By Bethanne Patrick
VANCOUVER: “I often write emails that favor grammatically correct English over colloquial speech,” says Rochelle Grayson, CEO of BookRiff, the Canadian digital-media startup that launches in public beta tomorrow, “My mother was a high-school English teacher.” That Grayson’s mother also enrolled at Juilliard in her 30s to pursue a music career and did so quite successfully is a nice nod to “BookRiff” as a company name, of course, but it also speaks far to Grayson’s willingness to jump into new projects.
The veteran of five startups, Grayson joined BookRiff, the digital media company that is a partner of Vancouver-based Douglas & McIntyre publishing company, at the behest of founder Mark Scott, whom she knew from a philosophy book club.
“I like to go into chaos and organize it,” says Grayson. “I’ve always straddled the worlds of new and traditional media, so my strength is in seeing how to move back and forth between the two.” What she means about negotiating the worlds of new and traditional media when it comes to BookRiff is that their business model combines traditional media — vetted, edited, and formatted content — from book publishers, with new media capabilities of “slicing and dicing” that content into discrete chunks (BookRiff calls them “Notes,” in keeping with their musical theme) that consumers can purchase and recombine into any kind of form they can imagine. That means professors can put together coursebooks, avid gourmets can assemble custom cookbooks, and travelers can choose which pieces of content will go into their individual guidebooks.
“With BookRiff, we have what we believe is a future for highly curated, highly customized content for very large niche audiences,” says Grayson. “It’s one solution of many on the digital publishing front, but it meets a need that isn’t being served anywhere else to this extent.” BookRiff, which is already working with over half a dozen traditional publishers and plans on agreements with dozens more, takes care of all licensing and copyright arrangements so that when a consumer comes to their site to assemble a “Riff,” all they have to do is purchase content and watch its tally on their screen.
Grayson believes that book publishers have neglected the experiential aspect of reading. “I’ll be honest, where publishers have floundered and sold themselves short is by emphasizing content over experience. For example, telling a reader that ‘This book has been well reviewed.’ The reader doesn’t care! The reader wants to know what she will get from that book. We’ve gotten too far away from that experience, which is what we’re actually selling. In publishing, we’ve been terrific about streamlining the production process — but too often, we leave the marketing message to retailers.”
As Grayson provides of tour of BookRiff.com, she notes that the company is in “soft launch with a lot of hand-holding. I make money when I sell content, but the back-end system right now is by invitation only, because we want to make sure we have good publishers, good content, and good curators (or “Riffers”), even if it means we don’t have as much content as we’d like at first.” The company has targeted several verticals and already has deals in place with O’Reilly Media, Harvard Common Press, Sterling Publishers, and, of course, Douglas & McIntyre.
Visitors to the site who go in “cold” will be able to browse and see which already crafted “Riffs” are for sale, as well as start crafting their own — but until a purchase is made, they won’t get the full text of any “Note.” However, you will always be able to see any Riff or book’s table of contents. For content creator and publisher comfort, everyone should know that content on the BookRiff site is carefully coded so that it cannot be copied, altered, or otherwise changed. “Separating the presentation layer from actual content is sometimes tough for mainstream publishers,” says Grayson, “but while BookRiff is tech, I see it mostly as an enabler of people. It still takes the creativity of the human mind to make it worthwhile. Think about it — Twitter in terms of tech sucks; what makes it interesting is the people who use it.”
Grayson believes that the time is ripe for BookRiff. “Many people now have grown up in a remix world and have more fluid ideas about how content is used. The low-hanging fruit, at first, is going to be the informational content, including market research, travel, and cooking—but who know what will happen after that?”