London Book Fair can be a hive of new ideas and opportunities - or a chaos of half-baked dreams and half-made contacts. One startup hoping to tap into the former spirit is Inkshares, a California-based publishing startup that "bridges the gap between traditional and self publishing." So what is it like to be a startup at LBF, and why is Inkshares an exciting prospect? We spoke to Inkshares c.e.o. Adam Gomolin, who's over from Oakland for the fair.
Tell us about Inkshares
Broadly speaking, I’d say we really self-conceive as a “studio for books” rather than a “publisher.”
In terms of selection, our books are chosen by a community of over 100,000 readers. A lot of people this week said “you have great taste,” and I replied “Thanks, but it’s not mine—it’s theirs.” Someone said to me that whereas great literary agents map to existing trends, Inkshares spots “outliers.”
We get particularly deep into the base-pair-level genetics of each story. The book is the fulcrum of the global story economy, and we try to look as far “down field” as possible. Development at Inkshares is probably hybrid between traditional publishing and a TV-show’s “writers room” with multiple editors there to support the author at the helm. It’s strenuous, but also supportive, and I always hear from our authors that they can’t imagine having grown as much via a different process.
Of course all of this is rooted in data. Story Machine, the product at the core of Inkshares, is about replacing guesswork with measurement. Does anyone really think that if they had put Harry Potter in front of 1,000 kids that they wouldn’t have voted for it? Story Machine is about saying “X,000 many people who also like L, M, N, O & P stories like Z story.” It’s monitoring actual reader behavior to reduce uncertainty and map to the head of the distribution. We’re now using Story Machine not just for selection but also to drop-test stories during editorial.
What are you hoping to get from London Book Fair?
We’re trying to figure out who our “third phone call” is. I’m here to build our international infrastructure by forging close relationships with partner publishers outside of North America. Our relationships in Hollywood are a great analogy. When we green-light a book, we have a tactile sense of the elite producers for whom it’s a fit—something with respect to which the credit belongs to our team at the United Talent Agency.
For instance, if we’re doing a book like Devil’s Call , our first call is to UTA to discuss who as a producer will truly love and care for it. In that case, our second call was to Andrew Lazar, who made American Sniper and has been closely embedded in our editorial on Devil’s Call .
So this is about our third phone call. It’s about knowing the individual needs and tastes of the editors and houses. This might be for Francesca or Jack or Natasha. This might be for Helen or Clare. This might be for Selina and Susan.
But it’s very humbling as a company. We published our first book two years ago, so it feels like we blinked and now the most influential publishers in Europe are reading our books on the eve of the London Book Fair.
Who are you meeting here?
Everyone. My inbox and calendar are filled, from Commissioning Editors through the Publishers and CEOs at nearly every publisher and imprint at every one of the Big Five as well as the independents. It’s amazing, given that we don’t have representation here and only started reaching out days before I got on a plane from Los Angeles—which was twelve days ago. It’s a tribute to the extraordinary warmth of the publishing community here and how much we all just love books. We might have overdone it on the research, though—someone asked me yesterday if the NSA had helped us put together profiles on them.
How has the business changed since it began?
In one sense, it hasn’t. I remember us pitching UTA two years ago, saying “We’re going to collide stories with readers, measure interest, and then publish and produce the head of the distribution.”
On the other hand, we’ve been nimble in how we achieved that. We evolved partnerships—like Legendary Entertainment—to grow community. And we evolve the product every day to help filter stories—what began as crowdfunding is now Story Machine, machine-learning algorithms tracking a diverse basket of reader-interest indicators. We didn’t plan on any of that. It was just real-time problem solving and opportunity capture.
I think the biggest change is the revelation of the fundamental impact of the idea that is Inkshares. We set out to build a “next-generation publisher” but ended up building something that I’m hearing people now call “the executive producer of the entertainment industry.”
How has your role evolved?
All our roles have evolved. Thad right now is managing the entire code base including the artificial-intelligence focused new product iterations. For me, I started off as General Counsel, then took over business development, and now as c.e.o. co-head Inkshares with Thad. It’s about coping with growth. There’s just a consistent attitude here of “If there’s a fire, you’re nominated to put it out,” “If there’s a hill, gotake it,” and “If there’s an author, get out there and advocate for them and their story.”
At LBF, you are selling rights on behalf of authors you will publish in the US. How is that going?
Process-wise, while we’re certainly making submissions, we’re not here representing specific titles so much as coalition building. The first goal was to politely reach out to all the editors and establish relationships. That’s mostly done, though I’m sure we missed many. The next step was to begin submissions, which we did just before the weekend. Everyone should be reading now, so that’s all you can ask for.
In terms of how we feel, I’d say both deeply humbled and also extremely confident. Quite frankly, just getting to sit down with someone like Nigel Newton and talk about Sorcery for Beginners feels surreal. It was three years ago that we were raising our first round of seed investment using the anecdote of how he published Harry Potter after his daughter fell in love with the manuscript as evidence in support of the value proposition of reader-curation.
But there’s also not a modicum of doubt in our minds that Inkshares is the most sophisticated story machine in history. Every story here has been vetted by interactions with thousands of readers, edited by both authors with multiple starred reviews as well as award-winning screenwriters, and deftly packaged for film and TV after deep consideration by agents and producers with billions of dollars of box-office gross. I’m a lawyer by training, and you learn the principle of res ipsa loquitur in torts—“the thing speaks for itself.” My job isn’t to sell our stories—it’s to make sure they get read so that they can speak for themselves.
So tell us about the books.
Hah! Right after I said I’m not here to sell! I’ll stick to three right now.
The Punch Escrow is a hard-sci-fi thriller with a love story at its core. It follows Joel Byram, an everyday guy who in the year 2147 “arrives” at his destination without “departing” his point of origin, thus revealing a big secret about the true physics of teleportation. Now the Joels are being hunted down by the all-powerful corporation that controls teleportation while trying to make it back to their wife in a world that now has two of them. Somebody DM’d me today on Twitter to say that Tal Klein is the next Michael Crichton.
Devil’s Call is a breathtaking work of historical fantasy in which a pregnant witch hunts down the possessed man who killed her husband. By the time the manuscript had finished circulating in Hollywood, it had earned “The Revenant with witches.” I have heard Jamie, the author, called “Cormac McCarthy meets Anne Rice.” It had me and a lot of readers on the platform with the first line: “Before I leave you in this world, my dear, I aim to record what came to pass when your momma rode from the Nebraska Territory to Louisiana to the frozen Badlands to bring to justice the monster who murdered your father.”
A God in the Shed is a genre-bending true-crime novel that has been early reviewed as “If Stephen King wrote True Detective”. It follows a middle-aged detective and a young girl in a small town in Quebec as we slowly peel back the relationship between a spate of serial killings and worship of a dark spirit. Obviously crime is really big here as a genre, and I think of J-F., the author, as a Harlan Coben-M. Night Shyamalan mashup.
And what’s next for Inkshares?
Work hard to get even better at everything we do and continue to execute every day by adding value to authors and their stories.