Three Reasons Why Bookish Will Fail and Three Reasons Why It Won’t

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Bookish_HomePage-1Last night, the long-anticipated, much-delayed Bookish.com finally launched. It took two years and three CEOs, but the big-publisher-backed venture (Hachette, Penguin, Simon & Schuster) is up and running.

After playing around with the new, touted recommendation engine and reading some of the editorial content that Bookish is hanging its hat on (team of seven editors!), the question on my mind is, will it work? Will people go to Bookish and either buy books or go from Bookish to buying books on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or elsewhere*?

After all the hoopla and the data science and the sleek design (the site does look pretty good), the site needs to make money if it’s to be around this time next year. Bookish has an uphill battle ahead of it: Stiff, entrenched competition; no dedicated e-reading device; no iOS reading app for two weeks and no desktop or browser-based app on the roadmap; and all the challenges a new, consumer-oriented businesses faces (branding, marketing, running a new operation, running cash-negative, deciding which investments to make, etc.).

That said, trends point to a move away from physical retail toward online retail and more people are reading ebooks. The company has solid backing and support from savvy tech professionals at major publishers. And the rise of ebooks can only help an ebook retailer, right?

* Bookish title pages offer deep links to other book retail sites. The company says this is part of its overall strategy to help people find books and expand the reading market — not necessarily sell books. 

Here are three reasons I think Bookish will fail (and, after, three why I think it will succeed):

1. Competition. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and others are simply too strong and entrenched among book buyers and they are protecting their positions aggressively. Amazon does it with low prices, exclusive content, an ebook lending library and a suite of offerings (Prime, Prime Instant Video) that entice consumers to only shop there. Barnes & Noble uses similar strategies and supports its online retail business with its physical shops. Apple simply has the iPad; they all have devices, in fact, that push readers in their direction.

Bookish has said that it’s not going to play the price game. It will have exclusive content, but likely much less of it than the others. At this point, It offers consumers little unique beyond what it considers a better ebook discovery engine and editorial content.

 

Bookish_BookPage_FiftyShadesofGrey-22. E-commerce acuity. To me, there are two instructive 2012 e-commerce success stories: Amazon.com and Fab.com. Amazon grew its business to over $60 billion in 2012 and it did so by relentlessly pushing its buyers toward and down purchase funnels — with email, social media, on-site promotions, sales, customized recommendations…basically every trick in the book. Fab.com ballooned to over $200 million in sales in 2012 through merchandising and a great user experience. It only carries products that are hard or impossible to find elsewhere and its users love its sleek design, smooth interface and ultra-competent customer service. (Every time I ask a Fab shopper why she likes the site, the first thing she says is, “I love the design.”)

Bookish is an attractive but sparse site. It doesn’t push its users toward purchase or new products nearly as aggressively as Amazon, instead using its real estate on an airy, easy-to-look-at design. It’s the kind of decision that might win industry (Web industry) recognition but not sell a lot of stuff. And in terms of merchandising, the site will have a few exclusive items, but most of what you will be able to buy in it will be available elsewhere (often cheaper: See No. 1).

 

3. New start-up disease. Launching a new business and making it successful is incredibly hard. There are so many hurdles to overcome. First, a start-up has to deliver quality goods or services to its clients while keeping costs low enough to turn a profit. That’s the basic part but it’s a lot harder than it sounds. In the case of Bookish, this mean helping users learn about books, discover books and buy books and then charge them appropriately and deliver the goods in a reasonable period of time. Second, the new business has to attract and retain new customers. Talk to any established business to learn how hard this is. And, last, there is the pressure of time. Few if any start-ups have unlimited capital to invest in their success. Many of them run out of money and are unable to secure new investment before they go under.

Less than 24 hours into its existence, Bookish is already facing criticism from early users for its recommendation engine, some kinks that are inevitable in new sites (and often plague established sites) as well as some of the things we pointed out above (retail strategy, for instance). (Here’s a good summary of complaints.)

Obviously, the leadership at Bookish has detailed plans to execute on its mission, attract and retain new customers and do it all before the company runs out of money — but often with new businesses, it doesn’t work out. Most new businesses fail.

 

That said, Bookish could very well succeed, and here’s why I think it might:

1. Big-six backing. Bookish is backed by three huge companies with pretty deep pockets: Hachette (owned by Hachette Livre), Penguin (owned by Pearson and soon to be merged with Random House) and Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS). How excited are these companies to sink more money into the book retail space? It’s anyone’s guess, but strong ties to leading companies can offer many advantages:

— Availability of talent: The very capable chief digital officers of each of those publishers have had a hand in helping get Bookish off the ground. They have likely helped recruit Bookish employees and advised on details of the site and the business. (Read profiles of Hachette’s Maja Thomas, Penguin’s Molly Barton, and Simon & Schuster’s Ellie Hirschhorn.)
— Exclusive content: Bookish executives told me last week that it would use its ties to large publishers to get exclusive content for them to sell, an advantage, they said, other book retailers won’t have.
— Quality by association: While those three publishers don’t have strong consumer brands, they have strong brands within publishing and that means two important things: first, that other publishers and vendors will be interested in working with Bookish and won’t have to be introduced to the company’s existence — they will know about it; and, second, that those heavy readers inside the trade will be using Bookish, at least initially to fiddle around and give Bookish valuable user feedback and, perhaps, become customers.

