Interview with James Crawshaw

Posted by Paul Samael on Friday, November 22, 2013 Under: Self-publishing





UPDATE 8.2016:  Sadly, Bibliotastic is no longer operating - apparently the software supporting the site wasn't being updated and as it was all being done for free, the owners couldn't afford to update it.  This is a shame because I liked the idea of the site, particularly its focus on getting readers to submit reviews.

Here’s an email interview with James Crawshaw, one of the founders of bibliotastic, a free ebooks platform based in the UK, which occupies a space somewhere between a straight ebooks platform (like Smashwords or Feedbooks) and a peer review/”incubator” site for new writers (like YouWriteOn – which I have reviewed here). 

I recently submitted my novel to the site and am happy to report that it was a straightforward process – bibliotastic will also convert your Word or PDF file to ebook format and even help you with a front cover.  I also like the site’s emphasis on reviewing (see questions 5 and 6 below).   From a reader’s perspective, bibliotastic does not offer as wide a range of books as some other sites, but I have already found some material which I enjoyed (see this post) – so it is certainly worth a look (and the focus on reviewing/feedback is helpful for readers too).

Finally, I like the fact that the site doesn’t take itself too seriously – see these promotional videos and these astounding prizes.  But enough from me - here is the interview:

1.  What made you and your colleagues start bibliotastic?

I became interested in ebooks as the popularity of the Kindle took off in 2010. I thought there was a fantastic opportunity for people to bypass the traditional book publishing barriers and reach an audience. And I wanted to be part of the revolution.

2.  Can you give some idea of the number of books you host and the number of visitors you get to the site? 

There are about 350 books on bibliotastic. It is really just a drop in the ocean. Unfortunately we never developed an automated process for publishing the books unlike some other sites. So it is quite a manual process. On the flip side that means we only tend to upload books that seem interesting or worthwhile. We turn away a lot of dross.

User traffic peaked at around 23,000 unique visitors per month in 2011. Since then usage has slipped a bit as we have focused on other activities outside bibliotastic (painting, decorating, cutting the grass). In total the site has had about 260,000 unique visitors and 1.3 million page views since launch.

3. What quality checks do books go through before you will agree to host them?

We shy away from erotica; it is a popular category but needs a dedicated website I think. We don't publish advertorials. We try to avoid delusional ramblings of which there are many writers in cyberspace. We seek out good fiction but also publish some non-fiction if it looks interesting.

In terms of quality checks we are not too strict about bad grammar and spelling but we do encourage authors for whom English is not their first language to get their work edited.

4.  A problem with some other free user-generated ebook platforms is the relative lack of reviews - for example, on Obooko there is only a ratings system (you can't actually post a review, as such) and on Feedbooks there doesn't seem to be much of a "reviewing culture".  How have you gone about encouraging users to provide feedback that will be useful to both authors and other readers?

We ran several competitions to encourage user reviews. We gave away Kindles as prizes. This generated some excellent book reviews by users. But we ran out of prize money.

5.  Another self-published author (who's published a lot more than me) reckons that for every 1000 downloads, you don't generally get more than 1 review.  Do you think the chances of getting a review from users of Bibliotastic are better than that - or about the same?

There are around 450 user reviews on the site so slightly more than 1 per book on average. Of course many books get no comments and those that do get comments tend to attract more comments. We have had around 87,000 book downloads. So that makes 1 review every 193 downloads.

6.  Unusually for an ebooks platform, you also have your own team of reviewers.  It strikes me that their task is not an easy one - because if the reviewers are too harsh, it will tend to discourage authors, but if they are not at least reasonably objective about it, the site will lose the confidence of readers.  How have your reviewers tried to strike the right balance?

Mostly our in-house reviewers are too soft and I have to toughen up the ratings to give the audience a better steer. But some of them are quite tough too and I have had to moderate their reviews so as not to offend the authors. I usually show the in-house review to the author first as a courtesy. Normally they are very magnanimous about the criticism. On one occasion though one of the authors got fed up with our negative in house reviews and asked to remove their books from our site.

7.  As well as the focus on generating reviews, are there any other advantages of Bibliotastic that you would like to highlight (as compared with other ebook platforms)?

Yes, we have nice blue borders down either side of the website. And we don't take ourselves too seriously.

8.  What has surprised you most about the whole process of setting up Bibliotastic and watching it develop?

Receiving books from writers all over the world on myriad subjects has been the greatest surprise. It is mostly fiction and of course a lot of it is not good but there are some excellent authors out there that sadly have not been lucky enough to get published professionally or hit the jackpot through self publishing yet.

9.  Are you planning any changes to the site in future?

We might try a different colour for the borders.

10.  How do you see the future of ebooks?

The ebook is definitely here to stay. But there is still room for printed books. At least until we run out of trees. I still see a lot of e-ink Kindles on the train but as a gadget it has been left in the shadow of tablets. And when I see people using tablets it tends to be more for website browsing, games and video rather than book reading. Ditto for smartphones. I think people would read a lot more on these devices if they weren't so easily distracted by email and social media. We have become conditioned to snack media and have less and less attention span. But I digress ... what was the question again?

11.  When can we expect the Bibliotastic IPO and how rich do you expect to become from the no doubt highly lucrative business of making ebooks available for free?  ;-)

Following fast in the foot steps of Twitter we have been reviewing strategic options with our advisors Mega Bank and Croesus Capital. We can't possibly comment on rumours of a potential takeover by that company that sounds like a South American river or any potential share offerings on the stock market. All we can say is that our secret recipe for converting free ebooks into a highly profitable cash flow stream is patent pending.

INTERVIEWER NOTE:  Although I didn’t really intend this as a serious question (and James has gamely played along with that), it’s worth noting that bibliotastic has already succeeded as an “incubator” site for at least one writer, Letitia Coyne, who now has a publishing contract.  In view of that, you would have thought that sites like this might provide an interesting model for commercial publishers – for reasons which I mused about a while back, in this post

However, sadly, I’m not aware of any serious moves in that direction by the publishing establishment.  I suppose one could point to Authonomy (set up by Harper Collins) and Orion (which has links with YouWriteOn).  But both those initiatives strike me as little more than dabbling by publishers - as opposed to genuine experimentation with a new business model which takes advantage of the near zero distribution cost of ebooks in order to find and develop new writers.  So for now, it looks like it is up to sites like bibliotastic to make the running.  

My thanks to James for taking the time to answer all my questions.

UPDATE 28.2.2014:  My novel has been on bibliotastic for a few months now.   It is hard to tell how many downloads it has had (you can access page view data over the last 30 days, but that seems to be about it).  Based on the page view data, I suspect the downloads are still in low-ish double figures.  However, on the positive side, I have had some reader ratings, which I think bears out the view that per download, you may stand a better chance of getting reviews/feedback on bibiliotastic than on other platforms (although my first one was from a fellow author who reviewed the novel when it first came out on Smashwords - so you might say that was "cheating" a bit).  I also like the fact that the site gives prominence to new additions (Obooko - are you listening?) and highlights (on the first page) books which have been highly rated by readers or have had higher numbers of downloads (relatively speaking).  These features help to overcome the problem you get with sites like Smashwords, where your literary masterpiece quickly gets buried under 500 tonnes of smut.....

In : Self-publishing 


Tags: bibliotastic "ebook platforms" "james crawshaw" 
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Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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