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Could Bookish Be The Next Big Online Retailer?

Last week saw the launch of Bookish in the US – a new, and frankly bloody stunning book discovery/online retailer (or as I call them, a ‘social retailer’). They’ve got a brilliant pitch, a stunning site, and features the rest of us have been discussing for a while that we thought may never come to fruition. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. The golden egg, the holy grail, of online book discovery. An algorithm that recommends you books. Not ‘readers also bought’. Not ‘you might also like’. Something that says ‘what’s a book you have read and loved lately?’ and then picks you a bunch more based on what I can only assume is metadata more detailed than a fractal zoom on a mandelbrot set.

I hope you all brought spare underwear.

Somehow (and I have no idea how) Bookish have also achieved that elusive ‘we have two customers’ thing, which I thought was relegated to bookshops of old. They’re set up to accommodate publishers promoting books with ad space and various opportunities for book recommendations, all the while balancing it against ‘Favourite reads from Bookish editors’ for that personal hand sell to readers.

First and foremost (something we haven’t seen for a while) they are a retailer more than they are a network, and they’re a mile better than most. They’re already working with Simon and Schuster, Hachette and Penguin, so have a mega range. The search on their site is out-of-this-world good. Amazon good.

From where I’m standing, all this is incredibly formidable and bodes well for their upward growth.

But so far, this is only relevant in America. I mean, yeah, you and I can browse and marvel at the prettiness of the site from the UK, but we can’t buy books. And as publishers in the UK, we can’t sell through them. We can’t count them as a retailer.

It seems to happen a bit that the massive innovations come from the States and maybe don’t make the crossing. We have Goodreads over here (sort of) but it’s not the same – the US often use Goodreads to promote books, get new authors out there using the fresh voices section or whatever it’s called. It works pretty well for them because the user  base is mostly American.

I guess my question would be is the majority of the user base of Goodreads and these social retailers American because UK readers aren’t interested in social reading, or because UK publishers and authors aren’t given the same opportunity that US ones are in terms of providing content for the sites, and thus aren’t actively telling readers to go there to discuss books? I don’t know. I don’t think publishers have necessarily leapt down the neck of UK-based companies that are similar, but with more and more publishers releasing titles in tandem with other publishers around the world this could be symptomatic of not wanting to segregate the market further by driving promotion across five different channels rather than three.

What I do know is that publishers are looking for ways to get books into readers’ hands, particularly debuts. The issue we face isn’t one of options – there are many outlets for discussions about new titles, but most of them are as efficient in terms of book promotion as it would be to hire thirty pogo sticks to transfer 200 people from Kings Cross to Brixton.

Maybe that’s where we’re at now with the market; a disparate spread of niches that we can try to cover off by giving away as many books as we sell. But Waterstones can still launch debut books into stardom (Harold Fry, anyone?), proving that large retailers with influence are utterly invaluable. Reach is key. And I’d hope that this time next year, Bookish will have that in bucket loads.

So my message to Bookish and Goodreads is this: come hang out with us in the UK. Reckon it’s worth a shot at mega upsizing.

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Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.

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