/ Opportunities and Challenges of Building a Books-as-a-Service Platform

This is the article length version of the authors’s presentation given at BiB IV, which is also available as video (below) and slides (KEY, 59MB).


The concept of reading is by no means static. Technologies have undoubtedly affected the ways that we consume and produce written content, the tools that we use, our reading style, and even how we organize our thoughts as we read. Digital technologies seem to have finally taken the book to its next stage. The vision of building a product from which different stakeholders can build book-related services and applications in a quicker and more efficient manner is not new, as academia and other publishing experts have already done some thinking about it. However, no commercial tool still exists that enables access to general book-related content. This article will introduce the concept of a “Book as a Service” platform, a software product that enables access to digital books and related functions such as text mining, reading analytics, and metadata so that other companies can create innovative services and products on top of it. The opportunities and challenges of this type of platform from technical, legal, and business standpoints will also be discussed, as well as its implications when redefining the possibilities of the written word.

1. A Big Shift in an Otherwise Big, Slow Industry

The arrival of the electronic book, as opposed to other electronic versions of cultural and entertainment objects such as the music record or the movie, has required a lot of time. Nevertheless, with the arrival of the Amazon Kindle e-reading device at the end of 2007, the rapid appearance of new versions of the Kindle with even greater capabilities, and the proliferation of other reading devices with Internet connectivity, everything just sped up. With the additional growth of the number of smartphones and tablets worldwide, users started to realize that, just as they were able to access their music (with Spotify [1] or Deezer [2]), their work and personal documents (with Gmail [3] or Evernote [4]), and their daily news (via Internet browsing), they could do the same with their books.

Figure 1 – Example of wrong formatting of electronic books
Figure 1 – Example of wrong formatting of electronic books

Curiously enough, if one stops to read the comments both for and against these new types of reading devices, it can be seen that there a great similarity to what happened at other moments in time when the breakthrough of a new technology such as the scroll, the codex, printing, or the paperback format caused widespread discussion about how this new disruptive element compromised the future of writing or of the book [5] [6]. It is important to recall, for example, that the French statesman Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes [7] publicly said in the eighteenth century that “printing transforms the citizen into an isolated human being” because printed newspapers made pulpits, where news pieces were presented and commented upon, unnecessary.

A few centuries earlier, when the printing press and movable type made their appearance in Europe, the Venetian judge Filippo di Strata made it clear that printing corrupted texts, as the printed documents were full of manufacturing errors and were created only for commercial benefit. He even famously said that “Est virgo hec penna, meretrix est stampificata” [8], that is, “The pen is a virgin, the printing press is a prostitute.” Interestingly enough, these same accusations reach the electronic book nowadays.

Figure 2 – Main book-related burnings (main source: Wikipedia)
Figure 2 – Main book-related burnings (main source: Wikipedia)

And we can go even further back in time, to the moments when one of the most eminent minds in history said that “[...] this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.” Yes, it was Socrates, or, better said, Plato, who, in his work Phaedrus [9], put these words into the mouth of this genius.

In each epoch where there has been some type of humanistic, cultural, or social revolution, there has also been some kind of fear about what would happen to the book and/or its readers.

However, the book has always survived, as it is the true and reliable representation of our stories, our experiences and knowledge. We can change the formats, the definitions, but never the essence of what a book is. As is typically said, if the book did not exist, we would have to invent it.

2. Current State of the eBook

Just as television started as radio with talking heads, we have been through a period of time where an electronic book was basically a very exact representation of what we currently understand as a physical book: text, images, pages, etc. By itself, this already provides very interesting capabilities, like the ability to carry hundreds or thousands of books in a device the size of a notepad.

However, the interesting things come when the publishing industry and its experts start to realize that the skeuomorphic features implemented in the transition from print to digital book are just not sufficient and, in most cases, should be discarded; that the ability to process the text inside of the book, to enable interaction with the readers, or to provide relationships among texts, could provide lots of value and, why not say it, entertainment. In other words, the book is a historically relevant asset and critical to humankind. However, it can now be seen as a close cousin of the web page, where the text, images, and metadata of each edition can be the seeds of additional information and knowledge for the delight of readers, researchers, and publishers alike.

