By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
In the era of e-books, tech and publishing companies compete aggressively for market share. The fierce legal battles among Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, the “Big Four” New York publishers, and others to control content distribution and provide an optimal e-reading device has changed the publishing industry forever.
Writers, artists, and readers often get caught in the fray. While new media innovations empower individuals to create, experiment, and break out, creative works are readily exploited. In 2013, this situation prompted Israeli innovator and children’s book author Prof. Mel Rosenberg to found Ourboox.com. Described as “the world’s simplest platform for uploading and sharing digital picture books of any genre, in any language, for free,” the Ourboox community is growing rapidly in Israel.
“We have books on 70 different genres, including biographies, picture books…you name it, and we’ve got it,” Rosenberg tells JNS.org. To create the Ourboox platform, Rosenberg and Ourboox Web developer Ran Shternin used HTML code and existing Wordpress Web design software to provide multiple templates for creating e-books. The content is interactive in the sense that users can easily embed video and other multimedia. There is also an eye-catching page-turning effect. Tablets provide the best viewing experience, and authors can use the embed code generator Embed.ly/code to integrate Ourboox content on personal websites and elsewhere on the Internet.
The unexpected advantage inherent in publishing via Ourboox.com is the high Search Engine Optimization (SEO) rating that Ourboox content receives. “From Google’s point of view, it’s not an e-book,” Rosenberg says. “Rather, it’s a webpage with fresh content daily. Therefore, it’s more alive.”
That challenges the viability of the now-dominant e-book creation and marketing tools currently available to self-publishing authors. Rosenberg is especially critical of Amazon. For the majority of people, “Amazon is a dead end,” he argues.
“If you’re an average author, you’ve sold 40 books. Your content is buried and only one in 10,000 makes it,” he says.
Indeed, the selling options and royalty plans that Amazon and other self-publishing models afford their users restrict sharing, and often force consumers to weigh content against price. The Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) “Select” promotion program, enabling self-publishing authors to deeply discount or give away their e-books for free during a five-day period quarterly, as well the Kindle Unlimited plan that makes nearly all electronic content on Amazon free to subscribing customers, has inaugurated a race to the bottom, markedly devaluing intellectual property.
Rosenberg’s goal is to make publishers think differently about the Internet and the essential value of creative content. “[Publishers] know that they are being disrupted,” he says, “but they are so married to their way of making money that they can’t move on.” Rosenberg predicts that e-book markets will eventually follow the example of the music industry. Popular community-driven music apps like SoundCloud and Bandcamp have evolved to introduce listeners to new musical talent, and encourage them to support artists whose work they appreciate by financial contributions, publishing will follow suit.
“[Today’s] musicians make their money performing and teaching,” Rosenberg says, explaining that he expects readers to begin supporting authors in a similar fashion.
Ourboox’s promise, therefore, is realized in the platform’s versatility as a tool for building online literary communities. Ourboox “is a company that does not have a strong business ethic, but rather a strong moral ethic at the moment,” Rosenberg says. To date, there are more than 6,000 e-books that are viewable on the site, and the platform is experiencing 10-20 percent growth monthly. On average, 20 new books are published daily. “When we have 60,000 users,” says Rosenberg, “we’ll be able to attract investors.”
In the meantime, Ourboox plans to experiment with a “donate” button that will permit authors to integrate Kickstarter-type crowd-funding marketing strategies into their publishing projects.
Ourboox’s platform is available for users of all ages, including school-aged children. Young authors are publishing vibrant picture books, photo albums, illustrated poems, and short stories. The community of tens of thousands of readers provides an alert and active filter, screening for inappropriate or distasteful e-ooks.
“Content is content to the extent that it prompts questions,” Rosenberg says. The fact that users maintain complete control over their work, can retract publications, and can edit and republish an e-book establishes an accepting, work-in-progress mentality at Ourboox. Rosenberg says his own writing has improved thanks to the platform, and he believes that Ourboox has enormous potential as a teaching tool.
Soon after launching Ourboox, Rosenberg was surprised to learn that teachers in Israel were utilizing the platform to impart creative writing skills to students. Seizing the opportunity, Ourboox found a high-profile ally in the Israeli Ministry of Education.
“[Ourboox] offers a creative platform that teaches free writing in an educational process,” Tova Ben-Ari, national inspector for the implementation of the Law for Student Rights at the Ministry of Education, tells JNS.org.
“The possibility [of promoting] a student’s book in two or three languages was especially attractive,” she adds, noting the fact that 70 percent of Ourboox users currently live in Israel, and that among those users, 10-20 percent are Arab-Israeli children. The ministry has since produced a video tutorial that encourages educators to implement the platform into their curricula. Rosenberg also conducts regular government-sponsored workshops to train teachers to use Ourboox.
To continue developing the venture, Rosenberg knows that it will be necessary to recruit established authors to publish via Ourboox. Likewise, he hopes that schools abroad will fall in love with Ourboox in the same way that Israeli educators have embraced the platform, thereby providing additional steady revenue.
Regardless of these goals, Rosenberg is aware that there is also a wildcard aspect to his project. During a conversation Rosenberg had with VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology pioneer Jeff Pulver, the latter conveyed Ourboox’s potential to grow in unforeseen directions.
“You don’t know if the key users of Ourboox will turn out to be in Israel or Pakistan, or where the HTML5 [Internet markup language] will take off,” Pulver told Rosenberg.
His advice: “Just open the platform up and see who is creating books.”
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