Old Publishers Dive Into The New: Pearson Inks API Billing Deal With Zuora; Adds Food To The Mix

Pearson, the owners of Penguin, the Financial Times Group and a number of education imprints, has made some significant strides into digital with e-books and apps, but it is always on the hunt for more.

So today (Sunday), the publisher is announcing at MWC in Barcelona that it is expanding one of its newer ventures, Plug & Play, which offers its copyrighted material via APIs to third-party developers: it has signed a deal with in-app billing specialists Zuora to monetize that API content; and it is adding another dataset into the mix, Kitchen Manager, containing recipe and other food data.

Pearson claims it is the first publisher to release its content in API format to be re-used by other publishers and developers. Other datasets in Plug & Play include the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the Dorling Kindersley (DK) Eyewitness travel guides and FT Press.

Since launching Plug & Play in September 2011, Pearson’s API data has been free to use by developers, and that will continue to be the case, but with the agreement in place now with Zuora, once the usage of that data reaches a certain threshold — what that is depends on the data in question — developers will have to pay a charge to use it. Developers keep all the IP around whatever apps and services they create using the data.

Zuora, which offers a cloud-based billing platform, is not new to this kind of business: last November it announced a funding round of $36 million from Index Ventures, Greylock Partners, Marc Benioff and others, and already has a number of other media customers using its service, including News International, Reed Business Information, TripAdvisor, VNU Media, Vocus, Box and Ooyala, in addition to several large enterprise customers.

Meanwhile, the Kitchen Manager dataset is an encouraging sign of how traditional publishers are getting more enterprising when trying to figure out ways of getting more mileage out of the content they already own.

The raw data comes from Pearson’s Kitchen Manager web app — itself a collection of data from various Pearson cooking trade titles such as On Cooking and Food for Fifty, which Pearson had packaged into a paid online service for culinary students and chefs to search recipes and create order lists.

Initially the Kitchen Manager dataset will contain some 2,000 recipes and related nutritional information, but Diana Stepner, head of future technologies at Pearson, says that the intention is to add more recipes and other data in due course.

The Plug & Play project is part of a bigger effort that Pearson has been making to get more innovative. That’s especially important for the company’s education division, which makes up 70 percent of Pearson’s business and could potentially be a part of what some consider a big future area for tech growth.

But being innovative when you’re a large, legacy business can be a challenge both internally — and externally, Stepner says. “Right now it’s about innovation and partnerships because people still think of [Pearson education] as textbook publishers, but that’s not what we are.”

Pearson also has a partnership with Learn Capital to co-invest in startups that are working on products that are adjacent to Pearson’s own interests, specifically in education. These investments have typically been limited to seed rounds of around $1 million. Pearson also offers its own employees funding to work on their own ventures. One of these, Alleyoop, launched just last month.

While Pearson remains open-ended on what platforms these various projects take, inevitably, these days they seem to end up being mobile conversations. “It seems to be where a lot of the startups are going today. It’s about clouds and mobile devices,” said Stepner. “Those come up a lot more than they used to. Nine times out of 10 mobile is the starting point for all conversations.”

(picture: State Library of South Australia, Flickr)