Successful businesses often have humble beginnings. The first Apple computers were assembled in Steve Jobs’ living room. YouTube’s first office was in a garage. eBay’s first sale was a broken laser pointer.
For Book Glutton, a website that allows users to form virtual reading groups and comment on online books, the origins were no less humble. The idea was born out of a night of drinks at the Esquire in downtown Champaign and the initial notes were scribbled on cocktail napkins. Of course, for Travis Alber and Aaron Miller, the company’s founders, designers, principle investors and only full-time staff, Book Glutton’s success is still a distant goal that depends on users taking advantage of what the site has to offer.
In essence, Book Glutton functions like a combination of Good Reads and a more interactive version of Project Gutenberg, in that users can download entire texts from a sizable library, which they can then annotate for other members of their reading groups or the public at large. Reading groups can also make use of the chat feature to have live discussions about a particular part of a book.
According to Alber, Book Glutton is intended to “fill a big hole in the market” for people who want to be part of social reading communities, discuss books in more depth than is possible on current social networking sites and read books online in a way that is closer to the hard-copy experience without having to buy an expensive device like the Kindle.
Book Glutton is still in its infancy — it’s only five weeks out from launching and still in beta — but the initial response from users has been extremely positive.
Still, the challenges are daunting. First and foremost there’s the issue of what to do about copyrighted material. To get around the problem, Book Glutton currently only offers works that are public domain, but Alber says she’d like to team up with publishers to broaden the company’s selection.
She and Miller are also working on a tool that would allow users to upload their own material, making Book Glutton like the literary version of YouTube. Whether people would clamber to download user-generated writings with as much fervor as 30-second clips of kids launching rockets made out of Diet Coke and Mentos remains to be seen.
Educators may be the group to benefit the most from Book Glutton because of the ability it gives classes to have virtual, text-based discussions. A professor at NYU has already used the site successfully to have her students annotate King Lear and, according to Alber, more professors are planning to use Book Glutton in the near future.
The two founders have local roots — Alber is from Peoria and Miller studied at the University of Illinois as an undergrad — but they both worked for years in the tech industry in California. They picked Champaign-Urbana as their base of operations because it was cheaper than California and, starting up a business on personal funds, they needed their money to go as far as it possibly could. Champaign-Urbana was perfect for them because they could be in university environment, have access to a world-class library and still be near friends and family. As a bonus, Alber has been able to take free business classes offered by the Champaign Public Library. Otherwise, they’ve been able to hire hourly contractors they’ve found on Craigslist for any of the work they need done.
“Fundraising would be easier in California,” Alber admits, but otherwise, they’ve been more than content with operating out of Champaign.
And it’s worth noting that in the end, if Book Glutton becomes a big sensation, the Esquire can claim to have produced something more substantial than a wicked hangover.