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.