Every morning in Berlin, I run through the former no man’s land between Brunnenstrasse and Gartenstrasse that once separated East and West. It’s a patch of ground that witnessed bloodshed and anguish as post-war ideologies clashed and parted. As I run past Peter Leibing’s iconic ‘leap into freedom’ photograph, my mind is busy with how to drive The Pigeonhole’s claim for a stake in this emerging digital publishing landscape.
One of the great puzzles in Berlin’s startup scene is its determination to build beautiful products, often at the expense of distribution. ‘Build it and they will come’ is the most foolish thing a startup can tell itself; an engineering bias that sees so many young companies fall apart. The best product doesn’t always win, which is why, as we iterate and improve, I’m fully absorbed in the challenge of marketing The Pigeonhole’s new reading experience.
The challenge is threefold.
Our team has built a boutique online space for savvy digital readers to hang out, a new platform for pioneering authors and a risk-free technology for traditional publishers to experiment with. This trio – and what differentiates digital from traditional publishing – means that my job is not just to sell books. On any given day, we could be testing a new social or gamification product feature, launching a serialisation or drilling into analytical learnings from our new app.
The parade of technologies being created to claim the hearts of mobile readers (for that is what they are) is representative of the current climate: a digital gold rush. And who are readers if not writers? Who are writers if not publishers? We’re embracing the challenge of meeting all three in one place.
In an on-demand culture, more does not equal more. It’s important for us to curate a bespoke book-browsing experience and to make launching books exciting again. Our readers are enjoying a renaissance of Dickensian serialisation and, as we iterate, the first glimpses of what global transmedia storytelling will look like. We want to bring as many people as possible along for the journey. Reading empowers, but sociable reading can bring deep empathy and develop emotional intelligence. It’s also fun.
But the task ahead of us is perilous. There have already been plenty of digital publishing casualties in recent years – months, even, all of which are instructive. The question I love to ask hesitant, Kindle-cradling users is: “Could you complete this sentence: I would sign up to The Pigeonhole if…” The answers give me great hope that the future is far from a closed book.
The halfway point of my morning run is the summit of Humboldthain Park, where an old anti-aircraft flak tower now offers views of Berlin’s industrial north. To the south, the startup ecosystem bustles with fundraising, valuations and iterations. Most of them, as Nassim Taleb has written, will “fail, disrespected, impoverished”. But even those who have fallen leave clues behind. We do not know what we will know in the future. Ideas come and go. But this much is true – and you can ask any one of the readers who joined The Pigeonhole for our ‘Moby-Dick in a month’ – the good stories stay.
In the comments, please complete the sentence: “I would sign up to The Pigeonhole if…”