Berlin’s Inkitt aiming for 50 Shades of Green as digital publishing lifts off


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 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.


  • Malmaison

    Most fanfic writers don’t write fanfic as a way to improve their skills. Some do, and now, due to the 50 Shades successful transition from fic to original story, more fanfic writers are reaching for a different goal. Self-publishing ebooks and serials are very real possibilities. However, 50 Shades would never have reached such a peak if the subject hadn’t been BDSM. And the writing is not considered to be particularly good. Entertaining, maybe. And then there is the question of ethics and transformative works…50 Shades is based upon someone else’s characters, setting a very bad precedent.
    All that aside, Inkitt is a good idea with incomplete and barely functional design, as far as a web site goes. It should have been perfected by a good web designer before being launched.

  • Denjiro

    “perfect it for release.”

    For certain values of perfect that are almost completely and utterly the opposite of the meaning of perfect.

  • Torres

    This article neglects to mention the main method by which Inkitt recruits members and spreads its word: by relentless unsolicited spamming of every major writing community and similarly, encouraging its users to spam every social network platform in the hope of trawling for popularity votes on their entries in Inkitt’s contests. No legitimate company grows its base by these underhanded and annoying methods, and the fact that Inkitt must resort to them should be a sign of general trustworthiness.

  • NouveauWriter

    They don’t care about your book; they care about their sales. They want as many stories as possible to find the next 50 Shades of Grey, but that doesn’t mean they have an appreciation for literature or the effort an author goes to in order to produce a novel.

    I am pretty confident that they have not read their top stories either. They know the numbers and that is all that seems to matter. What does that say about how they feel for their authors? What does that say about what they believe about an author’s work and vision for their story? If you look at what their lead says about the site, it is all about their algorithm and little more. Who on their team could tell you about the heart and soul of a story, and who on their team actually has experience or education in the literary industry?

    Besides which – what happened to the story they said was getting published? The Rising Sun. The story is good but it is underbaked and needs a few rounds of editing before being presented. Why pick an unfinished story regardless of reader numbers? Surely that is a poor way to do it as there will be a huge time-gap and editing process before anything can be done (IF anything gets done seeing as they haven’t published anything in the years they had been operating nor have they made any public ties to any publishing house or signed any deals with anyone agency of note).

    I see IT folk and a marketing team, but nothing that gives me any faith in their belief about stories or the beauty of fiction. Even their marketing has become a bit slap-dash lately. The wording of their latest contest makes it sound like the winner is either grand, they earn a grand, or all the entries are grand. It is also another copy/paste version of their previous novel contests (just as all their Fandom contests are copy/paste versions with a new number behind them. Fandom1. Fandom2. Fandom3.)

    After watching them for the past few months and reading up on them, I have no trust in Inkitt. I have heard too many horror stories to put any faith into the site or their claims of getting people published. It is a scam and one that their own team seems to believe is real.