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Publishing pioneers: How one family business spurred the age of the eBook

by Doug Drinkwater

January 25 2012

Bookboon, a family-run publisher with origins in Denmark, is reaping the rewards from its decision to boldly move to all-digital publishing in 2005.

The publisher was born out of Ventus Publishing in 1988 and has ever since been a family-run business, with two Madsen brothers, Kristian Buus (CEO) and Thomas Buus (COO), having led the company since 2001.

The company now specializes in providing over 500 free digital textbooks, business books and travel guides, and is manned by around 40 people working at its HQ in London, and across offices in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Munich. The firm also has a small pool of people working in Canada, India and Singapore.

Despite its modest size and family background, Bookboon is actually something of a digital publishing pioneer, having opted to make all new books digital from 2005, a staggering decision given that the Kindle was still two years in the offing, and the fact that the digital publishing market was very much in its infancy.

Bookboon decided to go down the route of making all new books available in PDF format, a choice taken because the format was more often supported by tablet and eReader manufacturers, which has not always the case with the more prominent ePub standard.

When speaking to TabTimes, CEO Kristian Buus Madsen explained the reasons behind the bold switch to digital publishing, and also detailed the firm’s in-book advertising funding.

“In 2004, we decided to make all existing books available in digital format, and then pushed ahead to make all new books digital in 2005. It was slow to start with, as the market was not 100% ready to go digital," said Madsen.

“But we decided to focus on students and professionals. Students are always into all new kinds of technology, and digital copies can be a blessing for business professors and professionals who are travelling. We think that we found our niche with these two groups.”

Bookboon's free digital textbooks, business and travel guides are all available for free through the Bookboon.com website, and are essentially funded by the company's in-book advertising business model, which sees the firm assorts adverts to books based on demographics.

Content is split between Bookboon's own and eBooks from third parties like McGraw Hill. TabTimes asked how difficult it was to persuade authors to offer up their content on a free platform.

“It has not been easy but it is very workable", admitted Madsen. "A lot of people are willing to sign-up, especially in the professional workplace, because they want to get their content to a bigger audience, even if it results in getting less income. This income is probably more stable anyway, rather than royalty income from traditional books.”

The savvy decision to adopt this business model appears to be working for Bookboon, even if Madsen was guarded about revealing specific growth figures. “We have no complaints in terms of growth. In terms of usage, we are growing between 100-500% every year, or 30-150% year-on-year for revenue.”

Bookboon said that results have differed across continents, however, with the firm reporting a 15-20% rise in traffic in the US, but only single-digit increases in Europe. Madsen believes that it will take Europe a year to 'catch up' with America when it comes to digital publishing.

Despite Bookboon's content being accessible on both desktop and mobile devices, Madsen was dismissive of suggestions that mobile content may take away from desktop reading, at least in the case of its own business model. “We don’t really see any cannibalization in that respect. We see that most business book traffic is during work hours, sitting on their desktop at work.”

Bookboon seems to have found its niche and doesn’t appear to be overly concerned on the recent news that Apple is delving into the world of digital textbooks, with the firm revealing that it reported a record 201,000 downloads on the day iBooks 2 was announced.

Madsen was optimistic on Apple's textbook initiative and believes that it could come to revolutionize the book industry, albeit at a slower rate when compared to the way iTunes transformed the music business.

“With textbooks, the end user isn’t the decision maker (the professor is), so this will slow the process down”, said Madsen, who commented that getting Apple and textbook publishers collaborating is like' two different decades working together'.

TabTimes asked what the secret was behind Bookboon's success, and pondered whether it was genius, luck or a bit of both. “Probably a bit of both, between luck and judgement”, agreed Madsen. “We probably saw where digital publishing was going before it became a trend.”

Doug Drinkwater is the International Editor of TabTimes and is based in London, England.

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