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Several years ago I conceived of an online catalog for academic books, university press books in particular. I thought this was an original idea, but, man, I could not have been more wrong. I soon learned that among many other proposed projects, an online bookstore had been explored by the American Association of University Presses (AAUP) — but that project foundered on some of the technical limitations of the time. For example, the Web was not yet fully established (try to imagine back that far in time) and the creation and dissemination of metadata was terribly complicated. Now, of course, we have the Web and ONIX and lots of content-management systems.

We now have the way, and the only thing necessary is the will.

Let’s look for the will, as an online service for academic books would be a good thing for scholarship and scholarly publishers.

Here is some background. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I was able to research what it would take to build such a service. You can find the report on that project here at Project Muse. I later discovered that a very similar project had been put together in France, and it has proven to be successful. When I wrote that report, though, e-books were just on the horizon; the report anticipated the emergence of e-books, but focused mostly on print. It did not anticipate the implications of the proprietary standards of the e-book vendors — though it should have — and it certainly did not anticipate the advent of tablet computing and the rise of mobile apps. The underlying concept still holds, however, and that was to architect the system to allow for new features and services in the future. For example, five years ago few people would have made a priority of building commenting systems into an online bookstore, but now, in the age of Facebook and Google Plus, the social dimension of publishing and reading has become more prominent. The technical challenge is to build a platform that can accommodate new features as the need for them arises.

Other things have changed as well since the project was first conceived. For example, at that time the model for online bookselling was Amazon, and rightly so. Amazon is a pure virtual service. Perhaps that will change and we will see Amazon bricks-and-mortar shops opening up someday. (Now that Amazon is beginning to collect sales tax, the need to avoid physical nexus may have disappeared. One speculation is that Amazon began to collect sales tax precisely because it has planned to open physical stores.)  But it is hard to ignore the surprising success that Barnes & Noble has had in marrying its bricks-and-mortar operation to its online activity; a consequence of this is that B&N now has a 25% market share for e-books. This could not have happened without the physical stores, where the Nook e-reading device is aggressively merchandised.

Taking a cue from B&N, a new online bookstore should look for “anchors” in the physical world. Here I offer the idea of the Metadatarium, a project I outlined tongue in cheek on the Kitchen a while back. The Metadatarium would be a physical community space, serving, among other things, as a showroom for books. The Metadatarium would evolve as the new online service’s place to hold readings and lectures, to showcase books, and to provide local customer service for the virtual operation.

We may wish to think as well about linking an online bookstore to libraries. While there are now many services selling e-books to libraries, library OPACs are potentially a place from which patrons could purchase their own copies of some titles, perhaps titles that fall outside a library’s collection policy. There are about 120,000 libraries in the US, which, taken together, could be a major marketing opportunity for books, print and digital. This would be a service to readers, a revenue-generator for publishers, and a source of income for libraries, which would extract a fee for every book sold through their OPACs, just as a university gets a fee for books sold in university bookstores.

What it will take to create this is for an organization or a consortium to step up to the task. The benefit would be a new piece of infrastructure for scholarly communications and potentially new revenue streams to support academic publishers and libraries alike.

This new service should not be confused with the various ebook aggregations that are now being marketed to libraries. The new service is D2C — direct to consumer; it is not a service for libraries, though whether or not library sales and sales to individuals could intersect in some manner is an open question.  The service might sell books through libraries but it would not sell books to libraries, unless its basic mandate was altered.

As for why such a service is needed, I ask all publishers to look at their sales to Amazon over the years and to study the trend line. At what point does one account represent too large a share of the business? And what are the implications of having such a large share with a company for whom academic publications are an afterthought?

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.

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19 Thoughts on "A Newfangled Online Bookstore"

Thank you for a very interesting article! And I just wanted to point out that your France link doesn’t work at the moment.

Thank you for the note. I just fixed it. A missing http:// will get you every time! Thanks again.

I think an online bookstore might work best for a specialty area. I created a small one called DisasterBookstore.com in order to distribute a limited number of quality, low cost books in the field of emergency management.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!

I have learned a lot from this post and the Metadatarium post some time back.

I came to publishing, at Indiana U Press, from the SF Bay Area. I grew up in the dotcom era. Watched from across the Bay at Berkeley as Google grew from a bouncing baby algorithm.

