Startup of the week: Orson & Co

Startup of the week: Orson & Co

Frustrated with ebooks' failure to live up to their early promise, the team behind Orson & Co believe they've created "the literary equivalent of the hoverboards that everyone expected the future to bring."

The pitch

The next generation of ebooks that harness the possibilities of touchscreen devices to throw fuel on the fire of readers' imagination, incorporating music, images, video and other media seamlessly for a deeply satisfying and memorable reading experience. 

Who's behind it

An impressive team that blends long-term industry experience with fresh outsider thinking. 

Weidenfeld & Nicolson author Richard Mason conceived the idea when he was first shown an iPad and in 2012 his novel, History of a Pleasure Seeker, became Orson & Co's first experiment (marketed as an 'eLume', a term the company has now dropped in favour of 'Orsons'). His co-founder is artist and award-winning author Benjamin Morse, who co-designed the product and has managed the company since its inception. 

Kevin McSherry, who developed Sony Playstation's fastest revenue-earning franchise (Buzz) and was the former studio head of Activision Blizzard's DJ Hero, is Director of Product Management, while Jonathan Ruppin, one of the UK's most knowledgeable and respected booksellers, left Foyles after 13 years to curate the company's list of titles across a range of target markets.

What's the gap in the market?

"Up to now, ebooks have been little more than digital photocopies, dull and uniform experiences with little to recommend them beyond their convenience," Mason explains. "With sales of standard ebooks falling, most publishers are exploring digital ideas, but so far all we've seen is a series of standalone apps, very few of which have even recouped the cost of being developed from scratch each time. But now it's time for them to evolve, to become what people imagined ebooks we going to be like, the literary equivalent of the hoverboards that everyone expected the future to bring. 

"Orson offers authors and publishers a non-Amazon route to market with a format that shows off the cream of their lists to their best advantage. We also allow authors and publishers to connect directly with their core fanbases, giving them feedback and helping to spread the word. "

Success so far? 

The Orson edition of History of a Pleasure Seeker generated 3000 downloads in the US and won several awards, and the team is currently creating its spring launch list with a range of both fiction and non-fiction titles. Big names are on board: readers for the audiobooks that form part of every Orson, synced at sentence level, include Dan Stevens and Joanna Lumley, while the company's branding is being led by Sir John Hegarty, founder of BBH. Apple is supporting the company in creating a distinctive new kind of store interface that will maximise discoverability.

Tech critic Melissa Perenson has described the Orson as “the single best digital book interface I have seen in my life” and former Man Booker Prize judge Amanda Foreman calls them “the most exciting venture in publishing today”.

Biggest challenges?

"Securing investment and developing the software are both long-term projects that have required patience and persistence, but we have the backing we need to making the original vision a reality," Mason says. "The biggest challenge to come is getting our platform in front of readers. But the response to our edition of History of a Pleasure Seeker in the US makes us confident that we've created something with that word-of-mouth quality that is essential to any success in the book world."

Ultimate ambition?

The Orson & Co team is clear that this isn't just about making a few bucks on a neat business idea - it's about pioneering a whole new ebook ideology. According to Mason, "we hope we're stimulating a new art form, analogous to the branching off of cinema from theatre, when the technology of the cine-camera started allowing actors and directors to do things that weren't possible on a stage." 

Advice for other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Be true to the vision of what you're trying to create," Mason insists. "Quality without compromise is the best way to stand out in a crowded field."