says. “I get frustrated at work when trying to reference content from one of my textbooks that’s sitting on my bookshelf at home. I get frustrated when I can’t use any book in a way that suits my context at the moment I need it. As a result, I often buy books in multiple formats, essentially paying full price for the same title more than once. That just isn’t a great experience. We’re changing that with Shulph.”

Once signed up to Shulph, readers only need to buy a book once and are then free to read it across multiple formats, any time they want. By co-ordinating the user experience across bookstores, websites, in-app purchases and reading formats, the company aims to empower readers to move in and out of physical and digital spaces according to their need, whenever and wherever they have the urge to read.

“People are drawn to compelling stories and authors,” Kolade responds when asked why the existing solutions aren’t catching fire. “They don’t set out to buy a title just because it’s made by a specific publisher or sold by a specific retailer. Any retailer-specific solution is unlikely to succeed because it is locked within that retailer’s own ecosystem, and any publisher-specific solution is almost guaranteed to fail because nobody buys all their books from a single publisher. Shulph differentiates itself by working with publishers and retailers of all sizes to arrive at a compelling proposition for readers. We follow and lead the reader through their buying and reading experience all the way from beginning to end.”

Of course, Kolade is well aware—as Amazon has discovered—that the platform’s success will depend on widespread industry buy-in. “We’ve spoken to many publishers and none have told us this is a bad idea,” he says. “Some are excited by what we are building and have agreed to work with us as pilot partners, others remain sceptical. Building the relationships that will foster a deep partner network will be a big challenge for us.”

But Kolade’s personal obsession and professional experience with user design will undoubtedly be a major asset as Shulph fights to differentiate. When asked to offer a final piece of advice to the publishing world, he doesn’t pull his punches.

“Publishers should do more to put readers at the centre of their business strategy,” he sighs. “I cringe every time I look at a publisher’s website, app or any application of their brand to their digital real estate. Publishers, more than anyone else, know that people do judge the book by the cover. They need to start representing themselves to the world in a way that protects their heritage yet speaks a modern visual language. Presentation is critical.”

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, please visit the FutureBook Conference site.