An Inkling of the Future of Books


An Inkling of the Future of Books

San Franciso e-book startup aims to reinvent the digital printing press

By Tony Wan     Jul 17, 2013

An Inkling of the Future of Books

For a company with a wickedly huge ambition, chief executive and founder Matt MacInnis chose a modest name. Check in with Merriam-Webster and “inkling” is merely a “slight indication or suggestion...or vague notion.” MacInnis, by contrast, is anything but vague: “We want to be the standard for how people build digital content,” he declares.

Huge--but it may be possible: On July 17, the four-year old San Francisco-based company announced it had raised a $16-million Series C round. (The San Francisco Business Times broke the news a week early.) The round was led by Sequoia Capital’s Growth Fund, with existing investors including Felicis Ventures, Tenaya Capital, and JAFCO Technology Partners participating. In an interview with EdSurge, MacInnis wryly described the company’s funding position as a “Sequoia sandwich” since it had also led its previous rounds, which altogether total $48 million.

MacInnis has other news which provide an inkling (so sorry) of future trends: after years of work, the company put the finishing touches on its authoring platform, the Inkling Habitat, which it announced this past February. And, he says, two top trade publishers, Pearson and Reed Elsevier, have entered into multi-year contracts to use the Inkling Habitat platform to create digital academic titles. Inkling will also power a redesign of Elsevier’s online reading portals.

All that is welcome news for Inkling, which has been on its own path of discovery since it was founded in 2009.

The company started with the goal of reworking textbooks for the iPad, and raised a $1M seed round in a Silicon Valley flash. A year later, the startup had a mere four titles to show for its work, all of which were painstakingly hard coded using what was then a relatively young language, HTML5. By December 2010, it realized its efforts would not scale. “There was no simple way to build consistent, HTML5 content,” reminisces MacInnis.

MacInnis’ team realized it was solving the wrong problem.

“The piece of the puzzle we wanted to solve was not what we thought it was,” MacInnis concedes. “We realized we needed to solve the upstream, authoring process that is largely opaque to students and professors but a big problem for publishers.”

That was when the team decided to double down and build the authoring platform that would become Inkling Habitat. It was the equivalent of deciding to create, say, Wordpress instead of manually creating a collection of individual blogs.

Inkling Habitat enables multiple people collaborate simultaneously on a single project. The tool ensures that all materials, from text to videos and interactive widgets, follow structured data standards to maintain a high level of quality across all Inkling books. In addition, all Inkling titles are indexed by Google’s search engine--a feature that means that Google can drive those searching for subjects like biochemistry to the Inkling catalog.

The effort seems to be paying off. In addition to Pearson and Elsevier, MacInnis boasts that Inkling is now in discussion with another five of the world’s ten largest publishers. If those deals come to pass, he suggests, Inkling could add as many as 1,000 additional academic and medical titles to its library by early next year. That would be a big step up from its current catalogue of 560 academic titles

MacInnis also believes that with Habitat, Inkling has clearly marked its turf in the publishing world, especially in light of competitors such as Kindle and Kno. Both of those companies offer their own publishing platforms, but they are geared to different corners of the market, MacInnis asserts. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, for instance, is aimed squarely for the popular entertainment, mass market audience. And Kno Advance seems to target individual authors who want a swift and simple way to convert flat files designed for print into interactive eBooks.

By contrast, Inkling is geared towards serious learners and hobbyists, states MacInnis. “We’re solving for learning in three categories: academic, professional and ‘prosumer.’”

Inkling is solving a practical problem, too, in the cash-strapped state of California. In February the company partnered with 20 Million Minds Foundation to create 50 open textbooks in support of California bill SB 1052, which called for the development of affordable, open educational resources for college students in the state. Two titles--College Physics and Introduction to Sociology--are due to be released in the coming weeks, shares Dean Florez, President and CEO of 20MM. These will be available completely free to students for the first year and then for $4.99 thereafter.

Inkling has also added new executives who have done stints as Flipboard, Google, GoodData and ModCloth: Gus Gostyla, Hema Padhu, and Stephane Panier are joining Inkling as VPs of business development, marketing, and finance and operations, respectively. The new hires bump Inkling’s employee count to 110, a modest rise from the 100 staff a year ago.

And hints of the future? Inkling has no plans to do any acquisitions, insists MacInnis. That suggests the company will use this war chest to move down the path to profitability--or some other liquidity event.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up