Using a very simplistic analogy, the book is finishing its time on earth and will go to the clouds. Not to disappear, but, just the opposite, so that it can be seen more easily, and from anywhere. It is a concept we will name “Book as a Service” (BaaS), which brings the concept of platform to the core of the publishing industry.

The remainder of this article will be as follows: We will first review the definition of platform; then we will deal with the five key elements that need to be built on top of this concept and that, at the same time, help define it. These elements are the Book on the Cloud, the Conversation, the Discovery, the Business Model, and the Openness. The following section will cover the technical components of the platform and some samples of the interface that should be published for third parties to build tools on top of it. It will then finish by describing the major challenges this new approach faces and presenting a conclusion.

3. Building a Platform

Defining a software platform can be quite difficult, but entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen gives a good enough explanation [10]: “A ‘platform’ is a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers—users—and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform’s original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate.”

Andreessen goes one step further and defines three types of software platforms that can be built:

  • Level-1, or Access platforms, that provide a set of web service APIs (application programming interfaces) that can be used by anyone with enough privileges to request data or actions to the platform. These are the ones most typically found, like those provided by Spotify, Twitter [11], Flickr [12], etc.
  • Level-2, or Plug-In platforms, that “let developers build new functions that can be injected, or ‘plug-in,’ to the core system and its user interface.” Web browsers like Firefox [13] or Chrome [14] provide plug-ins to add functionality to the browser, which appears as an inherent part of the user experience. Facebook [15] is another impressive example of how third-party companies can develop on top of, and monetize, a Level-2 platform (with the greatest example being Zynga [16] and its Facebook-focused games).
  • Level-3, or Runtime platforms, add the ability for the third-party programming code to be executed on the platform itself. The programmer must upload the code there and comply with the software and legal requirements of the platform. Google Play [17] and the Apple App Store [18] are two impressive examples of how this approach can be built.

Though this is not a seminal definition of a platform [19] [20], it has been good enough to help us understand the potential of platforms. Most available platforms are Level-1 offerings, but as they evolve, they are starting to offer some flavors of the other two types.

The important component of this concept is that it potentially enables others to improve upon a piece of software, building new capabilities that the original creators were not able to achieve, offering possibilities that the original creators did not imagine. The second component is very important, as software is so complex that even the original creators might have been missing important, even critical features, use cases, or market segments because of lack of time, knowledge, or imagination, diminishing the actual value the software component or product could provide to society.

The ability to ideate, create, and successfully commercialize a book-related platform is based on which characteristics we need to make publicly available to those potential developers and makers. In the following sections, we will define and explain what we consider the key dimensions that need to be taken into account. These are shown in Figure 3 and are named as follows:

  • Books on the cloud
  • Conversation
  • Discovery
  • Business model
  • Openness
Figure 3 – Books as a service
Figure 3 – Books as a service

4. Books on the Cloud

By taking a look at the implicit characteristics of any cultural object in digital format, and another at the current state of the server-based technologies, it becomes clear that once books became digital, it was only a matter of time until they could be rendered remotely without the reader needing to worry about their specific locations. The advent of mobile technologies, where users have more than one digital device from which they can read (e.g., an e-ink device, a tablet, a smartphone, or a laptop), makes this “online book” idea more relevant. Some of the newest standards for ebook format, such as IDPF’s EPub3 [21], closely and explicitly resemble web-based formats such as W3C’s HTML5 [22].

The main non-technical reason for the appearance of the books-on-the-cloud concept is a switch in trends in how people consume electronic media. Music and movies have long gone that way, with people now no longer “buying” records or videos (or at least not at the same pace or volume), but accessing them by logging into their favorite services or apps, comfortably at home, or while they use portable smartphones or tablets. This is one of the key changes in human behavior with regard to books as we go from a “book as a product” approach to the “book as a service” concept, as discussed above.

