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VOL. 129 | NO. 162 | Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Screwpulp Carves Out Identity in Amazon-Led Industry

By Andy Meek

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It’s no secret Amazon is the subject of intense public scrutiny at the moment over a flurry of controversial decisions from the online retailing giant against some of the publishers with which it does business.

“At Screwpulp, the price of the book is based on market response, which rewards early adopters with lower prices and rewards best-selling authors.”

–Founder Richard Billings

Contract negotiations over things like e-book pricing, for example, have resulted in Amazon preventing customers from buying some publishers’ books until the talks are resolved, leading to criticism that Amazon has amassed too much market power.

That’s one reason that Memphis startup Screwpulp (screwpulp.com) decided to launch its own e-book publishing service as a kind of anti-Amazon – and its leadership not surprisingly has harsh words for the company that’s nevertheless still at the top of the food chain in the publishing world.

“Amazon is trying to build a monopoly and put publishers out of business,” argues Screwpulp chief operating officer Richard Batt. “They want to be the end-all, be-all for books, and they’re already pretty close. They sell 41 percent of new books sold right now. Amazon is trying to squeeze as much profit as they can from publishers, such as Hachette, while the authors are the ones that truly suffer.”

Amazon also is behind two somewhat related trends at the moment. The company is on the leading edge of shifting the economics of the book industry into new territory, via things like the new subscription service Amazon recently unveiled that has the trappings of a “Netflix for books.”

In an industry already facing downward pressure on book prices, Amazon has decided to launch a service that will essentially make an entire library of thousands of e-books and audiobooks “rentable” for $9.99 a month.

At the same time, a growing number of readers are turning to electronic reading devices, spurred in part by trends like these. The Associated Press notes that 79 million people in the U.S. will use e-book readers this year, up from 72 million last year.

The publishers are scrambling to counter Amazon’s power, while Screwpulp has come up with a model of its own.

The premise behind the venture is that it’s an e-book marketplace that tries to make it easy and profitable for anyone to publish their material. Participating authors maintain their rights and keep 75 percent of their revenue.

Founder Richard Billings has been a reader from an early age, starting with “Green Eggs and Ham” as among the first books he remembers reading. His venture takes its name in part from the screw press, the first printing method that allowed for books to be made with moveable type in large quantities.

To complete the company’s name, the “screw” in the title is combined with what the book industry is shifting away from – paper, or rather, “pulp.”

So far, Screwpulp has worked with 100 authors to publish 130 books, according to the company. Among other recent events, it was one of a handful of startups to attend the high-profile Book Expo America event, which is the largest author and publisher conference in the U.S., earlier this year in New York.

Unlike Amazon, Screwpulp boasts that its service is non-exclusive and provides authors with built-in promotional tools and metrics to help them take control of their book’s success.

The company also has developed a crowd-driven pricing model, where the price of a book is directly affected by how popular the book is.

“Amazon’s approach has always been about learning readers’ habits in order to sell them more non-book products,” Billings says. “They tend to sell books at the lowest price possible and have effectively lowered the value of books in general. At Screwpulp, the price of the book is based on market response, which rewards early adopters with lower prices and rewards best-selling authors with higher revenue.”

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