BitLit and Shelfie at Three Years: Cold Calling From Canada

In News by Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson

“It’s been nearly 3 years since I first picked up a phone and started calling publishers.”

shelfie plainAnd Peter Hudson, founding CEO of BitLit in Vancouver, is in a good position to tell newcomers to the publishing startup scene what to expect:

“Looking back, I understand why everybody I met in the industry told me it would be “impossible to get enough publishers on board.”

With the kind of candor you can’t always hope for from our many startup chiefs, Hudson—formerly with Westinghouse and a co-founder of Aquatic Informaticsrecently wrote about what it has taken to become a success story: a lot of persistent phone calls to publishers.

BitLit is the company that makes it possible for owners of print copies of books to get ebook editions of those books at low or no cost.

Called a “Shelfie“—now the re-branding of the company to reflect BitLit’s consumer-facing operation—the mechanism involved is a mobile app that takes a photo of the reader’s bookshelf and sends that photo to Vancouver. There, the system reads the spines of the books on the shelf in question and then lets the reader know which ones BitLit has available in digital form. Not only is this form of “after-market” bundling effective for creating a second sale of a title for a publisher, but it also can generate consumer data that initially was lost. The print copy of a given title on that reader’s bookshelf might be many years old and there’s likely no data recorded from the original sale. But when the user comes calling at BitLit to get the e-edition, his or her data can be captured—a once-“lost” consumer has come back into view.

Peter Hudson

Peter Hudson

As good as that whole thing might sound now, in order to make BitLit fly, what Hudson and Mary Alice Elcock, Vice President for Content, had to do, of course, was persuade publishers to let them have the ebooks to make available to the readers. That’s where the calling came in—dogged, tireless, seemingly endless calling.

“It took 29 days of calling,” Hudson writes, “until a guy named Brett at an indie publisher in Toronto called ChiZine didn’t think what I was pitching sounded completely crazy. From that first deal, it would take over 500 days (and thousands of cold calls) until June 2014 when we hit 1%.

“One percent means that you’d have to try 100 books before you’d have one that would be eligible for a bundle deal.”

“The graph below,” writes Hudson, “shows the percentage of books on an ‘average’ shelf that are from publishers that we’ve signed a deal with. It starts at 0.0% on January 15th 2013, the day I made my first publisher cold call.”

From BitLit Media, Vancouver

From BitLit Media, Vancouver


A year ago, in January 2015, Hudson recalls, “we still didn’t have any of the Big Five publishers signed up.” Because those five houses control so much content, Hudson says, the company simply had to get some of those publishers’ titles in order to make their offering truly viable for reader-consumers looking to bundle e-editions with their print copies of favorite books.

He talks of going to the major trade shows—Frankfurt Book Fair, London Book Fair, BookExpo America—and not taking a booth or stand because he and Elcock had to stay on the move, handling up to 16 meetings per day, trying to talk publishers into signing on to the BitLit concept and providing ebooks. I can remember meeting with Hudson and Elcock, myself, at London Book Fair, a late-afternoon session in which we basically drank bottled water and chatted quietly, grateful just to be still and seated for a few minutes. Startups experience the major trade shows as journalists do: on foot.

Over time, bigger and bigger publishers were indeed arriving: Wiley, Elsevier, O’Reilly, Packt, as were distributors including Ingram Content Group. Funding was coming in, too, notably from Michael Serbinis’ Three Angels Capital VC fund.

shelfieThere’s a happy ending to this one. Unlike so many startups in publishing that now are defunct, BitLit and its Shelfie-branded reader-facing presences are a success. Today, more than 1,200 publishers are onboard, and as reported at The Bookseller, BitLit closed 2015 not with a pivot but with an expansion into audiobooks. A deal between the Canadian startup and the US audiobook distributor Findaway, “is bringing audiobook bundling of selected titles to BitLit from Blackstone Audio, Gildan Media, Hachette Audio, HarperAudio, Naxos Audiobooks and Scholastic Audio.”

This week, I asked Hudson what it looks like is ahead for BitLit in Year Four.

“I suspect we’ll hear a lot more about audio in 2016, pardon the pun,” he told me.

“We’ve hit an inflection point where a critical mass of ‘readers’ have the device needed to consume the content—a smartphone. And the editorial quality of podcasting has created a mass market for high-quality audio content of which audiobooks are the highest quality there is.

The BitLit-Shelfie concept has made it well past 1,000 days now and is standing with bundling of either ebooks or audiobooks at some 24.2 percent. A lot of dialing for dollars has paid off. A lot more lies ahead.

“What remains unknown is whether or not the digital marketing skills which publishers developed during the ebook revolution of the past eight years,” Hudson says, “will be put to use in a way that allows publishers to use audio content as a way of finally establishing a direct conversation with their customer: the reader.”

As soon as Hudson figures that out, he’ll call you.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.