Who are you and what do you do with books or publishing?
I’m Niels ’t Hooft, and I’m one of the co-founders of Immer, a tech company in Utrecht, The Netherlands, that is working on a whole new way of reading books on the phone. Besides entrepreneur I am also a writer, having authored both novels and stories for videogames. My debut novel »Toiletten« was even published in German, some twenty years ago, by Reclam Leipzig.
My interest in videogames got me to start my first company, which published websites and magazines about games, and after that I worked as a journalist and translator for years. It is also my interest in videogames that started my thinking about more modern (more attractive, more flexible) ways of digitally displaying that old-world marvel, the book.
By the way, Immer means »always« not just in German but in Dutch too (always reading!), and it’s also short for »immersion« (in a story or topic), so that’s where the name comes from.
How does a typical working day look like for you?
We are an 80% remote company, so I spend a lot of time in my Notion, Slack and Mail applications. Slack and Mail will be familiar to most, they are my internal and external communications. But the magic happens in Notion, which is basically my second brain. It contains all the notes, plans, ideas, contacts and other data I ever collected for and with Immer, in a very structured way, that is always accessible for my co-workers. It shows me what our priorities are and lets me dig in as deep as I need to when I work on a particular topic.
Currently I’m spending a lot of time on our customer materials. Instead of going directly to readers, we license our technology to companies and institutions who bring digital books to readers, improving their reading experience (so they read longer, return more often, buy/use more). It’s an interesting challenge to convey with both detail and concision how we make a difference for a wide range of companies. In the coming weeks, most of my meetings are with potential customers, and I enjoy the rhythm of working on these materials, then testing them with »live subject matter«, then tweaking the materials, etc. Of course, these meetings also feed back into our technology and product development, which is what most of my colleagues are busy with right now.
Finally: tomorrow we are moving into a new office, so I will also be screwing off some whiteboards today.
How is your work changing (e.g. due to the increasing digitisation)?
My work life started when I got on the internet in 1996. I was still in high school, and making my own websites quickly became far more interesting than my education. So my work has been all-digital since the very beginning. However, the digital space itself is always changing too, and to me, too, it can be hard to know if some new invention is a time slurping distraction or a huge improvement to my work process.
I usually take the wait-and-see approach, although not everyone will agree with that statement. When I adopted Notion in 2019, I felt like I was late to the game, as others had been raving about it for months. Yet most people outside of the tech world still haven’t heard about it today. Right now I’m hearing of people who always have ChatGTP running in a tab, letting it generate rough materials to work with, which is hard for me to fathom. I do think we’ll all be taking advantage of generative AI a lot more over the coming years!
What successes have you had recently?
We won the Börsenverein’s ContentShift Startup of the Year 2022 with Immer, after winning the Renew the Book Innovation Award 2021 from the Dutch publishers association, basically the Dutch equivalent of ContentShift. The ContentShift program was highly valuable to us. Now we’re on the lookout for another prize to win in 2023!
Of course, we are also working on the next major version of Immer that we will be bringing to market with our launching customers this year, which is much more exciting to me than any prize could ever be.
What challenges do you face within your work? Which solutions are you looking for?
Books definitely are not the problem, they are amazing and still have a place in today’s media landscape, allowing the reader to personally meditate on a story or topic for an extended period of time. The »abstract personal space« they conjure is still unique in the media landscape, as are their depth and detail (although videogames sometimes challenge this, yet they are far more expensive to produce).
So the problem clearly is that the way we currently read books on our digital devices is terrible. Stubbornly replicating what printed books look like leads to a deeply mediocre result, that doesn’t fit with how people use their digital devices and modern media, or with how their aesthetics and attention spans are evolving.
With Immer we are basically separating content and form. We don’t mess with the content, as it doesn’t need messing with (that’s the job of the editors and publishers). But we do mess with the form, depending on the context. Who is reading? Why are they reading? How long, and where, do they do it? We serve books in bite-size pieces that are presented more attractively, and that can differ depending on all kinds of variables. We’re very excited about the results: it becomes easier to pick up digital books, and harder to put them down.
Who should contact you? What kind of contacts would be helpful for you?
If you’re running a digital reading platform, do reach out! I mean this in a very broad sense: whether you operate a store, a library, an educational platform, a research platform, or a platform for professional workers. If you bring long-form digital text to any kind of audience, we can help you attract more readers who read more, with more joy. We’re in very active research and development, so the software is still very malleable to your needs. We’ll advance the status quo of digital reading together!
Where can we find you on the Internet?
Who should we ask next for our interview series? Who is leading the way in publishing or the book world in general?
Last year I visited the PageBreak Conference in San Francisco, organized by Peter Brantley and his friends, which comes highly recommended. One attendee in particular caught my attention: Readability Matters, an American non-profit that researches the effect of custom reading settings. This goes way beyond font size and line height, and turns out to differ greatly from person to person. It confirmed what we’ve been seeing in our testing at Immer, but put it in a broader perspective too. Very interesting, so definitely ask Kathy Crowley at Readability Matters.
And, of course, the last question: What was the last book that impressed you?
I caught the Karl Ove Knausgård bug very late in the game, but I recently finally caught up with everything that’s been translated to Dutch. I enjoyed his recent »The Morning Star« because it combines the thing he’s always done really well (describing moments in the real world in minute detail, bringing a new clarity to it) with another love of mine, the fantastic, in a more accessible way. Not sure if this book is creating a bridge to new audiences for Knausgård, but it should.
(As a side note, all of the things I just mentioned are crucial to who I am and where Immer came from: attention to detail, imagination, accessibility.)
I feel like it’s my duty to also rave about a Dutch book here, but I haven’t done a lot of reading in my mother tongue recently. So I’ll recommend a modern Dutch classic, »Lampje« by Annet Schaap, translated as »Emilia und der Junge aus dem Meer« and published by Thienemann Verlag a few years ago. A modern fairytale written for children that adults will also appreciate.
Foto (c) Lars Beekman