The benefits for the users are clear. Those users do not need to worry about where their books are located,as the books can be found online wherever the users are. Device synchronization is a key requirement of the solutions that offer books on the cloud now that people have different digital devices for reading.

There are also some challenges. Constant connectivity is not a given even in the first world, so additional characteristics such as offline reading should be implemented. The reliability of the platform offering the books is also critical, as that is the weakest link in the chain. From a technical standpoint, providing a secure system that prevents unexpected crashes is a first step toward wide adoption by potential online readers.

Having books on the cloud is not only interesting for final readers. As users read books while online, the platform can also extract very relevant behavioral data and analyze it. This enables, for the first time, the opportunity to analyze in detail how readers actually behave while reading. While this can be very tempting for commercial reasons (as publishers can better understand what customers want), it clearly sets the tone for future research on recommendation systems, enhancements to cloud readers (e.g., by adjusting to the speed and needs of individual readers, as envisioned by Microsoft’s Bill Hill [23]), etc.

5. Conversation

Conversation around books has always existed. The existing limitation until now was that this conversation is realized outside of the book. Only marginalia allowed us to have a more intimate relationship between the content of the book, our thoughts, and the thoughts of other readers. An early example of experimentation in that respect can be seen in a technical book: Concrete Mathematics [24], where the comments made by students during the review process were published as part of the book. There are historical marginalia such as those of Sir Isaac Newton and Voltaire. Another example of historical marginalia is the notes from the Codex of Emilianus, which are considered the first set of sentences written in Spanish and which are also a beautiful piece of art. In summary, marginalia from writers and researchers such as Laplace and James Joyce are considered a critical component of the context of books [25]. But they also are static, limited, and scarce.

Figure 4 – Example of digital marginalia
Figure 4 – Example of digital marginalia

Books in the cloud allow for the conversation to happen inside of the book. We can imagine having deep conversations about the influence of Ayn Rand in North American economic politics, but we can also discuss pronunciation trends in elven in The Lord of the Rings or solve some questions about exercise 4 or section 3 of a physics textbook. And all of this happens, again, inside the book, so the comment thread is contextualized and therefore comprehensible.

Current e-reading platforms are already working on such conversation, and there are some experiments, such as Comment Press [26], that show part of the future.

Moreover, we do not have to stop there. Why just talk to other readers? Why not carry on a conversation with the author? If the doubt or the question a reader has about a specific passage of the work she is reading needs to be attended to by the author herself, why shouldn’t the reader send her comments or questions to the author? This is a critical approach because it takes the author back to where she started: to her role as a bard who exposes her own works to the audience, but who listens to input from the audience and uses that input to help her work evolve.

There are some voices that suggest that the book as a solid and static voice of the culture has only been a small evolutionary detour [27], that we come from live, dynamic and changing conversations, and that now we come back to them. The book will no longer admit the extreme rigidity that existed previously. Craig Mod [28] already talks about Wikipedia [29] as a well-organized example of dynamic and yet encyclopedic information. There are already some experiments such as “Every Book is a Startup” [30], and certainly there will be many more in the future. In the past, books were “chained” to their leather or paperboard covers, and that is why they were static. This is no longer necessary.

There is of course the issue of noise in conversations. Enabling everyone to write comments in a book is theoretically interesting, but we all know what 99 percent of the Internet forums become. Some individuals, hiding behind anonymity, corrupt the main goal of conversations and take them to ground we typically want to avoid; concerns exist that these irrelevant marginalia prevent readers from reaching the most important goal: to produce comments that nurture debate and enrich the original text.