After starting at Indiana and following the Scholarly Kitchen for a while, I thought an online bookstore might be right for the AAUP. For the conservation of resources, enhanced messaging, and economy of scale alone. I can imagine some considerable and numerous upsides as we move forward. It could be at least part of the “game changer” or way “to reshape the industry in our favor” as you described in your presentation at the AAUP last summer?

I learned from our Director, Janet Rabinowitch, that the AAUP had looked at fielding a unified online storefront in the past. Also learned that the AAUP did have a physical storefront as well–in NY, I believe.

After the AAUP meeting last summer, in particular your session on how to measure/evaluate a business model and all the advise we received on consortia, consortia, consortia, I was convinced an AAUP online bookstore was right and would be a good thing to have in our future.

I am really glad to hear someone of your insight and background envision this for us. All of these ideas are, indeed, entirely new again, as you mention, and are worth revisiting, reinventing, and making happen. Thank you!

This is an exciting time in publishing. I hope an AAUP re-fangled online bookstore goes forward, as many other “industry-reshaping” enterprises have and are–including your new project with JHUP.

I am working on an MBA here at the Kelley School in part to prepare for such an approaches in the long term and to keep up with the Scholarly Kitchen in the short term.

Thank you!

David, I don’t see any overlap at all.

Bookserver is described as:

The BookServer is a growing open architecture for vending and lending digital books over the Internet. Built on open catalog and open book formats, the BookServer model allows a wide network of publishers, booksellers, libraries, and even authors to make their catalogs of books available directly to readers through their laptops, phones, netbooks, or dedicated reading devices. BookServer facilitates pay transactions, borrowing books from libraries, and downloading free, publicly accessible books.

That to me sounds like an online bookstore, one that any publisher (including a university press) can use to set up their own storefront and sell their own books online D2C in one united bookstore. It connects with libraries and offers services for lending. Isn’t that the sort of thing you’re proposing here?

No, it’s a totally different idea. The open catalog is not in a publisher’s interest. Publishers need to control their own catalogs. The service must be a publisher’s service, not a community service. By analogy, OUP could put its journals on the PLOS platform, but you never would.

I see what you’re saying. I tend to see Bookserver as more of an open marketplace where anyone can set up a stall.

The question your response raises though, is whether it is possible to balance control and aggregation. Having an OUP-only bookstore is not going to provide much competition for Amazon, just as a Sony-owned-music-only version of iTunes isn’t going to cut it either. People don’t shop by publisher, they shop by title and author. Or they just want a bookstore with everything where they can browse.

So if that bookstore brings together different publishers (who see each other as competitors), who gets to control it?

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 17, 2012, 5:05 PM

David, to your question about who gets control in a multi-publisher bookstore: that is, theoretically, where the AAUP organization comes in. Of course, AAUP is composed of a number of independent university presses, and it would be no small feat to get them to agree to a common set of selling practices. However, if they (we) could come to an agreement about financial model, technology, cost-sharing, etc., AAUP as a well-recognized and valued support organization is ideally suited to coordinate or sponsor or even house the endeavor. The bookstore could be something like a co-op, with the UPs as co-op members and the AAUP (or some committee of the AAUP) as the board.

  • Allison Belan
  • Jan 18, 2012, 11:52 AM

It’s a tough balance though Alison. If, as Joe suggests, the publisher needs to exert strict control over the bookstore, then having to go through a committee (and a committee composed of one’s competitors no less) offers only a limited level of control. Personally I think it’s worth it in terms of the power of aggregation, and how that makes the difference between a useful store and a neglected silo.

  • David Crotty
  • Jan 18, 2012, 12:01 PM

Just looking over the comments and want to say that I have given a great deal of thought to what such a service could and should look like, how to get the platform created, how to source books, both print and digital, matters of branding, and issues of governance. Much of this appears in the original Mellon report that is cited in the blog post.

Awesome idea, but I see one particularly high hurdle—Fulfillment. You have two options. Each press ships separately on an order of more than one title, or the consortium invests in a centralized fulfillment facility. From the consumer’s perspective, each press doing their own fulfillment is likely to be a deal-breaker. As we all know, the shipping costs on multiple books in one box is significantly cheaper than each book getting its own box. How do we realize that savings for the consumer?

