wayne gretzky
Great business advice often comes from unlikely sources. Image via Håkan Dahlström.

Generals always fight the last war. This maxim came to mind recently as a series of proposals has been bruited about concerning building online bookstores. The proposals, most of which are in the whisper stage, come from different quarters. “How can we combat Amazon,” trade publishers ask. (The military metaphor is everywhere.) In the university press community, the idea of a UP bookstore has gained currency (several competing visions here), in part because of the overweening presence of Amazon, but also because it is widely felt that the Internet has let academic book publishers down on the discovery question. There is some justice to this: a casual search on Google will present links to resources of questionable merit, which is a real thorn in the side of publishers that do the Real Thing and do it the Right Way: peer review, careful editing, and faculty oversight committees. It can be difficult for some people to understand that for certain segments of society Wikipedia is not viewed as a reliable source.

I am an old general myself, or at least a foot soldier, and have taken a stab at defining what an online academic bookstore could look like. Nevertheless, I am concerned that some of the efforts in this area are, to paraphrase Wayne Gretzky, skating to the puck instead of where it is going. Amazon is a Web 1.0 company, and the best in class. It is also a player in the world of Web 2.0 (note particularly the acquisition of GoodReads), but it hasn’t really cracked the evolving ecosystem of social media, where companies like Facebook (the clear–and growing–leader) and Twitter dominate. If you skate toward the puck, you will develop a bookstore that will already be showing its age the day it launches.

Amazon, in other words, is a destination site; it was built when the idea was to bring users to a site. Marketers call this pull marketing. It has worked beautifully, as Amazon’s market cap attests. I’m an Amazon customer myself for ebooks (though for little else), having given up on Barnes & Noble and Google, and that’s because Amazon is exceedingly good at what they do. But the Web is now being brought to us; it’s evolving into a push medium. All that time we spend looking at the news feeds for Facebook, Flipboard, and Twitter point to where the Web is going and where new bookstores will have to be. To build a bookstore that goes head to head with Amazon is foolhardy. It would be easier to carry the ball into the defensive line of the Chicago Bears.

So a new bookstore is going to have to bring its offerings to where people are rather than the other way around; a new bookstore has to be ubiquitous. A recent example of this comes from HarperCollins,which has created an arrangement with Twitter to sell copies of the bestselling Divergent series of young adult novels from within individual tweets. If the implications of this aren’t clear, look closely. Hundreds of millions of people swap information via social media every day. Now these online conversations can have bookstores, even tiny ones that sell only one or two titles, embedded within them. If I tweet about Divergent, a follower of mine can click on an embedded link and make a purchase right there. If that follower in turn retweets my original tweet, a new network of users is invited to purchase the book. Each retweet brings new prospects to the virtual bookstore. Bookstores, in other words, have been converted from a destination to a network of personal recommendations. This is the “marketing in the stream” that I wrote about for the Kitchen a while back.

While this may simply seem to be technologically beyond the reach of many academic publishers, and perhaps all but a few university presses, there are now commercial solutions for this from such companies as Aerbook. So why build only a destination site for a bookstore when you can in addition build a bookstore that follows online conversations around the Internet, pausing only to ring the cash register?

From a conceptual point of view, the most interesting project I have stumbled upon for “post-destination” bookstores is that of Chris Kubica, who explained his work in two articles in Publishers Weekly, which you can find here and here. Kubica gathered a group of publishing people in New York to brainstorm about a post-Amazon bookstore. The conclusion was that each individual potentially could be the site or source of a bookstore–a bookstore of one. With seven billion people on the planet (and growing), that’s potentially seven billion bookstores. Now, how can Amazon compete with that? In some respects this idea is not as exotic as it sounds. Are we not all individual bookstores when we recommend books to others? I am personally making a hobby out of recommending The Long Ships to anyone I run into on Facebook and Twitter, and of course on this blog. Yes, I am a bookstore, as is everyone I know.

So a real challenger to Amazon has to go beyond providing a place to go on the Internet; it has to be embedded in our personal activity on the Internet. It also, I think, should have a bricks-and-mortar component. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But bricks-and-mortar is making a comeback, as a presentation from Scott Galloway of the Stern School at NYU shows. My own view is that a physical bookstore or chain of bookstores is a useful and perhaps essential component to a new bookstore strategy. Such bookstores might be placed in university towns and major cities; I would like to see them in college libraries. Their role would be discovery, for which no one has ever invented a better way than to browse the aisles of a bookshop.

Future bookstores, to be competitive, will thus likely have these aspects:

  • They will include both print and electronic books. This is because the marketplace wants both.
  • There will be a Web-based destination site much like Amazon’s.
  • Book commerce will be embedded into the social media stream, making each individual potentially a bookseller.
  • A bricks-and-mortar component, perhaps in alliance with academic institutions and public libraries, will provide “showrooming” for discovery.
  • And there will be a flexible and comprehensive “back end” to handle transactions, inventory management, and metadata.

