Backed by author Amy Tan, mobile fiction startup Radish raises $3M

Radish is officially launching its mobile apps for reading bite-sized chunks of serialized fiction — and it’s announcing that it has raised $3 million in seed funding.

This isn’t the first startup to experiment with new ways to deliver fiction via e-readers and mobile devices. In fact, I wrote about one of them in my very first piece for TechCrunch five years ago.

But then, Radish co-founder and CEO Seung-yoon Lee isn’t claiming he invented the concept — he told me he was actually inspired by the popularity of serialized fiction on mobile devices in Asia, and he predicted that novels will see the same shift to cliffhangers and serialization that we’re already seeing in TV. (Meanwhile, in the publishing world, e-book sales are declining, while print seems to be rebounding.)

The model hasn’t taken off yet in the United States. Among fiction-related startups, Wattpad has had the biggest success, but it’s more focused on monetizing through TV and movie deals, as well as sponsored content, rather than having readers pay authors directly.

On Radish, on the other hand, readers buy coins, which can then be spent on the stories they’re following. (The exact price varies depending on how many coins you buy, but it can be less than 50 cents costs about 12 cents per coin.) For each story, you get the initial chapters for free, then need to pay three coins for early access to subsequent installments, with the revenue split 50-50 between Radish and the author.

Radish has been in beta testing for the past year, and Lee said the leading author on the platform is already making $13,000 per month. (He declined to identify the author, but said they’re writing “a historical romance serial set in the Victorian age.”)

“There are a lot of self-published authors out there who have quite a following and who would love to experiment,” he said. “These self-published writers are inherently entrepreneurial — they’re used to making money on their own. I’m telling them that you guys can monetize first while you’re writing.”

Lee noted that Radish isn’t claiming any intellectual property rights from those authors. And while the company recruited its initial lineup from the world of self-publishing (there are more than 700 writers on the platform already), it’s also looking to work with authors who’ve gone through more traditional channels, and to experiment with other forms of storytelling.

Investors from the tech, entertainment and publishing worlds are backing Lee’s vision. The seed round comes from (deep breath) Greylock, Lowercase Capital, Softbank Next Media Innovation Fund, UTA, Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (Bertelsmann’s corporate parent owns publisher Penguin Random House), Sherpa Capital, ITV Chairman Peter Bazalgette, former Microsoft executive Charlie Songhurst, Nicolas Berggruen, LendingHome co-founder and CEO Matt Humphrey, BDA China founder Duncan Clark, Jeremy Yap and others.

And yes, that list also includes Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

“The whole concept of Radish makes terrific sense to me,” Tan said in the funding release. “Readers read for free and pay a small amount only if they want to read the next installment without delay. The writers get paid immediately — and they still retain copyright and can later publish in another format. The most compelling stories are a win-win for readers and writers alike.”