The obvious answer is a centralized fulfillment facility, but where and who? Chicago might make sense, but perhaps not for California/Princeton, or Cornell, or Texas, or for the publisher I work for, Penn State, where we don’t currently incur most of our own warehouse expenses because the building is already paid for and the utilities are free. And even if we settle on a single source, there will need to be capital investment. Where’s that coming from? And what kind of organizational structure might govern it? Can the AAUP co-ordinate this without violating anti-trust laws?

So tell me how we can competitively and fairly handle fulfillment and I’m in. I don’t think the efforts to try this in the past were as flummoxed by the technology as they were by this single issue. How do you do fulfillment for over 100 different publishers without a warehouse? An Espresso Book Machine might provide a partial answer for the standard trim, non-illustrated monograph, but what about everything else?

Print fulfillment is a solvable problem; you simply do what Amazon does. You don’t really believe that all those books you buy from Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s online store are being shipped directly by the merchants, do you? Or take a look at the bookstore over at Sears’ online store. Who put Sears into the book business? There are lots of ways to handle this. I would say that print fulfillment is one of the easier problems. The hardest problem is the creation, management, and distribution of the metadata.

This is exactly the question I’m left with, too. From a consumer’s standpoint, I’ve never considered Amazon to be a “purely virtual service.” (Well, leaving aside the wholly digital satisfaction of an unfortunate “Top Chef” addiction.) It is exactly the speed, affordability (to the end consumer if not in reality), and convenience of their physical distribution of goods that makes them such an appealing retailer, as opposed to simply a “discovery” engine.

The AAUP Online Catalog, as it was named, was in existence about five years–from some time in 1995 or ’96 to April of 2001. You can see the homepage of its last iteration on the Wayback Machine: http://web.archive.org/web/20010401221844/http://aaup.uchicago.edu/

It had somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 titles from about 100 university presses. It took enriched bibliographic data from its publishers and made it searchable and books could be accumulated in a common shopping cart. Once the order was paid for and finalized, the order was split by distributor and e-mailed for fulfillment. It was centralized searching, ordering, and payment, but distributed fulfillment.

Another valuable service the AAUP Online Catalog provided was new title notification by e-mail. Users selected the subjects they were interested in and once a month would get a consolidated e-mail of the new releases in those subjects from all the presses participating in the catalog, with links back to the catalog pages to buy the books.

Resurrecting the AAUP Online Catalog as an order processing mechanism faces some hurdles, as Tony points out. But I still find the information service that it provided a compelling idea, and something that no online or terrestrial bookseller performs well for university press books.

The AAUP Online Catalog was conceived of by Michael Jensen (then at Nebraska), Chuck Creesy (Princeton), and Bruce Barton (Chicago) and executed primarily by Chuck and Bruce.

  • Dean Blobaum, U of Chicago Press, merely present at the creation . . .
  • Jan 18, 2012, 4:40 PM
  • Reply to Comment

I wonder who will buy these books? I am not sure what other UP’s are seeing, but we are experiencing a serious drop in sales directly to scholars. Pocketbooks are tighter, library collections are deeper, so the ned to buy tangential works to a research topic in print form is dying quickly. If scholars were still buying books our print runs would be more like 800 not 400. Libraries will continue to use third party vendors like Coonts and B&T. i just do not see who the customer is.

Had a quick thought on some of above the comments, after reading the orig. article, highly recommended!

First, forward integration into the marketplace is more about leverage rather than sales; i.e., ‘reshaping the industry in our favor.’ That said, as we would be accomplishing a ‘lateral integration or consolidation’ in the same step with forward integration (unifying AND becoming our own macro-vendor as we do), Joe is suggesting that we will enjoy an increase in sales and sales revenue in the bargain for a couple ‘collateral’ reasons: A) we’ll have traffic that is greater than the sum of our parts, B) as the megaphone communication channel will be “all u/scholarly presses, all the time,” we will make more hay when the sun shines, during that “golden hour” when titles drop, and C) we’d probably pay ourselves slightly better than Amazon. Hence, A+B+C=upticks in numbers of copies sold and revenue per sale for academic presses.

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