Organisation Transformation Grant Case Study
Bubbly Books - Self-Publishing for Authors and Artists
A Singapore publisher created an online platform, www.plotterbox.com, that enables the works of authors and artists to be translated into customisable book products. Plotter Box involves three distinct concepts: first, a product that allows for more personalisation and customisation of books than its current competitors; second, ground-breaking technology that allows handprints to become part of the illustrations in customised books; and third, self-publishing templates and processes for authors. With these, Plotter Box aims to democratise publishing while instituting a fair and transparent royalty payment system for artists and authors
Many aspiring authors who were unable to gain inroads into traditional publishing attempt self-publishing as an alternative route. However, the self-publishing process is often daunting and costly, with many things to consider including lay-out, intellectual property rights, and printing. Self-publishing still remains inaccessible to most authors today.
Bubbly Books endeavours to streamline the self-publishing process and make it easy for aspiring authors (or anyone who wants to customise and publish a story just for family and friends) by providing easy-to-use guided templates and a design-to-print process that is straightforward and less costly. The platform welcomes international content, with the aim of becoming a global marketplace for authors, illustrators and content creators to share and market their works.
Outcomes in a Nutshell
A self-publishing platform that enables authors, illustrators and content creators to custom-create, print, and sell books
Prototypes of 2 customisable stories and 2 self-publishing templates
Patented new technology that allows photographs of handprints and fingerprints to be converted into book illustrations
Authors and artists who previously did not have an avenue for publishing their work now have a platform for their work to be featured and sold in customisable books. This includes the general public seeking an easy way to publish books as keepsakes or unique personalised gifts. Aspiring authors also have a platform to self-publish without going through the traditional publishing house route. The ultimate transformation is the innovation of a new system—an automated, transparent and clear system of paying out royalties to authors and artists that is immediate and at above-market-average rates and that puts the interests of the content creators first.
“We’re very small but very nimble. We are always trying new things, pushing new boundaries.”
Things you must absolutely get right
- Have someone on the team who speaks the technical language. Bubbly Books hired an in-house software programmer who could help them decode the technical jargon and processes.
- Establish a clear project governance structure and team roles. When time is crucial, swift decisions need to be made and people need to understand their respective roles to be efficient.
- Have clarity over your artistic style. This allowed the team to discern the entries from an open call (for artists and authors) and quickly pick out those they wanted to work with based on the merit of their style.
Critical next steps to sustain the effort
- Add 5 more customisable stories within the next 6 months.
- Raise investment to turn the MVP into a viable product and to improve on the platform, including developing new books.
What they wished they had done differently from the start
- Start with 1 product concept instead of 3, in particular the handprint book. This would allow them to focus on one thing and learn from the experience, before expanding into other concepts.
Bubbly Books is a boutique Singapore publisher that has developed a niche in books for children and young adults by local or Asian authors in a localised setting. Founder Eliza Teoh recounted that about 10 years ago when her children were growing up, she observed that there were very few locally written books for children. As a result, Singaporean children tended to be more familiar with American or British culture due to the English books they read.
“Singaporean children deserve to have books in which they can identify and connect with the characters,” said Eliza. She thus created and wrote the Ellie Belly series for her children, and set up Bubbly Books to publish her works. “I am first and foremost an author, and then an accidental publisher,” explained Eliza. Ever since its establishment in 2011, Bubbly Books has continually proven that there is a market for children’s books set in a local Singaporean context.
Bubbly Book’s success eventually revealed a market gap – the Singapore publishing ecosystem could not support as many book launches as there were aspiring authors. “We started getting lots of manuscripts from teenagers but we didn’t have the bandwidth to publish all of them,” recalled Eliza. That led to her and her partners thinking—what if authors had a platform to self-publish as easily as “uploading their stories and pressing ‘print’”?
Bubbly Books’ transformation thus set out to address the struggles faced by many aspiring authors who were unable to gain inroads into traditional publishing, with an alternative route like self-publishing. However, the self-publishing process is often daunting and costly, with many things to consider including lay-out, intellectual property rights, printing etc. “Book printers only deal with publishers,” explained Eliza, “The man on the street cannot just walk in and order copies.
Bubbly Book’s vision is to streamline the self-publishing process and make it easy for aspiring authors (or anyone who wants to publish a story just for family and friends) by providing easy-to-use guided templates and a design-to-print process that is straightforward and less costly.
