The Start-up Learning Curve: Slicebooks Refines Its Biz Model

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Slicebooks offers to “slice” books into saleable chunks as part of their package of services.

Three years after co-founding Slicebooks, Jill Tomich reflects on the evolving market for remixed ebooks and content, and how her company has adapted.

By Lynn Rosen

Like every good start-up, Slicebooks began with a good idea: to create an online retail environment that would allow customers to purchase ebooks whole or by the chapter. Also like every good start-up, after some real market experience, the company reevaluated their business model and pivoted. Company Co-founder and CEO Jill Tomich explains: “Our expectations were that publishers would be able to provide us their content by the chapter, but they had their hands full converting from print to digital.” Now, more than three years in, Slicebooks is moving in interesting new directions, demonstrating that it remains a company to watch.

Jill Tomich, co-founder of Slicebooks, based in Denver, CO.

Jill Tomich, co-founder of Slicebooks, based in Denver, CO.

Tomich co-founded the company in 2010 with husband Ron. Originally called eBookPie, it was rebranded as Slicebooks in 2011. Tomich has a long background in the technology side of publishing. As director of sales at O’Reilly Media, where she worked from 1987 to 1999, she grew sales significantly and helped develop their customer service and distribution. With Slicebooks, she looks to customer input and feedback to enable her to grow the company in profitable directions.

Re-imagining Slicebooks

Tomich looks at the arc of her business as being comprised of three phases. Phase 1, begun in 2011, is Slicebooks Services. These services were a response to their discovery that publishers were overwhelmed by digital conversion. “We developed tools for publishers to easily and quickly slice their ebook files into chunks: by section, chapter, or sub-chapter,” Tomich says. The tools include the “Remix” tool, which enables publishers to use their digital content to mix and match slices from different books to create custom ebooks or new products, for example anthologies, coursepacks, or editions that mix English and Spanish language text.

SlicebooksPhase 2 is the Slicebooks Store, which launched this year at Book Expo. Tomich explains: “After launching Slicebooks Services, our expectation was that publishers would want to download the sliced files to put through their own distribution network. But ebook stores have not yet been designed to display slices with the whole ebook iTunes-style, which made finding slices difficult.” So they created their own retail environment.

The Slicebooks store offers content to users who can then buy the whole book or an individual slice or chapter. Tomich says: “What’s new and unique from any other store is that we’ve taken the remix tool from the services side and created a consumer version of it. Any user can create their own custom ebooks.” Teachers can use the service to create coursepacks, and travelers can create a customized travel guide. Tomich adds that how-to books as well as DIY and craft books do well in this environment.

Another part of Phase 2 is the app, which Tomich says they are in the midst of fine-tuning. The Slicebooks app will allow any website or publisher to have their own version of a Slicebooks online bookstore. “They can have a version of the Slicebooks store on their site with content geared toward their audience,” Tomich says. “It almost turns our store into a widget.” They hope to launch the app this fall.

Phase 3, says Tomich, is to “take all the content and move it into mobile distribution.” She elaborates: “Phase 3 is what we like to call ‘Airbnb for Publishers.’ It is a marketing and instant payment platform that gives multimedia publishers a new way to get discovered by niche mobile consumers while they are browsing in the real world. Publishers advertise content in brick and mortar venues with defined niche audiences. The content targets the time, place and emotional context of the audience. Consumers discover content at the moment they want it and can purchase via instant mobile payment.”

Investigating New Technologies

To accomplish this, the company is currently investigating and studying a variety of technologies, from QR codes to new technology such as Apple’s iBeacon. (iBeacon’s Bluetooth-based technology allows apps on an iPhone or other iOS devices to pick up signals from beacons installed in retail and other environments which provide information about merchandise, sales, museum exhibits, and more.) Tomich describes a scenario where a student would walk into his or her classroom and be alerted by iPhone which textbooks or readings were needed for that class. Or perhaps, a shopper on a visit to the hardware store to purchase plumbing supplies would be connected to a book, or slice of a book, that would teach them how to install that new sink.

“99% of content on site is non-fiction.”

Tomich tries to take advantage of each stage of growth as an opportunity to retool when needed. “One of the shifts in the learning curve was about branding and having a clear message to the market about who we were,” she says. Another change in the rebranding from eBookPie to Slicebooks was in the content they offered. “With eBookPie we sold everything,” she says. “A conscious decision we made when we shifted was that we’re only selling content that has been sliced.” Content on the store is non-fiction and some fiction that makes sense, such as short stories or poetry. “99% of content on site is non-fiction. This is something the market is telling us. We’re in the process of doing a little bit of a shift.” On the trade side, they’re pivoting toward craft, travel, and DIY. Another focus is education. “Education really gets Slicebooks,” Tomich says. “We will probably do a version of store that is K-12 and higher ed.”

There is another strong message Slicebooks has been getting from the market. Tomich explains: “Even more what we’ve been getting is publishers and distributors, even internationally, want to be able to white label our store to be able to sell content directly to their audience.” They are building out this capability to make it easy for their customers to accomplish this and hope to have it available in the fall. This interest speaks to the move among publishers to direct-to-consumer sales. “It’s surprising—more and more publishers now that want to go d2c. In the past that was unheard of: you don’t jeopardize your retail channel. Now they want to go direct, want to own their customers. That was intriguing feedback for us. Now we can offer those tools to publishers.”

Overall, the company strives to listen to information gathered from customers and from the marketplace and to adapt accordingly. Tomich, says, “We come from the publishing side but have our history in technology, so we understand the pace at which technology changes. We’re trying on the technology side to look forward as much as we can to see what’s coming down the path.”

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.