Wonderbly (neé Lost My Name) is one of just a handful of bookish start-ups launched in the past decade to have made it. Launched in 2012, the business now turns over £25m in annual sales, with a personalised product range including launch title The Little Girl/Boy Who Lost Her/His Name and its latest, the Roald Dahl Estate-licensed My Golden Ticket.
I first met one of its four founders, Asi Sharabi, in 2014. The first book had been launched and was selling, but Sharabi wanted to make better contacts in the traditional publishing world. Two things stuck out from that meeting. First, unlike many start-up businesses that piggyback off publishing, Sharabi did not really need publishers. He and his team had built an engine that could create a multi-page print-on-demand title based on the letters in a child’s name, with the creative and storytelling designed in-house. These the company sold direct through its website. Second, Sharabi actually had a product consumers wanted. The personalised book sector is a big and growing industry, but also one largely discredited by the ubiquity of cheap books. Sharabi wanted to change that perception - the books are printed on premium paper, sourced by Sharabi, and sold to the more than 12 operations it works with around the world. Each book, from wherever it is printed, feels the same, costing upwards of £16.99.
The company reported that it sold 133,000 copies of its launch title in the UK in 2014 - outselling the top picture book that year, Julia Donaldson’s Superworm - and 325,000 copies worldwide. The business has now sold three million units, with the original book still its bestseller, accounting for 85% of sales. In autumn 2015 the publisher launched its second product, The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home: the book charts a child’s journey home, with the concluding pages using mapping technology to pull in satellite imagery of the child’s home. Sharabi calls it the “most technically ambitious and expensive picture book ever created”. But its launch also changed the direction of the business. “We were naïve and super optimistic, and perhaps this was our innovation vanity,” he says. The book did well, but crucially not as well as the first title. Sharabi says its model had been Pixar: one big successful film every few years. “The difference is Pixar has $200m to spend on production and then a further $300m for marketing. We can’t invest in marketing as much as we invest in product.”
It meant that though much of the company’s audience liked the new product, it was still only a sub-section of those who had bought the first title. “You can call it the second album syndrome, but trying to replicate that original product turned out to be the wrong strategy,” says Sharabi. Instead the company accelerated its plan to have a suite of products. “We shifted from a hits businesses to a portfolio operation. This takes us much closer to a traditional publishing model.”
Over the past year, the business launched five new titles, as well as a range of gift items - products, says Sharabi, for each occasion. “We are getting faster and better and cheaper in launching a new concept and, as a result, we are seeing 80% of customers coming back to buy something new.” The business also rebranded, from Lost My Name to Wonderbly. “We felt the legacy - the product name also being the company name and the brand - was holding us back. The first product is still doing well, still the bestseller, and there will be a sequel next year, but it is its own product, not the company.”
Perhaps more pivotal was the licensing agreement with the Roald Dahl Estate, the first time the estate had commissioned a new story, and the first time Sharabi had licensed from an existing creative. “There are already enough bad personalised books in the world, but this felt a bit different. We were able to work with the estate to create something new. If we can find the right partners, my prediction is that we’ll do one a year - there are so many other worlds we can play with.“ It also secured $8.5m in funding in an investment round led by German publisher Ravensburger. When I ask Sharabi if this means that there will be pressure to make the business profitable, after a £2.5m loss in 2016, he says: “Soon. I don’t know exactly when, but soon.” First it wants to expand its marketing so that consumers can discover its products in places other than “the tiny corner of the internet” where it currently resides. It has put a franchise into the John Lewis store on Oxford Street in London, and Sharabi wants to find more shelves where its products can be found.
At the FutureBook Conference, Sharabi will be in conversation with Sara Lloyd, digital and communications director at Pan Macmillan, about innovation. He says: “It’s super tough, so make sure there is a reason behind it.” Whatever the idea, “have a purpose in mind”. His? “I never wanted to just disrupt, I wanted to be part of the future of the publishing business.”
This is the third thing that stuck out from that original meeting. Like many people in the books business, Sharabi is in it for the right reasons.