Readwise makes your e-book highlights and notes work harder

Readwise makes your e-book highlights and notes work harder

The founders of new Silicon Valley startup, Readwise, want to help non-fiction e-book readers "read better, read more, and forget less".

The pitch

Readwise is new publishing software that helps non-fiction e-readers to harness their unused reading data (such as notes and highlights) to get more out of ebooks. "We help readers read better, read more, and forget less," says founder Daniel Doyon,

Launched in September this year, Readwise is built on top of existing platforms, such as Kindle and iBooks. It offers an easy new way for users to access their notes and highlights and then make practical use of that data, such as a daily email with a collection of their favorite passages from their favorite books. More advanced users can review, search, organize, edit, take notes, and more through the Readwise web app.

"Long-term," says Doyon, "the vision is to create a first-class e-reading experience designed specifically with readers of non-fiction in mind."

The team

All three founders - Daniel Doyon, Michelle Pokrass, and Tristan Homsi - are outsiders to the book publishing industry, but they have considerable collective experience building web apps and large-scale systems for companies such as Google, Stripe, Superhuman, Coinbase and Hive.

Doyon studied finance at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and was formerly a director for a US-based private equity firm. Pokrass and Homsi are currently finishing their undergraduate degrees in computer science at the University of Waterloo in Canada. 

"The three of us met when we were all living in San Francisco, quickly bonding over a shared interest in reading tech," Doyon reports. "Tristan and Michelle were working on software to help readers maintain and optimize their reading lists while Dan was working on software to retain more from reading. We decided to merge our projects and collaborate on Readwise."

What's the gap in the market ?

The Readwise are firmly focusing their efforts on capturing "non-fiction power readers." 

"The vast majority of non-fiction reading is still analog," Doyon explains. "We’ve seen research putting adult nonfiction at 90% print / 10% ebook compared to fiction, which is more like 50% print / 50% ebook. This isn’t because nonfiction simply can’t be digitized; instead, it’ because the dominant players have focused on mass market fiction (e.g., romance and thrillers), neglecting the distinct needs of nonfiction readers."

He believes that print books will continue to flourish in fiction and entertainment categories, but that non-fiction titles focused on knowledge and learning will be uniformly digitised.

"Cognitive science has repeatedly demonstrated that we forget more than 70% of what read in less than a week," he says. "This is fine in the context of fiction -- indeed, it might even be desirable!  But if you’re investing 10 hours of free time into a non-fiction book to learn something new, this is terribly inefficient. We help users take advantage of their previously unused digital notes and highlights to stave off what is know as the “forgetting curve”.  We do this by applying the principles of spaced repetition and active recall to the practice of reading."

Success so far?

The company is still young - the team only released a beta test of Readwise to the public at the end of September. But Doyon claims they've already attracted thousands of users by word of mouth alone, and that hundreds of those users spend hours each day on the web app.

Biggest challenges?

Doyon anticipates that their biggest hurdle will appear when they run out of existing e-book readers to market to.  

"We will ultimately need to persuade print readers to switch to ebooks if we are to succeed," he admits. "We appreciate that many of our target readers have an aesthetic, perhaps emotional, attachment to printed books, so converting them will be a daunting task. However, we’re confident that technology can make reading for knowledge, learning, or enlightenment so much better, that we’ll get readers to switch."

Ultimate ambition?

"We like to say that our mission is to improve the practice of non-fiction reading by an order of magnitude," Doyon declares. "This means helping readers choose books that are twice as good, read twice as fast, and retain twice as much."

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"We’ve discovered that Silicon Valley considers the market for e-books to be miniscule compared to the other "addressable markets" bandied about the tech industry.  Aside from the implicit virtue of helping people read more and better, we think there are three reasons to ignore this feedback.  

First, power readers exert disproportionate influence on society -- think Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Oprah, and so on.  Second, education is shifting from something you do until you’re 21 years old to something you do your entire life and books, of course, are the foundation of self-learning -- the real market to think about is education.  Finally, the world's richest man (as of last Friday) started out selling books."