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Rick Marazzani was laid off from his job at a video game company earlier this year. So after 17 years in games, he decided to move in a new direction and start Ownshelf. The startup is a cloud-based solution for saving and sharing electronic books across different devices.
Ownshelf has set up a social network of friends who can share eBooks with each other. The web-based service has been in a closed beta test for a couple of months and is about to enter its open beta. For now, you can use the service for free while Ownshelf polishes its offerings. You can browse each other’s shelves and borrow one another’s books.
“It is disruptive to the discovery and consumption of eBooks,” Marazzani said. “Books have always been very personal. We own and cherish books and show them off in our homes on shelves next to family pictures. The bookshelf in the home is how we learn about our friends, get book recommendations, and borrow books our friends endorse. Ownshelf takes the bookshelf digital to browse, share, and get recommendations online.”
According to Pew Research, about 39 percent of people with e-readers did not buy their last e-book. Eighty-one percent get recommendations from peers. Fifty-two percent of e-book reading is on tablets and phones. Thirty-five percent of people read on multiple devices, and 36 percent of tablet owners say they copy e-books.
The service is available first on the web, with dedicated mobile versions coming for iOS and Android later.
“Being web first gets us on all devices, regardless of device gatekeepers,” Marazzani said. “Also, since we are based on real friends sharing, the web is better at tapping the social graph for sharing the service friend to friend.”
The five-person team consists mostly of other game veterans who are making the pivot from games to e-books. The startup is bootstrapped, and the team is working hard to get traction before pitching to investors.
“Our background in games has been useful for building Ownshelf,” Marazzani said.
The company’s chief operating officer is Jason Akel, who gained consumer product and marketing experience working with Trymedia and Verizon Games. Leon Atkinson is the chief technology officer and he has a background in social games. Web engineer Victor Dubiniuk has developed e-commerce platforms. And client engineer Hsiung Chen has worked with Marazzani on dozens of games.
Marazzani started Ownshelf because he needed to share books with his family.
“We all read on tablets, and it was not convenient to browse and share our e-books around the house, let alone with friends and in-laws around the world,” he said. “E-books are carved in to verticals by the platform owners [Apple, Amazon, Google, and Barnes & Noble/Microsoft], and there are not easy vectors for sharing books due to device specific file formats and clunky digital rights management. For my daughter to share an e-book almost takes an IT department.”
With e-books today, Amazon Kindle readers can share with other Kindle owners, but not beyond that. Dropbox and iDrive allow file transfers, but they are more technical than most people want. Ownshelf is domain specific to e-books and makes the concept of cloud storage and sharing approachable for the mass-market, Marazzani said. Ownshelf supports DRM-free e-books in the open EPUB format (which is standard for almost devices except the closed Kindle, which uses Mobi). The company’s HTML5 browser-based reader is in development, and it will open shelves up to Kindle users.
The beta launch is free, but Ownshelf will test monetization strategies, including advertising, publisher content-distribution sponsorships, and subscriptions for premium services.
Marazzani acknowledges that some copyright owners might view his company as a pirate, like the accusations that Kim Dotcom’s Megaupload faced. But Marazzani says that Ownshelf complies with copyright laws.
“Our goal is to get authors into the service to share their books directly,” he said. “Imagine a famous romance writer sharing her favorite books by Jane Austen and Victor Hugo, while also sharing back catalog titles, or five chapter preview of her latest book. It is a direct relationship between an author and her fans while building a new base socially. Ownshelf is disruptive, and we are working hard to take books forward for the benefit of both creators and consumers.”
Ownshelf was accepted into a startup accelerator Tech Futures Group, which provides mentoring. Ownshelf will demo its site at the Demo Garage at the AppNation conference in San Francisco next week.