Safari Books Buys Threepress, Forges Ahead In Digital Publishing Jungle

1/9/12Follow @gthuang

What is the future of electronic books and digital publishing in Boston? We might be getting a glimpse of it today.

The news is that Safari Books Online, a joint venture between O’Reilly Media and Pearson Education, is acquiring Threepress, a Boston-area software and consulting shop specializing in tools for digital publishing. Terms of the deal haven’t been announced, but it’s probably fairly modest in size.

What makes it interesting is that it’s a story of homegrown, bootstrapped talent in a burgeoning field—e-book reading and publishing—that has finally come of age.

Safari (not to be confused with the Apple browser) provides an on-demand digital library of thousands of books and videos on software, IT, professional development, and other techie and business topics. The 10-year-old company, which has just under 100 employees, is headquartered in Sebastopol, CA. But it started in Boston, and some of its leadership team, including CEO Andrew Savikas, is based here.

As part of the Threepress acquisition, Safari is planning to move into a new office space in Boston that will have about 10 employees. “We are looking at space with room to grow,” says Savikas, an O’Reilly Media veteran. “I expect we’ll be hiring in Boston, especially on the technology side.”

Threepress is a profitable, four-person tech shop founded by Web developer Liza Daly in 2008. Daly previously worked at Digitas and iFactory, and she originally started Threepress to do consulting and build tools for academic publishers and websites. As is often the case for startups, she found an unexpected niche. [Disclosure: Daly is married to Dan Schmidt, my longtime Honest Bob bandmate.]

Daly entered the e-book world by writing Bookworm, an open-source, browser-based reading system for e-books using the EPUB format. At first, she saw books as just part of the content of academic websites. But her work got the attention of Savikas at O’Reilly Media, which decided to host Bookworm on its site in 2009. That year Savikas also recruited Daly to speak at a big O’Reilly publishing conference, which sent a lot of new business her way. “That bootstrapped my company,” she says. More broadly, her timing was good too.

The recent history of e-books goes something like this. The late 1990s saw the first wave of reader technologies: the Rocket eBook (by NuvoMedia), the SoftBook Reader, and others. That wave crashed during the dark days of 2001-2005 as e-book businesses flopped, publishers yawned, and not much productive happened. By 2007-2008, though, things were changing. The Amazon Kindle debuted, and the EPUB standard came out, convincing more publishers to get on board. Sony, Adobe, and more recently Google and Apple have become big players.

In early 2010, Threepress released Ibis Reader, a closed-source, HTML5-based reader for Web and mobile devices (including iPhone and recent Android models). That turned out to be a coup, as every Web-based e-reading program from Kindle Cloud Reader to Google Books to Apple’s iBooks uses a similar technology stack. So the product has generated a lot of white-label licensing business. “We got very lucky,” Daly says. “We just added HTML5 because it sounded cool.”

Last summer, Neelan Choksi mentioned to me that Threepress was doing some of the most interesting work in e-book software in Boston. Choksi is a serial entrepreneur and former MIT Blackjack guy who sold his e-book reader company, Lexcycle (maker of the iPhone app Stanza), to Amazon in 2009.

So where do Threepress and Safari go from here? Daly will become Safari’s vice president of engineering, and Savikas says she already leads a team of “some of the best in the world at thinking about browser-based reading” and “how to push the boundaries of what’s possible.”

Overall the deal sounds like a key talent acquisition designed to put Safari Books Online (and O’Reilly and Pearson) at the forefront of a new wave of e-books and digital publishing—one that is bound to be as messy as ever, with competing standards, platforms, and ideas about how to handle digital rights management.

“The Web is changing pretty quickly these days, especially when it comes to mobile Web delivery of increasingly rich content,” Savikas says. “Safari has a great 10-year history, but its foundations are in an earlier time in the Web. Bringing in HTML5 and mobile technology [expertise] gives us a richer skill set to help make the most of the opportunity.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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