Tucked in a bar-laden, cobblestoned corner of Berlin, a two-person team is trying to change the way Europe reads and writes. Inkitt, founded in 2012, claims to offer writers a platform to share their work and to be ‘crowd-edited’ by fellow members. It also aims to discover the next generation of blockbuster books.
It’s no small task for any publishing house, let alone one founded as a side-project by CEO Ali Albazaz in 2012 while he was programming elsewhere. Back then, Inkitt began with a group of 30 writers eager to publish and edit. Today, as the site launches its private beta version, that figure is 300 and counting, who’ve contributed 44 million words, or 14,000 chapters.
Now, as then, the genre is fan fiction – Inkitt stories cite Harry Potter, Twilight and Naruto among their main afflatuses. But Albazaz is confident he has discovered a lucrative platform. And his own inspiration comes from two very different corners of the world.
Londoner EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey is one of the world’s best-ever selling books. Over 100 million copies have been sold so far, earning James over $32 million. Unlike most writers, James’ blockbuster, soon to become a Hollywood movie starring Jamie Dornan, began as a mammoth Twilight fan novel, posted online at fanfiction.net. Fellow readers critiqued chapters – of which James wrote 70 in just six months – helping her reach a point at which to take the book offline and perfect it for release.
“(James) unconsciously crowd-edited her own book,” says Albazaz. “She was building the whole story within the community. Don’t publish in two years when you’re finished. Publish as you go, get feedback from other writers and improve.”
Inkitt writers are peer-edited by other writers, who themselves are reviewed for usefulness: “People get up-voted for good reviews, so you can trust them. On the other hand if there’s a guy with loads of down-votes and he’s criticizing you, he’s just a troll.”
Albazaz claims this will help writers shunned by the traditional publishing industry, which often miss big titles. Twelve publishers told JK Rowling Harry Potter was bad. With Twilight that happened 14 times. Chicken Soup for the Soul, the number-one New York Times bestseller which made motivational writer Jack Canfield millions, was rejected by 140 publishing houses before finally being accepted in 1993. “Moby Dick was refused because it had ‘dick’ in the title,” adds Albazaz. “Publishing houses have a bias: they make decisions based on their gut feeling, which is often wrong. We want to make this decision based on data.”
Albazaz has developed an algorithm that, he says, can do this. It examines reading patterns of stories at the site to determine what will be popular on the shelves. His aim is not to take books online, he says, but to optimize the publishing experience for writers and publishers alike. “Our aim is to build the next step of publishing where we can measure how people read, and see very early how a story will become a best-seller, unbiased and objectively,” he says. The global book publishing industry is shrinking by 2.6% per year. But, according to IBISWorld, it is still worth $108 billion.
And with a team that has grown to include Linda Gavin, creator of the first Twitter logo, and an incoming backend developer and marketer, Albazaz is building a team in Germany that he hopes will emulate the success of his second inspiration: China’s Qidian.
Qidian, owned by Chinese publishing giant Shanda Literature, is a revelation. Founded in 2002 the company, like Inkitt, allows writers to be peer-edited and have their material read on a huge scale. Most stories can be read for free. But popular and well-reviewed ones go behind a paywall whose revenue is shared by Qidian and the writer. Zhang Wei, the site’s most popular author, made $5.37 million between 2007 and 2012, topping a list of China’s richest writers.
Qidian, meanwhile, has revenues of $120 million and investment from the likes of Goldman Sachs. Albazaz hopes that Inkitt can provide a similar success from the heart of Europe, whose nations still read more books than most parts of the world. China will become the biggest book market in 2017. Germany, which has a fixed book price agreement to promote lesser-known or -read writers, remains one of the world’s biggest markets. PricewaterhouseCoopers categorizes Germany as a ‘lower-growth, larger-scale market’ alongside Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Russia. The U.S. is labeled as a ‘higher-growth, larger-scale market’ with more than 1% CAGR to 2018.
The only western firm providing a similar service to Inkitt is Toronto’s Wattpad, which has been posting impressive figures of late including 40 million stories and 25 million users. But, says Albazaz, Inkitt’s algorithmic best-seller prediction is unique. And Wattpad’s realm is firmly within teen romance. Inkitt is sticking to fan fiction for now. But Albazaz is confident his brainchild will grow to become Europe’s Qidian. Perhaps he’ll even help discover the next EL James.