Radical, for sure, but it’s a model whose time has come, Lorch contends. “’Pay first, read later’ made sense with printed books where you have to cover your costs. But in the world of digital books, the idea is counterproductive. It discourages readers from exploring.”
Total Boox, which is due to launch in early 2013, operates as a mobile app for tablet devices – an Android version is in beta now; one for Apple is on the way. Once you’ve installed the app, you simply choose the books you want. Total Boox tracks how long you linger on a particular page. If it looks like you’re really reading and not just skimming through to see if you’re interested in the book, the app charges you just for those pages. You can read the front and back covers and the table of contents as many times as you want.
In order to avoid micro-charges on your credit card bill, Total Boox uses a model similar to that of Skype’s SkypeOut, where you load up a certain minimum balance in advance; Skype then deducts from it as you make calls and, when you get low, asks you to re-up another $20 or so. With Total Boox, minutes are re-imagined as book pages, but the concept is identical.
Total Boox’s biggest downside is that it can’t play nice with the existing e-book infrastructure. That is, you have to download and pay for your Total Boox books in the Total Boox app, not in Apple’s iBooks, Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook. Indeed, the system will never work on a Kindle, Lorch concedes. “Amazon is a closed shop. They’ll never let us on.” But the e-book pie is too big to give up on just because one, admittedly very large, piece is locked away in the dessert case.
7,000 books, $1 million
Lorch, 59, is no stranger to out-of-the-box publishing models. After studying economics and philosophy in university, then working as a TV, theater and book writer, he joined the Israeli printing technology heavyweight Scitex at the height of its 1990s success, eventually heading a Scitex spinoff called PressPoint that built digital point-of-sale newspaper kiosks (all the news that’s fit to print, but only if you pay for it first – a fitting forerunner to Total Boox).
He later founded Zlango, a startup that created a new iconic language for smartphones. “Not icons that say just ‘happy’ or ‘sad,’ but icons that convey the message ‘Please meet me at the mall after school if my mother will let me,’” he quips. As a proof of concept, the company recreated Romeo and Juliet entirely in icons.
Total Boox is backed by TheTime incubator, and has a staff of eight in the incubator’s Tel Aviv offices.
Unlike many startups, which are either oblivious to revenue while “building market share” or rely entirely on advertising, Total Boox has a solid, almost old-fashioned business model – splitting book sale revenues with the publishers. That assumes there are books to sell and, here, Lorch has turned on all his publisher charm to attract an impressive initial roster – not in the top tier yet but including some of the bigger independents such as Sourcebooks and F+W Media. There are currently a total of 7,000 books in the Total Boox system to choose from.
What will convince the big Madison Avenue publishing houses to take a chance on Total Boox? Analytics, Lorch says.
“We provide publishers with detailed information about who reads what, when, where and how,” he says. Since the app tracks everything its users are doing, “we know more about what people are reading than anyone. And we share this with the publishers. Amazon doesn’t.”
Publishers understand that the world is changing, he says. And while most of them may tend to “look left and right 15 times before making a decision,” ultimately they’ll “see the value and how this will bring them new readers.”