 

2. The rise of tablets. One major disadvantage that Bookish — or any start-up ebook retailer — faces is that its competitors offer dedicated e-reading devices that make it very easy and attractive for readers to buy ebooks from only them. That said, e-readers are on the wane and tablets are rising. If Bookish can attract users through the Web and encourage them to buy ebooks, they will download EPUB files that can be read basically anywhere — especially on the Bookish Android and iOS apps (the latter coming soon). More people are reading on tablets (iPads, mostly) and they’re reading on whatever platform suits them at the time. The company won’t necessarily need a dedicated e-reading device to succeed and that looks like it’s becoming increasingly true.

 

3. The rise of e-commerce and e-reading. In 2012, e-commerce approached 6% of all U.S. retail. Sounds like a little, but the U.S. retail industry is a multi-trillion dollar business. And e-commerce continues to grow. And e-reading, too, is on the rise, with nearly a quarter of all U.S. adults now reading ebooks (and more than half of all kids). Bookish is a new ebook seller, putting it at the nexus of e-commerce and ebooks. These rising tides could lift it to profitability.

 

Between you, me and the lamppost (something my dad always used to say), I am rooting for Bookish — as I am rooting for all the companies I cover to find success. I think it has a good a chance as any new business to succeed. Problem is, it’s really hard to launch a new business.

 

Jeremy Greenfield

About Jeremy Greenfield

Jeremy Greenfield is the editorial director of Digital Book World. Opinions presented here are his own. Read more of his work here.

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15 thoughts on “Three Reasons Why Bookish Will Fail and Three Reasons Why It Won’t

  1. My problem with Bookish, aside from the fact that the recommendations engine is…odd…is that I don’t really get what it’s supposed to do.

    Sure, once upon a time, I went to the bookstore and browsed selections. But my local bookstores closed. I am a heavy genre reader (I start approximately 200 books a year, I finish about 100 of those books–I read too much to finish books I don’t care for), so nowadays I get most of my recommendations from people I know online who share my reading preferences.

    As a genre reader, I tend to go to genre sites. I go to Smart Bitches or Heroes & Heartbreakers or Dear Author for Romance. I go to Criminal Element for crime fiction. What these sites do for me is to introduce me to authors who are smaller names, names I might not otherwise hear about. The kind of names I used to find at the bookstore browsing. Bookish doesn’t seem designed to do that. I look at their front page and I see “look at this bestselling author talking about that bestselling author!”

    Bestselling authors, big names like Michael Connelly and Jackie Collins and Elizabeth Gilbert don’t need Bookish, and their publishers don’t need those people to sell more books. Those people are already selling fine. So why is it that when I enter John Connolly’s Every Dead Thing in the recommendation engine, what I get is THREE books by Brad Thor (what good does that do?) and a book by Michael Connelly–in Spanish?

    It may be true that the big publishers behind Bookish can afford to keep it going, but as a reader (and as a writer, and as a reviewer of books), I want it to do something different, something exciting. I want it to have a mission that it clearly doesn’t have right now. Because beautiful as it is (and it definitely is lovely), it seems completely pointless.

  2. Jeremy, I am not with you on this one. You missed the biggest success (or failure) factor of them all: management. Good managers make successful companies. The macro economics don’t matter at all. Henry Luce started Fortune after the collapse of the stock market in 1929. How much money do you think that magazine made over the years? Paraphrasing the famous line about real estate, it’s management, management, management.

    Joe Esposito

    • Hey Joe —

      I agree with you that management is a very important factor. That said, one of the factors I listed is a symptom of management (e-commerce acuity). I don’t know the management of this company that well personally so I can only judge them by the company’s moves. That said, I focused on the other important factors. I don’t agree with you that management is the only thing…even great management can’t save a business that may just not be viable (not that Bookish is necessarily such a business).

      Also, I left other factors out that will play an important role, like Bookish’s relationship with USA Today (potentially a huge positive), its reading app strategy (potentially a huge liability) and much more.

      Do you know Ardy and the others better? What do you think of the team?

  3. Part of the recommendation issue at this point is, from my perspective, two fold: poor metadata and then inaccurate mapping to the isbn. I suspect they do not have sufficient auditing processes in place. I once consulted for about 36 hours there and the concept of “auditing” was foreign to them.

  4. Interesting points and covers all that I can think about, but I would comment on the issue that all people reading on a Tablet will only download .epub files.

    That said, e-readers are on the wane and tablets are rising. If Bookish can attract users through the Web and encourage them to buy ebooks, they will download EPUB files that can be read basically anywhere — especially on the Bookish Android and iOS apps (the latter coming soon).

    Yes, many more people are reading on Tablets, but many have downloaded the Kindle App and contine to buy books from Amazon which are not in .epub format as well as having installed the Kobo App which does support .epub. I am not promoting Amazon, but it still shows that Bookish will not escape Amazon pressure even when they (Bookish) have their own App.