6. Discovery

When people access electronic bookstores, their behavior is similar to their behavior in physical bookstores. Sometimes they will “copy-paste” the name of a book sent by a friend or will go to the exact link where the book description, cover, and price appear. Sometimes they even have the ISBN. Other times they will browse the category trees, and at times they will just make choices based upon what is recommended by the system. The difference between a physical library and an electronic one is that, regardless of how big the physical place is, the electronic one will always be orders of magnitude bigger. Besides, there is no bookseller to help us in an electronic bookstore. In order for books on the cloud to succeed, book discovery in a catalog with millions of works is one of the crucial elements. Big electronic bookstores have known this for many years, and that is why their discovery and purchase-based recommendation tools are so good. Purchase-based recommendation tools provide part of what users need, but the recommendations are based on actual purchases (basically a vicious circle), so there will always be books to discover. The future of the book requires new tools that provide different ways to access and discover content. Some examples are the following:

  • Bookcrossing [31] is a movement where people can “free” books that they no longer intend to read from their personal libraries, so that other people can enjoy them as if finding them by chance on the street. If we also tag our discarded books and upload some basic metadata to the Bookcrossing website, we can, in theory, follow the life of our book as it passes from one reader to another. From any user’s standpoint, finding an interesting book is pure serendipity. The behavior is similar to what people currently get from Twitter when they take a look at messages with the “hashtag” “#bookrecommendation.” Suddenly, we get tens, hundreds of messages with recommended books. Of course, many of them will not be of interest to us, but maybe one or two will catch our attention.
  • Social recommendations are also critical assets of the books-on-the-cloud concept, as well as recommendations from literary critics. There are many people whose reading interests extend beyond best sellers, and for them, the literary critics are the true keepers of literary quality. These specialists help us discern between books good and bad, sublime and horrible, original and simple copycat. Books in the cloud will require a greater effort by those critics, in addition to tools that help them or at least complement their work. These tools should be able to “research” the implicit context provided by a book in order to achieve a level of understanding impossible through the efforts of an individual reader. For example, the Book Genome Project[32] is trying to define an enormous series of parameters that provide meaning to a book, that is, tits DNA. Using parameters of that sort, we could, for example, find books related by quality, style, tension level, and so on.

7. The Business Model

The publishing industry has already found all relevant business models related to print books. A person can enter a bookstore and buy a book, can enter a library and borrow a book (while libraries pay publishers for the books that are acquired), can join a book club, etc. In digital infrastructures, there are new ways to potentially appeal to people to spend their money (or any other worthy currency like time, social value, etc.). Some of these methods are pure translations of those existing in the physical world: e-bookstores that enable quick download of the ebooks once people have paid andlending systems that enable users to read all the books they want per month, one book at a time. Because of the importance of the old models, some of these mechanisms need to artificially re-create the physical constraints of the print world; the main example is the library model, where digital book downloads are constrained by a “maximum number of copies.” But other models take full advantage of the virtual world, for instance, crowdsourcing mechanisms to fund the writing and/or marketing of new books, andsubscription models where people pay to have access to an important set of ebooks in an “all you can eat” fashion.

We live now in a world where it is not safe to assess one particular business model as the next big one. Publishers and other stakeholders need to experiment with different options, and with books on the cloud, it is much simpler to execute, test, and compare until some of them show their real value.

As defined by Julius Wiedemann [33], the near-term future of the book is a world where information is digital and beauty is made of paper. But this will also end, and, little by little, our digital reading experience will be as close and beautiful as what we have now... and then we will have digital reading no longer... it will be just reading. This is a progression that, we should not forget, has already begun. Children two, three, four years old use tablets with a quickness and security that older people can only wish to have. A bedtime story may have a paperboard cover or may be inside “mom’s tablet.” What matters, once again, is that the story is entertaining.

8. Openness

All the previous dimensions are critical in order to provide a proper environment where books can be published and distributed everywhere they are required. However, the concept of how this can be transformed into a platform has not been addressed yet. The way to achieve this is via openness.

Openness is the ability—or, should we say, possibility—for a piece of software to be accessed by a secure and limited set of its internals so that others can interact with it. In other words, it is at least the way to transform a software product or component into a Level-1 platform.

However, openness can be understood at different levels. If the electronic book itself can be seen as a platform, openness also exists in the process of accessing and modifying its words and passages and how they are re-created. If a book is transformed into a series of bits and bytes, is there any impediment preventing those elements from merging with other bits and bytes that belong to other texts and also with images, video and audio? This question can be approached from different standpoints. This discussion will address a couple of them: book as a container and book as a service platform.