Plotterbox, an online platform that provides customisable books, was therefore created. It comprises three distinct concepts:
- Personalised books written about pets, teachers and parents as well as occasions such as class reunions, anniversaries and weddings. While such products exist in the market today, Plotter Box provides a higher level of customisation than its competitors
- Handprint books—this involves developing new patented technology to personalise books or pieces of art with users’ handprints (and their children, or even pawprints in the future) that become part of the illustrations in the books. This does not exist in the market.
- Self-publishing templates with drag-and-drop text and self-populating template functions
Bubbly Book’s vision is to see this platform translate into revenue streams for all content creators – not just authors, but also artists. “It is also part of our future vision to allow artists to upload illustrations that users can pick and choose for a fee,” said Eliza. The platform welcomes international content, with the aim of becoming a global marketplace for authors, illustrators and content creators to share and market their works.
Discovery. Learning-by-Doing. Overcoming Challenges.
Bubbly Books worked with a software development team in India to develop the Plotter Box platform, and launched an open call for authors and artists to submit their works. Eliza recalled that attempting to deliver a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for 3 separate product concepts within a 5-month project time frame was extremely harrowing.
Firstly, there were time-zone and cultural differences to overcome with the software development team. Halfway through, a key member of the team was beset with a personal tragedy. Aside from these unforeseen circumstances, the Bubbly Books team were also unfamiliar with software development terms. Fortunately, through the Organisation Transformation Grant, they could hire a programmer who could walk the team through the jargon and process.
Despite these challenges, Bubbly Books, an all-female founded company, held fast to their values. “We insisted that our vendor had an all-female software development team,” said Eliza. “Very often in the IT world, women don’t get equal chances as men to work on such projects.” Bubbly Books’ in-house programmer, similarly, was also female.
Secondly, the pandemic made it difficult to meet in-person to collaborate, especially on the artistic side. “The level of detail of illustrations we needed was hard to describe over a call,” said Eliza.
Thirdly, the timeline was extremely challenging. “By the time we selected the entries from the open call, authors and artists only had 2 months to come up with their works,” recalled Eliza. “You just can’t rush that creative process.”
Then there was the nail-biting period of testing the technology, first on the staging server, then migrating to live server. Moreover, the technology behind the handprint book was entirely new and complicated. The development team had to figure out how to convert a photograph of a hand into handprints of different colours, in different positions, as illustrations in the book. “It was not easy,” said Eliza. “It would have been easier to ask users to paint their kids’ hands, put it on paper, then scan and send the image over to us. But who would actually do that?” Keeping the user behaviour firmly in mind, the team persevered with developing the technology.
“When the deadline was looming and there were still technical issues, we weren’t sure if we were going to make it,” recounted Eliza with much emotion. “It was the COVID-19 period, we had no income, we might not make the [OTG] deadline, we had no cash-flow.”
“I thought the company was going to close down.”
But this story had a happy ending. The team managed to pull through the technology – especially the brand-new patented technology for the handprint books – in time for the deadline. “The product could still be improved,” said Eliza, “but at least there is an MVP to show investors. Previously we would try to raise investment, but no one would understand what we mean. Now, they can actually see and try it out.”
Another important part of the system nested in the hidden back-end system: an automated, transparent and clear system of paying out royalties to authors and artists. “Every author or artist has a login account. When their work is purchased online, the system automatically generates a royalty amount based on a percentage, and pays immediately into their e-wallet,” said Eliza. Royalties paid to authors are above market-average, and immediate, unlike traditional publishing processes. Moreover, artists own the rights to their illustrations.
In Eliza’s mind, this was where the real transformation laid. Having been an author herself, she understood the challenges very well. “I’m an accidental publisher,” she said. “I am an author first, and will always fight for authors and artists, for them to be paid fairly, for them to keep their intellectual property.”
Despite harrowing moments, Eliza recalled the high when the team saw the books work, especially the handprint book which was first of its kind in the market: “[We thought] this is amazing, we created something new!”.
Looking back upon their experiences, Eliza acknowledged that the Bubbly Books team might have been too ambitious to start with not 1 new concept, but 3 – but she did not regret that decision for too long. “This [project] is everything we embodied as a company—fair to authors, internationally-minded, creating innovative products,” she reflected.
“It was the most difficult thing we have ever done and there were some really dark moments when we thought ‘we shouldn’t have done this’. But I’m glad we did it.”
This project has been supported by NAC's Organisation Transformation Grant. For more information and resources on NAC's grant schemes, please visit: https://www.nac.gov.sg/