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reKiosk: An Interview with Founder Aziz Isham

The eBook marketplace is, if not in its infancy anymore, at least in its toddling years. New devices are still emerging, regulations are still being hashed out, pricing is—more or less—being determined by that one asshole kid that’s bigger than everyone else and has cooler toys. As a small press that’s always lived and died by word of mouth and the enthusiastic handselling of booksellers, we’ve found it scary to see more and more readers deciding what book they’re going to pick up based on gameable algorithms and paid advertising. We were excited, then, to hear about reKiosk, a new Brooklyn-based startup that operates more like a flea market than a big-box store.

Tin House’s very own kiosk launched today. You can buy a digital copy of our new Portland/Brooklyn issue, download a free music compilation, and get an exclusive early edition of our new Writer’s Notebook anthology (featuring craft essays by Andrea Barrett, Benjamin Percy, Anthony Doerr, and Karen Russell among others). If you like them—or any of our other books—you can turn around and sell them in your own Kiosk, keeping a healthy chunk of the profits for yourself. It’s a pretty cool system, but it’s only going to work if enough of us sign up and use it. So to find out more about reKiosk, we talked to one of its founder, Aziz Isham.

Tony Perez: For readers unfamiliar with reKiosk, give us the quick elevator pitch. What is it, and how does it work?

Aziz Isham: reKiosk is a way to sell ebooks and music directly to your fans, and to have fans sell for you. reKiosk is the first platform of its kind to provide an easy, free and shareable way to sell digital files online—whether it’s your own original work or someone else’s. It’s great for musicians and publishers and it’s great for bloggers, critics and other curators who want to open a digital store where they can recommend ebooks and music and get paid to do so.

TP: Where did the idea come from? As a small publisher yourself, did you see a hole that needed filling and decide to fill it on your own?

AI: Yep —that’s pretty much exactly how it happened.  We kept hearing the same thing from our clients and friends in publishing (and, later, from our friends in the music industry). The goal was to sell directly to your audience, but the audience wasn’t in the habit of shopping on a million independent websites.  reKiosk allows publishers to open digital kiosks, while providing buyers with a central, secure, and shareable umbrella site.

TP: What are your goals with reKiosk? Ideally, who would you love to see setting up storefronts? Will brick-and-mortar bookstores open up kiosks? Big New York publishing houses and record labels? Literary/music blogs?

AI: Absolutely all of the above.  The cool thing about opening a kiosk is that there really are no requirements—just like starting a blog.  If you have amazing taste in Scandinavian Noir Fiction and you want to share that taste with your friends, you can (and you can be paid to do so).  Obviously we’re excited when a press like Grove Atlantic or Tin House joins, though, because they have already have decades of experience being amazing curators and bring a really high level of quality to the site.

TP: I imagine you’ve been following the Department of Justice’s ebook settlement. It seems clear to everyone other than Jeff Bezos and Eric Holder that one company controlling such a vast share of an emerging market isn’t to anyone (outside of Amazon’s) advantage. The Internet was supposed to be some great equalizer, but as it has pushed more and more content toward free, wealth has become even more concentrated. How can something like reKiosk compete?

AI: This is the problem, isn’t it?  More books are being written, more books are being read, and yet the cost of each is gradually being eroded. And yet services like PledgeMusic are proving that people are more than willing to pay for high-quality, personally recommended, books and music.  So, without engaging on the issue of the growing inequality gap, which is related but probably requires too much space to get into here, I think that what we really have is a distribution crisis.  When Amazon reviews are being bought-and-sold, or are blatant forgeries, and the gaming of recommendation algorithms has lead to multi-million dollar SEO industries and their offshoots, it’s no wonder that people are shying away from paying hard cash for culture.

I realized this myself last year—I realized that I actually spent less money every month at the book store than I did when I was fresh out of college without two dimes to rub together.  And it’s not because I read less today—but because I used to go to the book store every month, and the record store almost every Tuesday.  reKiosk is, in many ways, a way to recapture the excitement of walking into a human-curated, independent store and browsing the shelves.

TP: The battle for market share so far seems to have revolved around price tags, and who sets them. How is pricing determined at reKiosk?

AI: Right now, we leave the pricing entirely in the publisher’s hands.  The person who uploads the book chooses the price and it remains constant across the whole site.  It’s just like the app store—or, to use a recently controversial term, it’s the agency model.  We believe that the publishers and labels and artists themselves should be given the power to control their own pricing and figure out what works best for them.

TP: Rekiosk can function, like Twitter or Facebook, as a recommendation engine. How do you see it interacting with established social media platforms?

AI: reKiosk is completely integrated with Twitter and Facebook.  We want people to buy books the same way that they hear about them—and so this could be by email, word-of-mouth or, as is the case with almost 50% of our visitors, by facebook.

TP: Are there any exciting presses, labels, books, or albums you’ve discovered so far?

AI: One of my favorite discoveries since opening the site a couple weeks ago has been a Brooklyn label, Paper Garden Records.  It’s a diverse group of bands, well produced and each one with a really unique sound—I’ve been listening to the Conveyor album pretty much non-stop for the last couple weeks.  I’ve also fallen in love with the entire O/R Books catalog—a combination of well-crafted literary fiction and progressive journalism that’s lovingly curated and painstakingly edited.  Every release by O/R Books is good—and I’ve started following them so I know whenever they post a new book to the site.  I later found out that Colin Robinson, the publisher there, had edited some of my favorite authors of all time, like Mike Davis and Benedict Anderson—so the role of curator or gatekeeper has always been a part of book sales, it just becomes a little more transparent when everyone’s got their own digital kiosk.

Aziz Isham worked for years in the documentary film and television industry. An executive and VP at JWM Productions, he produced hit series for History, Discovery Channel, A&E and National Geographic. He directed Murder Music, (CBS) and also created, produced and directed one of the highest-rated series for National Geographic Wild. After leaving JWM, Aziz co-founded Arcade Sunshine Media – a digital publishing and production company that was recently named one of the 29 companies shaping the eBook platform landscape. Arcade Sunshine Media productions have been met with wide critical acclaim and clients include the Smithsonian, Travel Channel, Grove Atlantic, and numerous non-profits and institutions. His essays have been published in The Huffington Post and Digital Book World, and he’s been a featured speaker at future of publishing events at NYU, MediaBistro, DC Week and several others. Aziz has a BA in Anthropology from Yale and lives and works in Brooklyn.

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