One of the answers that concerns me the most because of its consequences is the following: a book has been, is, and will be an application container. In the past, an “application” could be a recipe, and a cookbook was a “container of recipe applications.” There seems to be no doubt that the future of travel guides will be as applications that not only describe, for example, how beautiful the Sistine Chapel is, but that show it to the user, allowing him/her to hear its noise and voices, and, once the user arrives at the location in question, to actually guide him/her around the places of greatest interest. The same could be said about textbooks and other types of non-fiction works.

The question comes when we think about fiction works such as the novel or the poem. A little while ago Faber Publishing House published a new edition of the poem “The Waste Land,” by T.S. Eliot, their landmark author. However, this time it was not a “book” that was published, but an “app,” that is, an application to be run on the Apple iPad. In this application, the reader/user can read the poem but can also listen to the voice of the author and the voices of other famous people. And she can also watch a scenification of the poem by Fiona Shaw. There is still no answer as to whether this is the future of the book or an intermediate step that will not get very far, as happened with those multimedia CDs at the beginning of the ’90s that tried to teach us foreign languages or show graphical encyclopedias. But there is no doubt that this “hybridization” that some call “transmedia” will be a mandatory step in in the following years, just as the appearance of new ebook generation standards predicts.

But as mentioned above, openness has another, deeper meaning. As books are available everywhere from a reader’s perspective, they are also available to third parties to provide value-added services. This creates an opportunity to dig deeper into what a book may provide to the final reader, to see the book as the core platform from which to build additional experiences. A recommendation engine that takes into account not just the user profile but what a particular book is about, or even semantic details of the chapter a specific person is reading, is one example. Another is a service that takes contextual information about the content of a book to provide alternative entertainment or information to the reader. There are efforts related to classifying and indexing books in an automatic way based on their content (which is a crucial task when we have millions of books and many more being written, built, and published every year) [34]; extracting relevant concepts from a literary text (such as historical events, which can be used to discern between real events and fantasized ones) [35]; and being able to infer and record the different emotional levels in a work [36]. At the present time, these are research efforts with no current functional application, but they could be commercially viable in months or a few years. As we all know, today’s research may be tomorrow’s tool set (e.g., what SmallDemons tried to do when listing the singers, places, and events occurring or mentioned inside a book). And even if we are not members of Singularity University, this “tomorrow” takes less and less time to materialize before us.

A book on the cloud enables the use of these tools by offering an API from which these third-party services can access the information required in a secure, constrained, and practical way. The cloud platform must enable this API to be simple to use and as flexible as possible so that an interesting high-quality ecosystem can be developed as soon as possible, although without compromising either user security or intellectual property and copyrights of the books that are involved.

9. A Level-1 Books as a Service Platform

This section presents the foundations of a Level-1 Books as a Service Platform. First of all, a platform must be made up of a set of components, each of which is responsible for a specific role of the service. Potentially one or more resources for each component can be published as part of the public API. The following is a diagram that shows the current set of components in the 24symbols [37] platform.

The evolution of the 24symbols service into a platform has always been related to the business day-to-day. During recent months, the strategic partnerships signed with mobile carriers have triggered some significant improvements and updates to some of the components seen above. For instance: (1) every carrier we reach a deal with has a relatively different billing and subscription mechanism, which needs to be integrated with our platform. This means that now we not only accept credit cards and Paypal, but have a quite straightforward way to integrate with any billing system available as long as it provides some kind of API. (2) Because a credit-based subscription model has been added to the existing Freemium model [38] in the direct-to-consumer version available in 24symbols, we had to generalize the definition of a subscription service, therefore enabling different subscription options to be configured when a new service is to be launched. (3) The importance of localization is not realized until it is too late. Working with different currencies and different languages (even different aspects of the same language, like Spanish in Mexico or Spain) is a daunting task, but a platform must be able to publish and enable the reading of any book from any country, regardless of price, language, or reading lateralization (RTL, LTR). (4) Graphical interfaces can be quite different from one region to another, since in some cases the service is white labeled with the carrier brand. Everything known about visual layer decoupling or Model View Controller design patterns is to be used to at least semi-automate this work once the design is finished.

