The new book retail website features exclusive ebook content for sale, articles on books and reading by a dedicated editorial staff, a new kind of book recommendation engine and partnerships with USA Today and The Onion designed to bring readers to the new site.
The venture, backed by three of the largest U.S. publishers — Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Schuster — bills itself as more of a book discovery engine for readers rather than a competitor that will take a bite out of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the other major booksellers in the U.S.
“Our goal is to expand the market,” said Bookish CEO Ardy Khazaei during a demo of the website at the Bookish offices in Manhattan. (Khazaei may himself be a symbol of Bookish’s struggles: He is the company’s third CEO in less than two years.) In a very visible way, Bookish follows through on that promise by linking to the book sale pages of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and other major booksellers as well as offering books for sale directly.
At the center of the Bookish product is a recommendation engine that the company believes is unique in the industry, a tantalizing promise to publishers worried that shrinking physical bookshelf space is making it harder for them to get their new books and debut authors a sufficient audience with readers.
Because Bookish doesn’t have any data from readers on which to base its book recommendations, it has built technology that doesn’t use user data — yet. After asking a reader about a book (or several) that she likes, it recommends titles based on book metadata (author, title, genre and more), studying and comparing book reviews and custom connections made by the site’s team of editors. Bookish calls the process “deep book introspection.”
As Bookish gathers user data — users can enter books they’ve read, books they’ve liked and book they’d like to read in addition to purchasing books — it will begin to add that knowledge into its recommendations.
The data scientist in charge of the recommendation engine, Karen Sun, used to spend an hour or two every day trying to find new books to read to feed a book-a-day reading habit, which has since been cut down to just two or three a week due to her position at Bookish. When it came to finding books, “Amazon wasn’t good enough,” she said.
The Bookish leadership hopes that visitors to the website will also find books through engaging with the content developed by the editorial team, led by executive editor Rebecca Wright, a veteran of The Daily Beast and Mediabistro. Wright has six editorial staffers working for her writing articles about books and reading, making lists of must-read books and developing trend stories that look at books and current news and culture. The editorial team has professionals with experience at Random House, AOL, Good Housekeeping, Hachette and other book-related companies.
The editors will publish several items a day to start and will soon thereafter produce customized newsletters for readers.
Bookish will also offer information on books and readings through partnerships with USA Today and The Onion, both of which will provide content for the site. Perhaps more importantly, USA Today will be syndicating content created by the Bookish editors and sending visitors back to the Bookish site. When books are mentioned on USA Today‘s website, they will link to a pop-up page where readers can learn more about the book, often look at an excerpt and see similar books — all powered by Bookish. The page is only a click away from the Bookish website where readers can purchase the books.
Like other major booksellers, Bookish will offer its referrers like USA Today an affiliate commission for sending buyers its way. It, too, will collect affiliate revenue from sending readers to Amazon and other sites should they click on the links to those rival retailers from the Bookish site.
Unlike Amazon, Apple Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, Google and other ebook retailers, Bookish won’t manufacture and sell any devices. With e-reader sales declining and more ebooks being read on tablets, that competitive disadvantage may not matter much for the website. Publishers themselves believe that dedicated e-readers will soon be obsolete. At launch, Bookish will offer an Android reading app. An iOS reading app will follow in a few weeks once Apple approves it, said Khazaei, the CEO. The app is powered by Bluefire, a white-label e-reading technology platform. Bookish sells EPUB files, which readers can take wherever the file type is supported.
With pricing control over many of the most popular now in the hands of ebook retailers, Khazaei said Bookish will not to engage in the price wars that have engulfed other ebook retailers — perhaps unsurprising for a website owned by three major publishers, two of which have recently changed their contracts with Bookish rivals to adhere to settlements they signed with the Department of Justice to resolve a lawsuit alleging collusion and ebook price-fixing. Baker & Taylor, which is powering the book and ebook fulfillment for the site, will determine pricing, said Khazaei.
Bookish is launching in partnership with 19 publishers and publishing groups representing hundreds of publishers, including the six largest in the U.S. — its three owners, plus HarperCollins, Macmillan and Random House. (See a full list of partners below.) The website will use its connection to these publishers to attract content that it can sell exclusively, a strategy its rivals are using aggressively — see Apple’s iBooks Author and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Select, to name two.
“We have a really deep relationship with these publishers,” said Khazaei. “They understand that unique content is important. Others [other retailers] will not get that kind of access.”
Despite its strong corporate backing, deep partnerships and flashy new recommendation engine, Bookish faces stiff, entrenched competition in the book market as well as a history of disappointments and a deep hole of investment to dig out of that sources have estimated to Digital Book World is about $16 million.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others have been selling books online for over a decade and ebooks for half as long. They have dedicated user bases and e-reading devices that make it easy for readers to keep on purchasing from them. Amazon, in particular, is known for an aggressive pricing strategy that has led to a reputation for the company among consumers as the cheapest place to buy books and ebooks.
Newly launched, the site isn’t completely free of kinks. For instance during the demo, about half-a-dozen options were presented at varying prices during the ebook purchasing process — a bug. Early users may find a rougher experience than that which greets later users, a problem many tech start-ups face.
Bookish may be starting life late compared to its competition. It won’t play the pricing game in which they all seem to be engaged and it won’t be selling a device on which to peddle its wares. If its goal, however, is merely to give consumers a better book recommendation experience, more content to read about books and to expand the book-reading market, it would be hard-pressed to fail.
Full list of Bookish partners:
• Hachette Book Group
• HarperCollins Publishers
• Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
• Inner Traditions
• Independent Publisher Group
• Kensington Publishing Corp.
• New Harbinger Publications
• Perseus Books Group
• Penguin Group (USA)
• Random House, Inc.
• Simon & Schuster
• Sourcebooks, Inc.
• John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
• Workman Publishing Company
• W. W. Norton & Company
Full Bookish page: