Eric Huang: Made in Me - a new kind of independent publisher

Eric Huang: Made in Me - a new kind of independent publisher

Editor's Note: Charlotte Eyre's report this week for The BooksellerMCB and Made in Me sign publishing deal, made the point that Made in Me's "Me Book" titles will become physical books for the first time in the company's history." The "Little Legend" series, written and illustrated by Tom Percival, will be published, writes Eyre, "in paperback and ebook formats by Macmillan Children’s Books and as an illustrated digital book on Made in Me’s Me Books platform." And when invited to write about this bit of a pivot for the still-young company, development director Eric Huang tells us that nobody may be more surprised than the Made in Me team: "We did not see this coming." - Porter Anderson

In 2011, Made in Me launched Me Books: a free e-reading app with one free book and an in-app shop with additional digital books for purchase.

Back then, the business model was pretty straightforward – though not easy by any means. It was about retail; we managed an app that was a kids' book shop. In the last four years, the app has been downloaded over 600,000 times. Over 1.3 million digital books have been downloaded, and our newsletter database has 70,000 emails -- and counting.

Much of success is due to marketing. We partnered with family-friendly brands like Save the Children and Mini Boden to give away digital books as value adds. In return, our marketing partners paid us a per-download fee. We were quite surprised that these companies wanted to pay us. We were, in fact, ready to pay them to reach their massive audiences! But pay us they did, and pay us they shall. These are B2B sales, after all: the marketing partner pays a unit cost per book. It just so happens that our promotions involve digital premiums -- no packing or printing, but valuable nevertheless.

The revenue we made from campaigns soon surpassed turnover from the in-app shop. It was much easier to run campaigns than to sell books! Our marketing activity ramped up, and we were under more and more pressure to respond to campaigns immediately. This was at odds with rights holders. When we contacted publishers for approval to include titles in promotions, very few could get back to us in time. We weren’t, and won’t be, a Tesco or Waterstones; therefore, not big enough to warrant serious attention. Fair enough.

It was because of this that we became publishers ourselves. We started creating our own books: digital titles that were part of much bigger story worlds. One of our first Me Books debuts was A Home for Humphrey, a picture book written and illustrated by tattoo artist, Nikko Barber. It’s about a bear cub who is now old enough to hibernate in his own cave next winter. This causes him a lot of anxiety, as you can imagine, so he spends the rest of the year looking for potential flatmates … Humphrey and others were featured heavily in campaigns and are some of our most downloaded titles. As a result, traditional publishers -- as well as TV production companies and broadcasters – became interested.

"Little Legends" is the first brand that has found a third-party partner. We are super-excited that Pan Macmillan will publish the series!

Having a print component to "Little Legends" is important because we always imagine our stories to be enjoyed across multiple formats: on pages and on screens of all sorts. Having a physical publishing partner makes it easier to find a TV partner, which makes it easier to find a toy partner, and so on. Indeed, we have other brands which are in the midst of negotiations for TV development, as well as traditional publishing deals.

Me Books started out as an independent digital shop. Then it became a marketing channel. Now the app is a publishing outlet for Made in Me. We’d be lying if we said this was all part of a grand strategic plan, blah, blah. We did not see this coming. The past year has been a non-stop carousel of successes and failures that led us to here and now.

Maybe we’ll open a gin palace next.

Story by Eric Huang with James Huggins and Mike Outlaw.

Main image: "Little Legnds" is a four-book series, illustrated and written by Tom Percival. More information is here.