This was, of course, not at all planned but it was fortuitous timing that Firsty Group happened to launch Glassboxx, its sister company and consumer-facing e-books and audio app, at the beginning of 2020. For if there was a lesson to take away from the pandemic for the trade, particularly early on, it was that it may not be beneficial to be in a position where all of its eggs are in one Amazon-sized basket.
Darin Brockman, founder and c.e.o. of publishing digital services firm Firsty and Glassboxx, says: “In a way, this really goes back to the beginning as we started Firsty partly because Amazon has such a stranglehold on the marketplace and we wanted to help people loosen that grip. But we had literally just launched Glassboxx when the pandemic hit—and remember, this was at a time when publishers couldn’t even ship their books—and a lot of publishers were thinking: ‘Where’s our revenue going to come from over the next few months? Are we even going to survive this?’ So there was huge concern, and we had a lot of publishers coming on board very quickly.
“Obviously, those revenues picked up and publishing has come out of the pandemic pretty well, almost across the board. I like to think Firsty and Glassboxx have helped in that. There have been some exceptional successes: we were talking to Pavilion the other day and they have a title [Gennaro Contaldo’s charity cookery book, Gennaro’s Good Food for Hard Times] which has sold into 69 countries on Glassboxx.”
On the road
In many ways, Glassboxx is a multi-generational product, descended from Firsty Express, an e-book platform the company tried to launch more than a decade ago. Brockman admits the timing wasn’t so great that time around: “We went to publishers and said: ‘We have this brilliant product, give us your e-books.’ And a lot of them said: ‘That sounds great, but we don’t have any e-books.’ I didn’t really factor that part in—we were much too early to market.”
After Firsty Express, the company pivoted to e-book conversion, app development and producing digital children’s books along with the building of general websites and e-commerce sites with which Firsty was originally founded. But Brockman still thought the B2C consumer e-book app was a goer, so a couple of years ago Firsty set up Glassboxx as a separate company and the team began investing in the tech and working on it in earnest, concentrating on its user experience, a seamless DRM and audiobook functionality.
Since launch, Glassboxx has worked with close to 60 publishers, ranging from indies such as Canbury Press, Black & White and Icon to conglomerates like Quarto, Macmillan, Bonnier and Hachette. Publishers have been signing up, he says, for the relative ease of integrating Glassboxx to their sites and because there are no upfront costs. It can be branded, too: there are ongoing discussions with many publishers around the white-labelling of the Glassboxx apps.
Brockman was also keen to make sure there were operational points of difference compared to Amazon, such as publishers receiving at least 80% of the net price, being given social media tools, having access to analytics and—this may be the crucial point of difference from Amazon—being paid quickly. Also, and this harks back to Firsty’s experience in building publisher websites, Glassboxx was designed even for companies that don’t have transactional websites, as it can take care of digital fulfilment. Brockman says: “You can see why a lot of publishers don’t have an e-commerce site for physical books: it sometimes can be difficult to integrate with your distributors and you end up competing against Amazon, with its next-day delivery. But with digital, I think every single publisher should be selling direct. Sure, some publishers will say, ‘Well, we’re not a retailer.’ And I get that, but if you give your customers a good experience, it integrates seamlessly and there’s no upfront cost... why wouldn’t you want to sell direct?”
For all that innovation, Brockman is keenly aware that what would be truly beneficial for Glassboxx is a push from publishers and creators. It is the critical mass (and ease of use) that keeps readers in the Amazon ecosphere, certainly not its clunky Kindle tech. Brockman says: “This is where the authors come in. The really big successes we have had, particularly on the indie publisher side, is when an author has pushed the Glassboxx e-book or audio on social media.”
On the road
Brockman was raised largely in Berkshire, although he has an American father and a British mother and was born in Midlands, Michigan, where the family lived for a couple of years before moving to England. In his early twenties he got interested in tech, first web security and then development and design.
The concentration on the publishing industry began in the mid-Noughties, when he was heading up tech company BCL NuMedia and gave a talk on website development. An indie publisher saw the presentation then asked him to co-author a book—the end product was 2008’s The Website Workout (Words at Work). He says: “That led to some interesting conversations about e-books and where that market was at. And then we did a website for Laurence King, which opened my eyes, and I thought there was an opportunity in publishing for a business like ours. We launched Firsty a short time later.”
Firsty/Glassboxx is based in Newbury and currently has 21 full-time staff members. Brockman says the company prides itself on its flexible and “open and flat” way of working: “We have an offshore Indian development partner, which has a very hierarchical structure, and when we first started working with them, they were shocked how we operated because everyone’s opinion is of value. But we are open because products evolve constantly, and you need knowledge and engagement from your whole team.”
The development of Glassboxx is going in a number of different directions. While it was picked up largely by trade publishers in the beginning, Brockman recently launched a “B2B2C” package with “a large educational publisher” (details to be released soon) which is a library of content that the publisher sells into institutions, who will then provide the content for students. Brockman is not just looking at publishers; Glassboxx is currently in talks with US and Australian retailers about partnerships.
What excites Brockman is that his side of the business constantly changes: “It’s evolving all the time. We use 18-month roadmaps but we are always rolling out new things, updating and adapting. But ultimately, engaging with publishers on that roadmap is what I really love. Because the more successful they are, the more successful we are.”