Earlier this week I had the opportunity to talk with Kevin Gao, co-founder of Hyperink. Hyperink is an e-book publishing platform and marketplace, with a twist: it focuses on transforming the web’s best blogs into books and on curating the knowledge of experts. With titles from Richard Nikoley, MG Siegler, Alexis Ohanian, and Brad Feld, Hyperink isn’t messing around.
Tell me about how you got the idea for Hyperink:
In 2009 I wrote an e-book about how to get a job in consulting and that e-book ended up doing really well. I built a website for it, self published it, etc., etc., and by 2011 it was making over six figures. At that point I was like well crap, there’s a huge opportunity here to help other people do the same thing. So then, we started Hyperink. We went through Combinator in early 2011 and ended up raising a little over a million dollars in late 2011.
There are millions and millions and millions of people out there that have expertise in all sorts of random interesting topics. A lot of these experts have already created content, some haven’t—how do you work with them to put that knowledge into short, targeted, simple, beautiful e-books and then really leverage this massive growth in e-readers and digital content to share that knowledge with the world and help them make money.
Why hasn’t a company like Amazon or an e-reader platform already done this?
The interesting thing is that they have in different ways. The space is definitely heating up. What Amazon has done is to create a self-publishing platform to allow anyone do it themselves. The problems with self-publishing platforms, one, the channels are very segmented. If you want to publish to Amazon and to Barnes & Noble and to Apple you have to go over that process yourself multiple times. There are all sorts of different formats so you have technical complexity, and there are all of these little things you need to then do yourself that are taking away from your time creating high quality content. So what’s Hyperink’s proposition is that we’ll take care of that. We build technology to get your e-book into all the different bookstores. We specialize in shorter nonfiction stuff. We know what sells, we have the data for it, we have the expertise, we’ll be the guy who takes the crapwork off your shoulders so you can just focus on making the content awesome.
How does this scale?
That’s the billion dollar question. Our focus right now is on perfecting the process, making sure that every book we put out there is awesome. And then the idea is that we’re really understanding what the process is like we can build the tools to eventually automate it. When we first started there were something like 160 steps it took to create a book and then get it into the marketplace, we’ve since automated it down to 13. So we went from 160, 170 steps down to 13 steps, then we think we can get it down to 10. It’s never going to be completely automated, because ultimately it requires a human being to make sure the response is good, but the idea is the better we understand the process the better tools and software we can build.
Is it true that you give authors 50% royalties?
It’s weighted heavily to the author, so we will give up to 50% royalties. But if you’re a guy whose just starting and you know you don’t have that much traffic or distribution we might end up taking more royalties in that situation. It’s really on a case-by-case basis. But we do view ourselves as offering more generous royalties than traditional publishers.
How are you selecting who to publish?
Our big focus right now is the whole concept of blog to book. How do you translate blogs that have all this amazing content into these great books. When we first did press we got more than a thousand bloggers signed up to want to do this, and we’re being pretty selective about it right now because the most important thing for us right now is to establish our brand and make sure the books are good, so the majority of them we probably won’t end up doing.
Are you selecting the books to publish based on a certain target consumer demographic or are you more cultivating a set of brand values around the titles?
There’s this constant struggle that startups face between focusing on what you’re good at versus diversifying, and so I think to date we’ve focused on things like startups and entrepreneurship, you’ll also notice we have some books on health, fitness, diet, so those are two areas we’re excited by. But I do believe that as we start to grow we’re going to add more areas, because our fundamental hypothesis is that almost regardless of what topic it is, you can create and sell a great book. If you look at e-book stores today, what books sell, once again almost any topic.
What’s your marketing like for the books once they actually come out?