Figure 5 – 24symbols Platform Architecture
Figure 5 – 24symbols Platform Architecture

From a slightly more technical perspective, this must all be implemented with the browser in mind. This means generating a RESTful-like approach to our API that really matches everything a programmer would like to have available. RESTful [39] is considered the lingua franca of cloud-based programming, enabling the usage of canonical URLs at different levels so that publishers, books, and passages can be directly linked and accessed. Of course, RESTful is stateless, so implementation is quicker and fault tolerant. And finally, RESTful is widely used in the software community to build industrial-strength APIs with frameworks to rapidly generate them in languages like Ruby or Java, either directly or using DSL-like tools such as RABL [40]. Figures 6, 7, 8, and 9 show some of the resources defined for access to and interaction with book editions, publishers, readers and their readings, and user subscriptions.

Figure 6 – User-related resources (sample)
Figure 6 – User-related resources (sample)
Figure 7 – Reading-related resources (sample)
Figure 7 – Reading-related resources (sample)
Figure 8 – Edition-related resources (sample)
Figure 8 – Edition-related resources (sample)
Figure 9 – Bookshelf-related resources
Figure 9 – Bookshelf-related resources

As mentioned above, the way to invoke those resources is by using RESTful. The following are some hypothetical examples of how some of these calls would look.

  • For service #1 (e.g., bookservice.com) find the average percentage read by user 2456 of book 3156. Output in jSON
    • GET api.bookservice.com/json/service/1/user/2456/edition/3156/pctg_read
  • For service #2 (e.g., country X with carrier Y), find the number of users per page of book 3156. Output in jSON
    • GET api.bookservice.com/json/service/2/edition/3156/users_per_page
  • For service #3, find the number of users of page 4 in book 3156. Output in jSON
    • GET api.bookservice.com/json/service/3/edition/3156/page/4/ users_per_page
  • Find books most read among all services. Output in jSON
    • GET api.bookservice.com/json/books_most_read
  • Obtain billing info for publisher X on service 4 from April to June 2013
    • GET api.bookservice.com/json/service/4/publisher/X/daterange/ 2013/04_2013/06/get_billing_info

These APIs typically offer granular access to the information behind them, but it is also important to provide higher level business operations. While it is still to be validated how mashup tools might be used by business users to create useful services, some basic functionality could be provided to enable the building of value-added services. This is interesting not only for the third-party developer, but also for the provider of the platform, as the provider would also obtain a deeper understanding of how and why data is being used. The range of this functionality is outside the scope of this article.

9. Challenges and Opportunities

The previous sections have looked at a probable future of the book from an optimistic point of view. To keep on advancing, we need to approach it that way. But it is true that the world of books will find more than one challenge while taking steps forward.

First of all, as with everything in life, the world of books belongs to an industry that has worked for many years in a very specific way, with a clear and appropriate specialization and optimization of tasks. But technological and cultural changes are shaking the industry. The “mess” that this is causing is, at the least, interesting to follow, but tense times and traumatic decisions await. People like Tom Peters would say that this is perfectly normal and even healthy. Obviously, for the people inside the industry, this approach is not the most attractive one.

Going back to the world of books, this article has argued for the importance of ebooks presented via a cloud reading service. But if books “go” to the clouds ... what happens if it rains? How much do we depend on the providers? This is a meaningful question, especially when we read occasionally about Internet servers crashing for hours or days because of human errors, fires, or electrical failures. From a technical point of view, the answer is similar to the response often given to people who say they are afraid to fly and prefer to use a car: flying is orders of magnitude safer than traveling in a car. In this case, books in the cloud are much safer than in a 2-GB drive in a student’s room. Unfortunately, stats and cold data do not typically persuade the one who is afraid to fly, and neither will they prove convincing to anyone hesitant to get rid of a beautiful personal library in order to have a single reading device and all their books “in the cloud.” Service companies will need to work hard to create and prove reliability.

