A Digital Future_ oolipo and the Future of e-Books_An interview with Ryan David Mullins

A Digital Future: oolipo and the Future of e-Books 

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Today we welcome to the Mash Blog Ryan David Mullins, Chief Product Officer at oolipo, an offshoot of major German publishing house Bastei Lübbe. Oolipo is an exciting new story creation and consumption platform. We talk to Ryan about the latest developments in digital books and oolipo’s plans to attract a young, mobile audience with serialized digital content.


Jen: Oolipo is set to launch a new platform offering “quality mobile-first entertainment to millennials”. That sounds very exciting—can you tell us a little about it?

Ryan: Hey. Thanks for the opportunity to talk a little bit about oolipo. It’s important first to state clearly what oolipo is NOT. Some of our media coverage has positioned oolipo as an eBook subscription service. But this is wrong. We’re not an e-book application. We don’t have pages, bookshelves, or book covers. Part of our vision pivots around the idea that the future of the book is the book. We don’t need a book replacement. The book is doing just fine. We also don’t need merely to digitise physical books and replicate them in the digital space.

Mullins_Ryan_ Oolipo-Photo by Olivier Favre

Photo by Olivier Favre

So, what is oolipo? First, we provide writers and media creators with digital publishing tools to craft serialized stories. Second, we provide our readers with a new format and stories optimized for and native to their digital devices. Our goal is to enable the creation of new, original, native digital stories.

Furthermore, we want to create an entertaining and fun digital space for readers to discover, experience, and share stories. All platforms have this responsibility: to orchestrate and link the platform’s participants. It’s like a dating service, almost. You want to increase a story’s visibility and enable quick, relevant discovery. For us, almost every aspect of the creation and consumption of digital stories needs to be rethought and implemented anew. That’s what we’re trying to do.

The “quality mobile-first entertainment” needs to be unpacked a bit. So, what we mean by “mobile-first” is that a profound shift has taken place in which the primary device for digital media consumption is the smartphone. I think the “mobile-first” concept includes the apparently paradoxical claim that the more visible and pertinent mobile becomes the more it disappears or recedes into the background. That is, it becomes so ingrained that we actually start to see the world through our digital devices instead of simply having them in our line of sight. Does that make sense? To use cosmology as an example, the smartphone assumes the role of the sun in our solar system. It’s that object around which everything spins and the successful companies are those that have managed to conceive and implement a successful mobile strategy. We believe that what’s yet to occur in the publishing space is a full-blown, native digital strategy. At present, strategy is content first; technology is an afterthought.

Jen: And how does oolipo’s strategy differ?

Ryan: Oolipo thinks technology-, digital-, user-first, then fashions and crafts content around and informed by that framework. So, we ask in what way can digital technology enhance and expand the richness of characters, the universe of the story world, the narrative mechanisms driving that story, and the form in which stories are read and enjoyed. Furthermore, how can technology increase the usability and fun of readers engaging with those stories and characters?

Common sense takes “reading” to refer only to the perusal of text, but we’re trying to expand and disrupt that with a media-driven approach. So, people who may not read many books are still reading a herculean amount on their phones, in a browser, say, from links embedded or shared on Twitter or Facebook. We generally don’t say things like “I’m going to read my Facebook feed”. But we’re still reading. Our platform isn’t limited to text as the preferred or even primary medium of expression. Many stories, at launch, may in fact be exclusively or predominately text-driven. But, we’re moving away from that in the new, original content on the platform. We’re trying to bring the full spectrum of story experiences into digital storytelling.

Jen: At the Frankfurt Bookfair your Digital Content Acquisitions Manager, Anja Mundt, explained that Bastei Lübbe “Are set to offer [digital millennials] a fast-paced style of storytelling geared towards their tastes and reading habits”. The focus will be on serialized content. Why do you think this way of publishing is better suited to a young mobile audience?

Ryan: What we’ve done is think hard about how people actually use their devices throughout the day and the type of content and media people enjoy engaging with on their devices. We believe that episodic releases parallel smartphone reading habits. We want each episode to take between 15-25 minutes to complete. Based on our research, that’s around 2–3 user sessions to complete an episode. One reason we think serials are better suited for a mobile audience is similar to the technology- and mobile-first vision I outlined above. First, we think about what technology enables, and second, we keenly observe what kind of rituals and habits constitute digital behaviour, and then we optimize our content, and the user and writing experience, accordingly.

Jen: Do you think publishing content in this way—serialized and short, fast-paced—will change the way writers approach their craft? Will it change the way writers need to think about reaching an audience?

Ryan: I think so. What YouTube did for my generation—created a new, broad demographic with video creation and editing skillsoolipo wants to do for my and the next generation with regard to composing, publishing and monetizing media-driven fiction. We’re working closely with a number of writers, most of whom have experienced success with digital-first stories. Our writers have found the experience liberating. And the new format we’ve created has enabled them to revisit the basics like story structure and character development.

Jen: Would you say there are specific genres that are better suited to this type of serialization or can all types of fiction be marketed in this way?

Ryan: We believe—at least for now—that certain themes and genres of storytelling are more conducive than others to episodic storytelling. Even so, we see in the realm of television, for example, that no small set of genres monopolizes serial success. Many different genres, from comedy to superhero, crime or political thrillers, employ the episodic structure of storytelling to great success.

We’ll start with a content strategy that we believe works well and then subsequently iterate and improve our assumptions based on the feedback from our readers. Most likely, we won’t be perfect from the start. But we just want to create good stories. We’ve done the requisite research and our team is obsessed with storytelling in all domains (games, TV, film, video games, music, etc.), so our antennae are always acutely positioned to pay attention to other media platforms and what’s working and what’s not. And, as I said, we will continue to nurture close relationships with our creators and readers so that we’re listening closely to and acting on feedback they provide.

Jen: I recently read an article in The Washington Post concerning the reading and library lending habits of digital millennials.  While they are very much at home consuming some content online when it comes to books, particularly educational and study books, a recent Pew Study found that they apparently prefer good old-fashioned print. What do you think of this apparent contradiction? 

Ryan: It’s an interesting point. For so-called digital natives like myself, why are physical book sales on the rise, while individual e-book sales in decline? And why are certain genres of physical books sales on the rise (Food, for example)? People want entertaining and interesting content anytime, anywhere. E-books had the right intentions, I think, but lacked imagination.

I don’t think e-books are dead, but they are having children. I think we’re in a very exciting time for digital publishing.


Jen: Many thanks, Ryan, for taking the time to talk to us. Mashers should look out for a fully available oolipo platform from July 2016. In the meantime, why not share your thoughts about the book of the future in the comments below?

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Jennifer is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Carve Magazine, Litro Magazine and various anthologies. Her radio dramas have won prizes and commendations from the BBC World Service and her short fiction has been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize.

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