We shy away from traditional market models focused on offline marketing. All the data we’ve seen tends to indicate that that’s very resource and work intensive but doesn’t necessarily drive book sales. Our real focus is on a couple of things: one is getting the books into every distribution channel we can, because the more eyeballs we get the more people will buy it; the second thing is that we’re experts at search engine optimization, and so a lot of the work we do is optimizing your book for discovery in the Kindle store, in the Nook store, in the iBook store; and then the third thing we do is in our own marketplace, which is now the second biggest channel for us and the fastest growing one. We’ve built a really big mailing list of people who enjoy these types of books so we can promote to them, we can promote in our marketplace, we can push it heavily that way.
Your product is almost as cheap as a song on iTunes.
The funny thing for us is that we tested all different price points. We’ve got books as high as 25 dollars and as low as 99 cents, but I think really its going to come down to what the topic is, what the blogger and author want, but I think ultimately for us we believe whatever the price is has to deliver twice the value. Readers have to love it.
It sounds to me like Hyperink is like an e-book publishing imprint, and that the real difference is that a lot of the content is already created and you’re doing more content curation—but it’s not like a vanity press, there’s some editorial involvement. Is there confusion do you think?
I think there’s a little bit of it, and that’s the most important thing for us to do: make it very clear that when you buy a Hyperink book it’s a high quality book, because absolutely we don’t view ourselves as a vanity press, we don’t view ourselves as a self-publishing platform. That’s one of the biggest differences between us and Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords or Lulu. We really do have the selection process, we put editorial effort into it, we make sure that everything that comes out is good and is worth your money. I think that’s one of the biggest problems today in self publishing is that there are something like three to four hundred thousand self published titles coming out every year. How do you find the good stuff to publish it? So we want people to trust and believe in Hyperink’s brand.
Are you guys thinking about on-demand printing?
We actually do that, we use CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon, and we offer print on demand options through that service. It’s been good.
Do you think that using analytics on e-readers and e-books will be a successful strategy for targeting content at readers, or do you think that people are more sensitive to that kind of manipulation when it comes to reading than with television or music?
I have no doubt that in the next 15, 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 years from now data is going to be increasingly important, behavior is going to be better understood, and targeting is going to be towards a more and more personalized experience. Of course, there are going to be hiccups along the way, people are going to get upset at certain things. The whole Facebook newsfeed debacle, trying to push privacy at the same time, has shown that. From my perspective with e-book data, I think that one of the most interesting things out there is this opportunity to understand what pages people stop at, what chapters they read, what they don’t—not only implicit data but also the explicit data—you can vote up paragraphs, you can comment, we can get sense of what you like and don’t like. A lot of this stuff is going to take a while to understand the best ways to use it, but we’re big believers in it, and for us the big reason we have Hyperink’s own marketplace is we also launched a cloud reader for all our books, because then we can start getting those really valuable insights on customer behavior.
What’s next for Hyperink?
Publish a lot more great books is maybe the simplest thing to say. We’re pushing the envelope on a couple of really interesting things. One I just mentioned is the cloud reader The idea behind it, in-house we jokingly call it the crowd reader, the idea is to allow groups of people to read books, comment, discuss, and interact with it, and so you’re making the book better while you’re doing it, the content gets incorporated into the book. So we’re really excited about that. The second thing is really pushing the envelope on what it means to be a book. So this idea that if we’re curating content from blogs into books why not curate the best comments, why not curate related tweets, and so what it becomes is kind of a subscription to a topic that you’re passionate about. We’re just finding the best content online to deliver to you.
Do you have comments and social media in books right now?
We do for some for some of our books like Brad Feld’s Burning Entrepreneur. We also did a little for some of our other books. Reader reaction has been really positive.
I guess when you make an account on a site you sign away the ownership of your comments.
I still think that’s one of those things where we still need to figure out what the rights are. For us, we’re just very hell bent on pushing the envelope for delivering an awesome reading experience to people. I think if you care a lot about the caveman diet you really just want the best information possible. On the Internet, there’s so much good information but it’s hard to find. We think that books are a really good way to deliver it to you in a curated, structured form.