A while ago, I read an announcement about BookBoon. It was about quality ebooks on a plethora of different subjects, and as it's our mission to enable a paperless world, pushing the limits of digital document interactivity, I visited the site and I discovered that Bookboon allows you to download quality content in the form of PDF documents.
Moreover these books were offered for free and it's totally legal to download them. How is that possible? How do these guys make money? What is their business model? Is there a business model? Of course, there is! But first let's take a look at the site:
Suppose I want to study Java. In that case, I choose "Textbooks", and I fill out "Java" in the search box:
Different books about Java are offered:
I pick one and I fill out a form asking me for some information about myself:
I live in Belgium, I work in the IT sector, more specifically in software development. I also need to provide my e-mail address. Do you remember the saying if you're not paying for it; you're the product? You don't pay any money for the book, but in return you pay with information that is relevant for Bookboon to make money. That's only normal. Even your book store (actual or virtual) where you do have to pay for books, keeps that kind of information about you.
Now I can download my book, and I even get some recommendations:
The book is a PDF file that is stored on my local computer. I can read it offline, I can copy it to my tablet. Whatever is most convenient for me will work.
Now let's take a look at the producer line inside this book. No surprises here: Bookboon has chosen the right tool for the job. They're using iTextSharp:
Actually, they used to have the old version of iTextSharp (predating iText 5), but we contacted the CEO of Bookboon, and we asked him if he was interested in a partnership with us. At first, he didn't even know that iText was used. So he consulted with his developers and they confirmed. Moreover they had some technical questions they wanted me to solve. So we made a deal and there was no money involved.
How is that possible? To answer that question, we need to return to the question about the business model.
Books have free space. Not every chapter ends at the end of a page; some books have pages that are left blank. Bookboon uses that empty space to add a number of targeted advertisements:
These advertisements are added using iTextSharp. As I indicated that I live in Belgium and that I work in the IT sector, you can see an advertisement (the one with the sky-divers) for a Belgian IT company (Smals, a company that also uses iText but that isn't a customer or partner yet). If you live elsewhere or if you work in a different sector, you'll get other advertisements.
This is a good business model. Bookboon can give away books for free, because they earn money selling ads that are targeted at a specific audience.
And what's in it for iText? You've probably noticed already. Every book that is downloaded from Bookboon (sometimes up to 200,000 a day) has one or more advertisements for iText. I can't measure the exact effect of these ads, but I see a trend:
We had 8.72% more visits in the last two weeks when compared to two similar weeks in january. Granted: the bounce rate is higher, less pages are consulted per visitor, and visitors spend less time on average. That's probably because there are more people who visit the site out of curiosity instead of out of interest (although we do have less "new" visits; that's a metric I can't explain). The Alexa ranking of iText is also improving dramatically. We're now in the top #80,000!
But the bottom line is: I'm very happy with the result. Since we agreed on this deal, we promote each other's work whenever we can. For instance: when I was in Silicon Valley, I introduced Bookboon to a Canadian start-up. As a result, Bookboon made a deal that allowed them to open up a whole new market in Canada. This is how a partnership should work.