Tizra Puts Publishers Back in Control of Their E-Books

2/24/09Follow @wroush

For traditional print publishers, the fact that more and more people are buying book-length works online and reading them on their laptops, iPhones, or Kindles is both encouraging and anxiety-provoking. The rise of e-books opens up potential new markets. But it means publishers have to figure out the best way to share their content electronically—and whether to hand control of the electronic publishing process over to Google’s Book Search project or to a big retailer like Amazon, where their books might get lost alongside thousands of others.

In Providence, RI, there’s a tiny startup called Tizra that’s dedicated to helping publishers take charge of distributing their own e-books, without having to build their own e-publishing infrastructure. All a publisher needs is an Adobe PDF version of a book it wants to sell online. (Most publishers already use the format as part of their production process.) Once the publisher has uploaded the file to Tizra’s online service, the company’s software chops the book into individual pages, makes those pages searchable by Google, and organizes them in customizable Web-based storefronts where publishers can set prices and sell content by the page, by the chapter, or in any increment they please.

Try doing that through Amazon’s Kindle platform or Google Book Search, which only allow users to buy whole books. “We let content owners remix, brand, price and sell their e-books the way they want, rather than the way Amazon or Google want,” says Abe Dane, Tizra’s president and COO.

University presses—which, as you might expect, have oodles of specialized content awaiting digital distribution—are eating it up. Just one year after introducing its Tizra Publisher Sofware-as-a-Service platform, Tizra has landed major accounts with the presses at MIT, Indiana University, and Duke University, as well as a partnership with the Association of American University Presses. And last month, it added a feature allowing any content owner to join the platform and create an online bookstore instantly.

An MIT Press Table of Contents Page created with TizraDane says the Tizra system, designed under the direction of the company’s computer-scientist CEO David Durand, was built mainly for content owners who have lots of material to share, but don’t have it in the formats (such as XML or “.epub”) demanded by many distributors, and don’t want to give up control over how it’s sliced, priced, and presented. “There was a real opportunity to take all this know-how we had and create a Software-as-a-Service platform that would enable publishers to not only get up and running very quickly but also iterate on the market, which is what people need to do if they are going to survive in current conditions,” Dane says. “In the world of Amazon and Google you’ve got to find a way to differentiate your product, and you’ve got to work at your marketing and your identity.”

There’s no proof yet, of course, that digital distribution is going to be a big money-maker for academic book publishers, or anyone else. Even in the trade-book world, where platforms like the Kindle have made the biggest inroads, e-book sales still amount to a tiny slice of overall book sales. And there are legitimate questions about whether readers want to consume weighty academic content in digital formats.

But Dane believes there’s demand for the type of content Tizra is helping to liberate. “We started out in the reference world, where people have a question in their mind and they are looking for an answer,” he says. Google is great at finding answers, he says—and if a book is in Tizra Publisher, Google can show snippets from it, just as the search company does with everything else on the Web. But people who need accurate, reliable answers will be open to paying a premium for the full text from trusted publishing brands such as university presses, Dane says. “If you have a choice between a piece of content that comes from a Usenet post and a piece from the MIT Press, you are probably going to say, ‘My time is valuable, and I’m going to spend a little bit of money to not waste time on content that came from who knows where.’”

As a company, Tizra is about as lean as they come. Durand and Dane are the only two full-time employees. The startup has raised $1.2 million in venture funding, including $650,000 from the Slater Technology Fund, which uses money provided by the Rhode Island state government to make seed-stage investments in life sciences and information technology companies. “Those guys have been really fantastic,” Dane says of the fund. “They are a lynchpin of the Rhode Island startup scene, and they have a way of fostering local companies that really represent the strengths of Rhode Island.”

Durand and Dane have deep roots in both the New England technology scene and the publishing world. For his computer-science doctoral dissertation at Boston University, Durand studied “document engineering,” according to Dane, and he was part of the Cambridge, MA-based World Wide Web Consortium’s effort to develop the original specifications for XML, the Extensible Markup Language that’s at the heart of today’s Web. Dane is a former technology journalist who turned to publishing technology in 1994 and helped the Hearst organization launch its first magazine websites. Dane says he and Durand met while working for Dynamic Diagrams, a well-known Providence-based marketing, design, and Web development firm.

Speaking of design, Dane says that while Tizra’s publishing system is PDF-friendly, some documents that were originally designed for print need a little extra help before they’re navigable on the Web. “There have been a lot of unsuccessful efforts to take stuff that was designed for print and just shovel it onto the Web…Some designs are optimized for a particular delivery mechanism and it makes little sense to just move that to the screen,” he warns. “That said, you don’t just start over from scratch.” Tizra can help, he says, by automatically creating Web-based tables of contents for every document, indexing them by title, author, or subject, and generally making them more Web-friendly.

“We are perfectly suited,” says Dane, “to that situation where people have large amount of content available, developed for print, that they want to be able to use for new purposes and under new business models.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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