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OpenSky puts writers face-to-face with buyers

Tech startup offers new business model

NEW YORK – About a year ago, Mary Ann Naples had a holy-cow moment. If she’d been a cartoon character, she would have smacked her forehead until stars came out.

She was standing atop an escalator at Book Expo America, the publishing world’s spring jamboree in New York, surveying a convention hall of sullen faces. Many of the 30,000 booksellers, publishers, authors and agents were looking like well-heeled passengers on a leaky cruise ship.

The rise of digital books and online retailing was upending book publishing’s business model. Publishers facing higher costs and less revenue were signing fewer authors; advances and royalties were declining; and bookstores were vanishing, leaving big American cities such as Laredo, Texas, without a single one.

And not least among the sky-is-falling signs, it was tougher to persuade a book editor, here in America’s publishing capital, to buy lunch, never mind underwrite a book party for an established author.

Although everyone agrees stories need to be told and distributed – most still through words in the form of sentences that make paragraphs that make chapters – the industry remains uncertain about future ways to turn a profit.

Naples’ escalator epiphany was that authors couldn’t rely on publishers and agents to sort out the future. They had to harness the Internet on their own, to find new ways not only to draw audiences but also to keep them, and make money at it too. She’d observed how musicians were sidestepping the major labels by using online tools to connect with and sell their music directly to fans.

“There’s something through direct selling that can make a difference in an author’s career,” she remembered thinking that day.

A year later, the Ivy League-educated Naples made a leap. After 20 years of birthing books – first as an editor and later as a literary agent – she joined OpenSky, a tech startup in lower Manhattan that is developing an online platform for established authors, bloggers and celebrities to sell products they believe in and can endorse right off their own websites.

The site, which went live this week, has so far signed up 1,000 such “tastemakers” and a slew of suppliers, and is designing tools to connect them with one another and shoppers as well as take care of all the messy details of commerce like warehousing, sourcing, shipping and billing.

A cookbook author, for example, not only sells books through OpenSky but also hawks a favorite barbecue sauce and grill. The author pockets 50 percent of the profit, with the rest going to OpenSky and others involved in the transaction.

This spring at Book Expo, instead of bearing a nametag that said “literary agent,” Naples’ read “retail.” And this time, standing atop that same escalator, she thought book publishing’s future looked a lot rosier.

In fact, it is still divided among pessimists (hoping to retire before the industry is unrecognizable), nihilists (contemptuous of books on paper and copyright laws) and optimists (eager to reinvent a digitized literary landscape).

Naples has decided to throw in her lot with the optimists.

It’s hard to imagine the long-deceased Jane Austen leveraging “Pride and Prejudice” into a matchmaking business or the more recently deceased crime novelist Stieg Larsson peddling the preferred coffee of his highly caffeinated main character, Mikael Blomkvist.

Naples acknowledged that not every book can be tied to a product or experience. But she described how many nonfiction authors who put thousands of hours into writing books and blogging never get the opportunity to tap into the commerce that grows out of their work. She pointed out author and food blogger Michael Ruhlman, an early recruit to OpenSky, who hears from thousands of readers wanting to know, for example, what knives he uses.

“He can now recommend something he loves and make a profit,” Naples said.

Naples has exchanged 20 years of publishing “cred” for this Internet startup because in her view technology, properly used, doesn’t have to spell the end of the book world she has treasured.

“I still love the smell of old books from libraries, but now I’m platform-agnostic,” said Naples, who carries around an iPhone, iPad and laptop in her briefcase. “I read on any device, anywhere, all the time.”

OpenSky’s headquarters on West 18th Street is in a neighborhood where Silicon Alley overlaps with the publishing industry. But the vast open space, with bright blue walls and exposed ceiling pipes, feels a long way from the book-filled suites where Naples once toiled as an editor and agent.

Never mind having separate offices — few people even have assigned desks. Rather, most mornings roughly two dozen OpenSky employees claim a work space by laying down a laptop.

Naples insists that she loves her new world, where music is always blaring and almost no one, except she, is over 40 or knows much about the marketplace of books.

“I come to work every day equally excited and scared,” she said. “I’ve kind of made it a mission every day to imagine new possibilities for authors to have new streams of income.”

She paused, plucked a blueberry from a small box on a bare desk, and smiled. “The world is changing, and authors have to find ways to eat.”