A Thousand Flowers Bloom

In fits and starts, Spanish publishing is poised to join the digital (r)evolution. Rather than the imminent landing of the major international players, a proof of this has been the XIX Liber (October 5-7), the trade show that is a reference to both the Spanish and Latin-American markets. Sponsored by the Federación de Gremios de Editores de España, Liber is a good indicator of the temperature of the industry. And the big news this year was the inauguration of a new business area, Liber Digital.

Organized by Arantxa Mellado and Silvia Mas, it featured workshops, lectures and round tables that included players as different as Google and Intangible, an indie digital publisher that has launched a flash fiction series to be sold and read in smartphones. One notable absentee was Amazon, whose recent launch in Spain raised great expectations, not yet fulfilled.

Liber Digital has been a succes d’éstime, a touchstone, and a beacon of hope for those who’d like not be left behind regarding the changes already operated in other markets. Among the optimists are Justo Hidalgo and Aitor Grandes, founders of 24 Symbols, a Spanish startup that is getting more blackened pixels than titles for sale in its freemium subscription business model.

There Will Never Be a Spotify of Books

Several circumstances have contributed to the misunderstanding generated around 24 Symbols.

The first was the identification with Netflix and Spotify, long before the beta release, a business model of impossible translation for the book, due to the simple reason that not all digital content yield the same consumer experience online. The cloud is not necessarily synonymous with streaming.

Another one is that 24 Symbols staff have a background in engineering and software, without roots in the publishing industry or the world of high culture that publishers believe they dominate. It caused an automatic corporate xenophobia, which tended to ridicule their proposals instead of allowing what would have been natural –the celebration of an ambitious local technologic development.

For this lack of knowledge of the environment in which they were treading, 24 Symbols let the meme “the Spotify of books” circulate freely. And it became one their worst handicaps.

Analogies, if used to comparing something very well-known with something that is not, facilitate the cognitive leap to the new. Matt Mullin, with unmistaken instinct, tried to give back 24 Symbols to the book world in a post where he compared – though negatively—their business model with that of libraries. It was an arrow shot toward the target.

There will never be a Netflix or a Spotify of books, as noted Javier Celaya in three articles that appeared in Publishing Perspectives. He is right, but 24 Symbols is not such and deserves to live beyond the misunderstanding. My analogy is easy to understand because there are old and dignified precedents in the industry. The subscription model hasn’t been alien to us. If 24 Symbols shall have a future, it must find its model in book clubs as, for example, Círculo the Lectores or Book-Of-The-Month, and adapt it to the Internet age. Doing this, Justo and Aitor will find new challenges that they will undoubtedly tackle with determination and joy.

Love Your Neighbour

Right here, on FutureBook, Justo Hidalgo acknowledged that 24 Symbols needs to reach a critical mass of users who are comfortable with a free reading experience that involves the presence of advertising. And then, a significant percentage of conversion to paid subscription services, or premium.

Welcome to reality. There will be no critical mass of users if there is no critical mass of content on offer. It turns out that those broadly known as “users” are also known as readers, readers of books, which is a somewhat special activity. And the keys to the castle where you find that kind of content are not in the hands of retailers or distributors, but in those of publishers. Can you ask them a leap of faith?

No. For two strong reasons.

1. Sales of printed books, which is the core business of publishers, continue to decline (-6.2 % in 2010) and all their efforts will be to preserve what already exists.

2. The vast majority of the contracts that publishers have with their authors does not include the exploitation of secondary rights, such as subscription rights, and even less a revenue based on advertising.

Rights are not a minor issue and they don’t depend only on the will of publishers. Rights issues have been at the centre of Spain’s delay in the adoption of ebooks. Anglo-saxon publishers, especially Americans, have been renegotiating contracts for more than ten years and thus we now have a considerable range of ebook titles in bookstores such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

But there’s something else in publisher’s reluctance towards 24 Symbols. It focuses in the always strained field of which percentage of the income from a book should go to each of the copyright holders –author and publisher. With secondary rights, publishers are bound to give the author 40-60 % of any proceeds from the exploitation of the work. Renegotiating agreements in this sense is to ask publishers to reopen a bitter argument with literary agents, which they recently have considered closed.

The subscription model is an interesting option to explore, but 24 Symbols can’t propose themselves as just another retailing channel. Because they are not, at least not in the logic of the rules and practices that govern the industry.

And if they propose themselves as a book club, they will be forced to become publishers who exploit secondary rights.

It is not an easy path, but is more likely to succeed than preaching in the desert in search of a leap of faith that will never come. Because, as Justo said in his article, ROI is the mantra of both parties.

Books As A Service

This is the core idea behind 24 Symbols, and I must confess I like it. It’s one that sums up perfectly the function of books through the ages as bearers of knowledge, as vehicles of our conversations with the dead and the absent, and the very nature of the Internet. While others are bent on creating objects to sell through gamification, enhanced book and transmedia, the attitude of this Spanish startup is at least refreshing.

Now that the Spanish book market is beginning to accept that there is life beyond the paper, we only can hope that a thousand flowers bloom. 24 Symbols is an exotic flower that deserves to thrive in this garden, where it will need some special care.


On Friday 14th October, at the press conference prior to the announcement of the winner of Premio Planeta (with an endowment of € 601 000), CEO Jose Manuel Lara officially unveiled the imminent launch of e-Circulo, a platform of ebooks in the cloud that will offer titles “for rent”. The similarities with the 24 Symbols project are such that you dare to speak of creative plagiarism. This abrupt change in Planeta strategy raises important questions about the future of Libranda, the distribution platform in which the Spanish Big Three are partners. It also presents a new challenge for independent initiatives, because e-Circulo will profit of the several hundred thousand members of Circulo de Lectores, the p-book club owned by the gargantuan Spanish publisher. A competitive advantage difficult to defy.