This work has also mentioned the different types of existing and still-to-be-created recommendation engines. We are all conscious that sometimes our friends err in their recommendations. Therefore, the challenge for these tools and the complex and cold algorithms is to avoid multiplying these errors, promoting works that not only are we not interested in, but that might propose ideas that are totally contrary to our tastes and preferences. This is a problem that users of services that provide automatic recommendations confront every day, and it is another important challenge to tackle.

Building a BaaS platform has its own challenges: technical, billing-related, legal, business, and competition issues.

Technically speaking, any platform needs to be built with a scalable architecture able to handle potentially millions of daily requests from its callers. This might mean the development of a complex distributed system, with separate but interconnected instances. Security is obviously a critical issue as well.

A global BaaS platform must be able to provide its users and customers with different internationalization, localization, and currency management capabilities (e.g., enabling customers to create international services with different currencies, languages, and reading directionality) and report very detailed information about sales, traffic, and social analytics. This can be considered a classic business intelligence challenge, but it is nevertheless a complex one.

From a legal standpoint, a useful platform must enable the upload, storage, and processing of commercial book content in order for platform users to create innovative products and services without having to “reinvent the wheel.” This, of course, requires commercial publishers, literary agents, and authors to accept this possibility as an alternative channel for revenue and understanding of how their books can be consumed in the future. There are already some approaches like HarperCollins’s BookSmash [41], but that is definitely not a sufficient guarantee that most publishers would be interested in providing content in a more general and broad way. Proving the value of a platform like the one proposed in this article, coupled with negotiations based on new business models and revenue agreements, is the key aspect to making this a reality.

Of course, legal and rights-related challenges can be quickly solved if there is an attractive return on investment for all stakeholders. It is a challenge for an academic article like this to provide a clear solution to these problems, but part of the equation will be to define clear business models based on payment per user or subscription, where content providers get transparent reporting of how their books are used and how they are being paid back.

There are competition challenges as well. Big companies like Amazon [42] and Google [43] can create similar services. Representatives from Overdrive [44] have already announced similar services for the near future, and other aggregators or distributors are clearly in a good position to follow suit.

But the opportunities are many. Users of this service could be startups that want to create innovative products or services without starting from scratch; big publishers that are interested in testing new services; small publishers and libraries that want to offer subscription services beyond those offered by default; researchers that are continuously looking for insights coming from existing book corpora; and so on.

10. Conclusion

As of the writing of this article, the platform built by 24symbols is being launched in different countries in South America and Europe and being prepared for more launches. Each project, each step pushes the technical and business development team to be more efficient in terms of content rights; of relationships; and, of course, of graphical, technical, and system-based integration and scalability. As others are working toward the same goal, a fully commercial BaaS platform might not be far from being a reality.

In general, building a BaaS platform poses organizational, infrastructure, social, and technical difficulties. Many are complex challenges. And yet, aren’t they beautiful challenges? Books have defined the map of our lives throughout the years. We can imagine a future where we not only read these books, but, with the help of the new technologies and devices, rapidly immerse ourselves in their world of relationships, places, metaphors, and pure knowledge. Whether a reader decides to be assisted by those artifacts and services or just to enjoy the pure joy of text reading will be, again, a personal decision.

About the Authors

Justo Hidalgo is co-founder of 24symbols, a service to read and share digital books in the cloud, working with any reading device with Internet connection and that gives users access to an international and multi-publisher’s catalog. He also teaches Creativity, Product Strategy and Innovation at the Master’s Degree program in Industrial Design of Nebrija University, and Technology for Managers at the Nebrija Business School in Madrid, Spain. Justo is a member of the Internet Society, a member of MMEDIS, and a mentor of different startup schools and accelerators. Justo holds a Ph.D. from the University of A Coruña, Spain, and an M.S. in Computer Science from the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. He has received training in Product Management, Product Marketing, Innovation, and Creativity in Stanford and Berkeley, CA.

Constantino Malagón is associate professor of Artificial Intelligence at Nebrija University. In 2008 he co-founded MMEDIS, an international research group formed by specialists in History, Literature, Science, and Technology. The aim of this innovative research is to design an image processing system for the transcription and deciphering of medieval manuscripts.


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