Let’s get those stores going now. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that bookstores have been totally thought out by Amazon. The Internet is a dynamic medium, and the key to success is just as Wayne Gretzky said.


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 "The Ubiquitous Bookstore"

Thanks for this, Joe. I like the idea of the “ubiquitous bookstore” very much (but I like bookstores…). I do wonder, however, if Amazon hasn’t already built it via its ubiquitous affiliate program. Every author-interview on the New Books Network (N = 2,150 and growing by 15 a week) is linked to an Amazon book page. When people click through and buy, the NBN gets paid. Since the NBN Facebooks, Google+s, and Tweets every one of those interviews when it is published, recipients can and do share them (with their links to Amazon) throughout their social networks. When those in said social networks return to the NBN, click through and buy, the NBN gets paid. So Amazon has turned the NBN into UP bookstore, and all the listeners who share NBN posts on their social networks into NBN sales agents. Granted, these agents don’t get paid for referring people to the NBN and hence to Amazon; it seems to me that could be done, though.

This is all very good for Amazon. It might be good for the UPs (more sales). But it might be even better for the UPs if they sold directly to consumers via a UP bookstore. I would love to refer to people to an online UP bookstore rather than to Amazon, but no such online UP bookstore exists.

Hello Marshall Poe and Joe —

The bookstore Joe envisions is coming into being and functioning with the the joint project between the New Books Network and University Press Books/Berkeley, which we have been calling the University Press Marketing Solutions, but we are now renaming The Gazelle Project and will soon be presenting to scholarly publishers. It includes making full use of Amazon’s truly amazing international distribution and sales capabilities, and the capabilities of other online platforms.

Possibly the Scholarly Kitchen is a good place for us to describe The Gazelle Project to the publishers we want to join and take advantage of what we are creating.

Bill McClung, General Partner, University Press Books/Berkeley

No, totally different. But I enjoyed reading your post on Inks, Bits, & Pixels this morning, as it shows how the proposition has to be better expressed. Amazon is very, very good, but it is failing academic publishers, many of which are not-for-profit and struggling. A powerful virus ultimately kills its host.

I wonder if there’s a distinction here between a bookstore and bookstore marketing. The HarperCollins instance didn’t require HarperCollins to be the store — they designed it that way, but it wasn’t a requirement. They could just as easily sent Twitter users to Amazon. Which brings me to the other part of the distinction — we are not each a bookstore, but a possible book promoter. I am not about to sell my copy of any book I promote, so I am not really a bookstore, just a book marketer. People will still determine where they buy a book, and price and convenience will continue to be big factors.

Amazon still has advantages that social promotion on its own cannot overcome. Buying “The Long Ships” from the NY Review of Books bookstore (the path from the link you’ve provided) would cost me $14.86 plus shipping, while buying the same book from Amazon costs me $13.84 with free shipping (thanks to Prime). So, as a bookstore, Amazon still has an advantage — well, two advantages in both base price and shipping/membership combinations. And then there is the third advantage Amazon has built — I buy books sometimes, but I buy other stuff all the time. Amazon has groceries, clothing, sports gear, music, streaming video/movies, Kindle (where “Divergent” is only $2.99, far below the HarperCollins price via the Twitter promotion), electronics, and gadgets. I can buy a book, a set of headphones, and printer paper, and have all three by the end of the week. Or I can buy “Divergent” on my Kindle and have it 20 seconds later. NY Review of Books or HarperCollins won’t give me the same. This is why Amazon is a destination site, why the Kindle continues to be such an advantage, and why book publishers will continue, in my opinion, to compete with it from a positional disadvantage.

Amazon also has the advantage of selling books at a loss, as “loss leaders” in order to bring in customers to purchase other items with higher margins, many of which you mention above. A publisher has no secondary line of products and so cannot use books in the same manner.

Thanks for the Aerbook mention.

A major extension of our native retail service can be found here: http://Aer.io and indeed we are engaged with both university presses and (separately) brick and mortar bookstores.

Aer.io is, among other things, a decentralized fulfillment alternative to the Amazon affiliate program mentioned above, built atop Ingram for print, with eBook fulfillment by Aerbook. Takes a few minutes to set up a storefront you can embed on your site, with products that can be marketed and sold ubiquitously.

Some detail on design and business thinking behind our efforts at implementing native, or what I’ve also called “ambient commerce” here:


Then there’s “schrooming” (show-rooming) where one discovers a book via social media recommendation and then goes straight to Amazon in the belief that it will always be significantly cheaper there.
But not all academic books are voluntarily bought. Student textbooks are assigned and new modes of eTextbook distribution will bring the product directly to the consumer in a similar fashion as described here. Registering for a course involves a Student Information System (SIS) which not only calculates tuition but also enrolls the student in that course as it exists in the Learning Management System (LMS). The publisher has worked out a contract with the institution such that educational materials for the course are also added to that students LMS account upon registration. The cost of those materials is bundled with tuition. No more standing in lines at the campus store. No used books. No student without assigned learning materials. Probably, no more campus store.

