'Readers don’t really want to have the book reinvented': how Ampersand is reinvigorating print

'Readers don’t really want to have the book reinvented': how Ampersand is reinvigorating print

Last December, Reading in Heels - a female-focused book and lifestyle subscription box - made it through to the final BookTech pitch-off at the FutureBook 2017 conference. It didn't scoop the prize, but the judges were clear that the company and its founder, Alice Revel, had a smart product with big potential.

Seven months on, we decided it was high time to catch up with Revel to find out how Reading in Heels has developed, and to share some of the lessons she's learned on the journey from start-up to sustainable business.

Can it only be ten months since we were pitching Reading in Heels as the BookTech Company of the Year at FutureBook 2017? Clichéd as you like, but time really has flown by since November last year.

We didn’t win the award - and as a company that had launched only four months earlier (and the youngest startup on stage), it was clearly a real privilege even to have been nominated... But we didn’t really expect to win anyway - it was quite obvious from the start that the shiny all-bells-and-whistles storytelling app unrd would receive the award, as the cool kid trying to reinvent the book.

However, eight months on, one thing I’m certain of is this: readers don’t really want to have the book reinvented. We’re more keenly aware than ever, that tech - in many ways a boon to our busy, always-on, permanently-multitasking lives - is something that can, in fact, be damaging. We know that we need to learn to take breaks from technology.  And we certainly don’t need algorithms or Alexa to help us read.

Rather than endless attempts to seamlessly integrate technology, a book in itself is the very antidote to tech. In our endlessly-scrolling, screen-saturated times, people don’t want yet another app trying to be a book. What they really want is a book. And Dr Eliza Filby - the keynote whose speech concluded the FutureBook awards -  outlined that with some watertight stats on Gen Z. Sure, they’re glued to their devices, but the next generation love real books. They’re not interested in ugly, awkward old Kindles or an app pretending to be a novel. They want authenticity; the experience of soft, papery pages and the beguiling, unique scent of a new book. Creating the context for the perfect peaceful, tech-free reading experience is our mission.

To be a true, card-carrying member of London’s shiny startup ecosystem, any company worth their scenester chops must surely be able to talk about funding and investment, right? For some, sure - but the quest to attract VCs can cloud vision and skew judgment. A consumer-facing business needs to be customer-focused - it might be cool to chat numbers over flat whites in your coworking space with the investment team, but the people who buy the products must be your focus. If they won’t spend their cash, you don’t have a business. Meeting the other BookTech Company of the Year participants helped us zero in on that guiding principle. Customers are, and will continue to be our focus - we’ve never had or sought any investment.

Away from the rosy glow of the awards? Despite every startup hitch you could possibly conceive (payment issues, website issues, software issues, delivery issues, warehouse issues and even a publisher ‘losing’ 800 books somewhere…), we’re still growing, and going strong. And member feedback that each box is better than the last definitely doesn’t hurt.

We’ve grown from Reading in Heels into The Ampersand Book Company: a parent brand offering a lot more than our launch product. And a whole lot more than I could ever have imagined a year ago. We’ve created bespoke book boxes for corporates and even a limited edition book and beauty box based on Sali Hughes’ Pretty Iconic - which sold out almost instantly. We’ve hosted book events. We’ve been featured in so many mainstream media outlets - not to mention across blogs and social media on a daily basis. And I was named one of the FutureBook 40 - a real honour and a bit of a shock!

Partnerships with aligned brands - including likes of Bloom & Wild - have helped us grow, and we’re continuing to look at new ways to engage with members and non-members alike. Our latest launch is a podcast: The Stories That Changed My Life. Working with Founders Factory-backed podcast app Entale, we invite guests to share the life stories and literary stories that have inspired and touched them. A books podcast for the non-bookish, The Stories That Changed My Life is one part good old-fashioned storytelling, one part Desert Island Discs. Fascinating and genuine, our launch guest was prolific novelist and Red’s literary editor, Sarra Manning, and we’ve more exciting voices lined up.

We’ve just unveiled our second subscription product: Books + Beer. The pitch? ‘Books and beer, delivered monthly. Leave behind the swipe-scroll-like and take time to broaden your mind, and relax with a book and the finest craft beers.’ As with Reading in Heels, Books + Beer aims to create the perfect moment to sit down and enjoy the simple pleasure of reading. Members select their preferred genre - non-fiction (self-development, business, popular science, society & politics) or high-quality crime - and receive a recently-published paperback, along with two craft beers. We also include tasting notes and recipe ideas, plus soundtrack suggestions for a truly chilled-out night in. We’ve partnered with CALM on Books + Beer, with a 50p donation from every box benefiting the male mental health charity.

So what’s next? Christmas, of course! With statistics showing that subscription commerce is stronger than ever, we’ll be curating some very special book gifts to get even more people reading. Beyond Christmas, we’ve got big plans for 2019 - watch this space.

Do publishers need new tech products to engage readers? Absolutely not. As Netflix’s c.e.o. explained - other channels aren’t their competition, sleep is. For publishers - sure, it’s a crowded market, but competition isn’t other books. It’s mobile phones. Attempt to bring books and reading to our mobiles if you like - but there’s no doubt, we’ll choose Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp every time.

Readers do want to engage with books though; a space free from fake news, body-shaming, trolls and competition for likes. So how to compete in our distraction-packed world? Work out how to make readers choose to put their device away and engage with books. And that really could be as simple as some scented bath salts or a couple of craft beers.