Growth curve: The Pigeonhole

Growth curve: The Pigeonhole

The latest in our series asking startups to share the challenges they face and lessons they learn as they grow catches up with Anna Jean Hughes, founder of and publisher at The Pigeonhole, a social reading app that’s here to change the way that people read, and write.


It is almost two years since the launch of our beta book, and it feels as if this Pigeon has had more iterations than David Fandabidosi Bowie. Because this is what you do as a start up, you don a mullet and draw a big old lightning strike down your (type)face.

The Pigeonhole was first sketched out on a napkin in a dingy bar in Soho. Mobile reading didn’t feature anywhere. Instead, we envisaged a digi-first publishing site that subsidised the costs of a physical edition with money received from the initial digital launch – from serialisation to hardback. Clever, hey?

Though not half as clever as a global book club in your pocket.

One of the earliest lessons we learnt was that when an idea fails (and there will always be ideas that fail) it needs to fail fast. There is no time in start-up-land to be precious with your product. The last thing you want is to leave your customers high and dry while you’re busy fiddling with your wonky widget…

Months into launching, it became apparent that our users were far more interested in an app. They wanted a community to join, authors with which to chat to discuss their love of PBJ sandwiches and the bombastic mixed-media extras that only a digital book can offer. Publishers already do physical books. They’re pretty good at it. It’s a wonderful thing to wander the halls of the London Book Fair and see the glittering titles produced each year. I had to stuff my hands into my pockets this time, just to stop myself from touching up all the spines and flaps. So we stuck to what we knew.

And publishers are already reaping the rewards from a Pigeonhole launch; the data on demographics and engagement, the extra marketing arm we can offer, the mobile format we can design. We’re now working on a system that will allow publishers to create their own pages and upload all agreed books straight onto our website. They can have control of how that it looks in our app and all the messaging too. All they then need do is butter up our beady-eyed editors to get themselves on to the Best Books list. There is such incredible innovation happening in the world of digital reading applications and mobile publishing, there’s no need to do it all, just outsource it and form a gang. Everybody needs a gang.

The most exciting component of our company today is how very different digital is proving to be. Once you take the physical printing process out of the equation, an incredibly fluid and ever-evolving publishing model emerges. One that can play host to innumerate (and hitherto impossible) functions.

This month saw the launch of our first disappearing book with Head of Zeus, Stefan Ahnhem’s extraordinarily compelling Victim Without a Face. Our subscribers had a challenge – read their instalment in 24 hours or lose the story. Two days in and we’ve had people nattering their way through the book and raving to us direct about how much they are enjoying the experience.

So we’ve decided to go one-step further with our first crowd-sourced novel: Pass the Pigeon. An established author will kick off proceedings, and each week a new writer will follow up with the next instalment. We may even open it up to the public.

One of the questions we have been asking ourselves lately, especially in the face of the less than encouraging findings by Kobo and Jellybooks on book completion rates, is how we can change the way that people interact with our titles, ensuring that they can fit their reading into even the most rabid of schedules. Serialisation took us half the way there; a vanishing book or live writing experience might just take us the rest of the way.

Ever since our talk at the FutureBook Conference last year, we’ve been doing our damnedest to make sure we keep up with the outlandish opportunities that mobile publishing offers. There are many ways to launch a book, so many that at times it feels as if the possibilities available are infinite. There are so many people to reach out to, a gabbling legion of bloggers, vloggers, twitterers and tumblrers. Publishers and authors and agents alike. Any one of them might just love pigeons. But if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that the worst thing anyone might say is no, and more often than not the response is ‘tell me more’.