I thought there was a bookstore of one, and its owned by Amazon and called Goodreads….

We’ve turned off the comment rating feature. I don’t think it added much to the discussion and made our comments section seem harsher and less welcoming than we want it to be. So from now on, all readers will be responsible for forming their own opinions about the content of any comments they choose to read.

I really like the concept of the “ubiquitous bookstore” or “ubiquitous promotion;” whatever it may one day be called; as long as, “ubiquitous formats” are delivered; physical or digital.

In our digital world, I believe the real problem is the expanding control of access to eBooks and other types of digital works-of-art. I would like authors and publishers to support a world where they can license their digital works to others in universal computing formats, where any digital device can utilize those formats; and where authors and their patrons do not have to worry about licensing such works-of-art through content aggregators, or for use with DRM or specific operating systems, browsers, or on proprietary digital devices.

If the goal is to beat the Amazons, Apples, and Googles of the world; then don’t play their games. Make them play yours.

A world of ubiquitous bookstores offering ubiquitous formats and encouraging ubiquitous promotion is clearly the best solution for consumers, authors, and content creators alike.

Robert, I just don’t understand what any of this means. What are universal computing formats? Universal, really? What does this have to do with playing Amazon’s “game” or anybody else’s? What game? This is about marketing. The tech issues should support the marketing goals, not the other way around. What does the value chain you envision look like? Who makes money? How much?

Universal computing formats are digital file types that can be effectively utilized by different computing operating systems (Chrome, Windows, Unix, Android, etc.) much like HTML is universally accessible across browsers. For instance; PDF, jpeg, txt are universal computing “file” formats.

From the perspective of eBooks, authors and publishers still need to convert their publications to a variety of computing formats to reach the widest potential audience because of operating and DRM systems, and unique file types. In fact, as you point out, “the tech issues should support the marketing goals, not the other way around.” Accordingly, this reality works really well for the business models of the Amazons, Apples and Googles of the world. Their technologies support their marketing goals.

This is their “game.” Those who aggregate digital content and control access to it via operating systems, DRM and content repositories; enjoy the lion’s share of value derived from such content. The creators of the content and their publishers are often left with just scraps because they have to abide by the “marketing goals” (…pricing schemes, licensing terms, profit plans…) of these companies.

A new “game” is now available where authors and publishers have direct connections to their consumers, bypassing content aggregators. Universal formats that can be used across operating and DRM systems, devices, and browsers empower these connections and provide new business models for content creators, authors and publishers.

A few early adopters are beginning to use PayPal like systems for digital media, eBooks and magazines; licensing their works directly to their patrons. They are skating to where the “Internet puck” is traveling as they learn to play this new game.

I can’t tell you how much money will be made in this new game. But as we all know, content is king in today’s digital world because it drives Internet traffic, which generates revenue. For those who create and publish, they now have opportunities because there are digital distribution options for their content not controlled by the Amazons, Apples, and Googles of the world.

Let the games begin…

I repeat: I don’t understand what you are getting at. I understand the tech, but your business point? The point of the post is to think of new bookstores that get beyond the “go to Amazon” paradigm. This has nothing to do with universal computing systems, DRM, or anything else. Or is the point that you are selling something and this blog seemed like a good place to put a free ad?

Getting beyond the “go to Amazon” paradigm requires more than just new bookstores. That’s my point. These new bookstores are a GREAT starting point. However, if they are only distributing DRM content in file formats controlled by others; then they miss all the business possibilities and market opportunities available with universal formats.

For instance, I like to access my eBooks and digital subscriptions from all of my computing devices, including my web-enabled TV. The folks in my circle who recommend content have similar preferences. None of us exclusively use Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or Google devices. We all have some mix of these. Consequently, ease of use is important.

We don’t enjoy installing Apps and ensuring our devices are up to date with the latest software just to read our latest downloads. If we find digital publications that make universal access difficult, we generally don’t recommend them to the group. We do recommend stores that have content that’s easy to use, easy to acquire, and where the price is reasonably competitive.

Marketing via Twitter, Facebook, Google+ is all good. But sending readers to content that is not universally accessible will never break the “go to Amazon” paradigm. Of course if the content is difficult to license and/or can be acquired for less elsewhere, then those issues are showstoppers as well.

As for selling something on this blog, I subscribe to learn from the writers and the discussions presented. With all due respect to the Cooks and to my fellow readers, there are much better places to participate if selling is the motivation. I enjoy reading the ideas, opinions and debates.

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