    • Interesting article, but I see so many making the same erroneous conclusion – that consumers are moving away from ereaders to “tablets.”

      What’s really happening is that consumers are moving away from hardware ereaders to ereading software apps. So the format war is really a platform war. It’s not unusual for heavy readers to have three or four ereading apps on their choice of device, which may be a tablet but may also be a phone.

      All Bookish has to do is offer their own whitelabel reader (such as Bluefire’s) and if they’re smart they will co-brand it with USA Today. The battle with established closed platforms (such as Kindle) for market dominance will be won by whoever is best at marketing to both young readers (tablet buyers) and older readers (Kindle) and this will include, inevitably, some price concessions.

  5. While I haven’t explored the site extensively, I couldn’t help but notice (at the risk of pointing out the obvious) that your three reasons why it might fail are all ones that, by definition, will affect Bookish far more than its competition. Meanwhile, your three reasons why it might succeed are either true for ALL the big players (i.e., strong backing/management) or are trends that will benefit ALL the major players (the rise of tablets and e-reading/e-commerce). As such, that doesn’t bode well. We shall see.

    Needless to say, the key to success with ANY start-up in ANY industry today (but certainly more so in the publishing arena) is to create a unique offering for which there is a healthy and enduring need and demand, AND one that people can get nowhere else. Has Bookish accomplished that?

    • That’s a good point, Peter. One thing I didn’t dive into was why. Why Bookish? Publishers want a more dynamic book retail marketplace (and a place they can send people to buy that isn’t Amazon). Its investors want to turn capital into more capital. Distributors want another customer. But what do readers want? The theory behind Bookish might be that they want more/better discovery options. I’m not so sure they do. We’ll see.

  6. I signed up with Bookish yesterday and did some exploring. Alas, as nice as the site design is it has some very big problems that have nothing to do with its recommendation engine. Problem #1, as far as I’m concerned, is that when you land on a product page and opt to buy the title from, say, Amazon –clicking the Amazon link in the ONLINE STORES drop-down menu — you’re taken to the Amazon *home* page, not to Amazon’s corresponding product page. And that’s the case for *all* the online stores you can click through to from this menu. That’s really an unacceptable user experience.

    There were other nutty things I discovered last night and wrote up as a blog post. If you’re interested, check it out: http://mindtherant.blogspot.com/2013/02/bookish-online-bookseller-launches.html

  7. I feel compelled to modify my Problem #1 as stated above in light of further Bookish browsing: Bookish appears to take visitors to the home page for Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, iBookstore, Kobo, and IndieBound only if they jump off from an *ebook edition* product page instead of a print edition product page. The reasoning appears to be that because Bookish supports only the ePub and PDF ebook file formats it doesn’t want to chance sending an Amazon customer to the Kindle page for an ebook, where the purchase will result in the unsupported (and for the Bookish ereader app, unreadable) MOBI file format.

  8. You neglected to mention two other factors as to why it will succeed…

    1. Success in places like Australia. I’ve never bought ebooks from any of the big companies.
    2. Access to smaller independent bookshops and literature… as opposed to best sellers.

    And you could probably add no reviews and clutter in the design – it’s simple and clean and easy to use.

  9. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that MANY books on the site are already out of stock. At startup, that means that users are just going to Amazon (without affiliate links) if they get grabbed by a book. This hurts sales.

    The other thing that I see as a big problem for Bookish is that the exclusivity (the site brags about being a content gatekeeper and its user terms of agreement actually forbid talking bad about Bookish) means that it won’t have the same Indie following that Goodreads already has. Authors are all over Goodreads because you don’t have to be with the Big 6 to post your books.

    Of the blog comments I have read, people seem more offended than excited about having publishers tell us what to read.

  10. I checked out the Bookish site, and I’ll be honest: I wasn’t impressed.

    They seem to have about 20 romance books in their database. So no matter what book I entered into their “recommendation engine,” they kept suggested the same ones, with no thought to subgenre, etc. Secondly, when they can’t even have the full catalog of big name authors (and from what I can tell, the missing books aren’t out of print either), what’s the point?

    I’ll probably never go back again. There’s nothing there I can’t find 1000 times better at Goodreads.

  11. A rather belated comment as I just discovered this blog post from a reader comment to a recent NYT piece about Amazon and its book pricing policies.

    With Amazon as the go-to destination for books as Google is for search, publisher initiatives like Bookish.com to disintermediate such a gorilla reseller will be futile, especially after the stinging slap-down by the DOJ for their amateurish and clumsy attempt to claw back control of the ebook market. Now they won’t dare to even appear to collaborate in this venture !

    Instead of such a daunting task, why not adopt a non-conflicted platform like eBay towards the same-end i.e. an alternative to Amazon which is just as familiar a destination. All that a Publisher needs is a listing, search, review and payment platform, which eBay can accomplish with aplomb. As for retail shipping of physical books, that they have to do for sales on Bookish anyway. If this succeeds, they should be able to easily reset their online sales channel to their wet dream “Agency” model with Amazon serving as merely an advertising and referral affiliate.

    Perhaps you can build up on this train of thought with a more knowledgeable blog post.

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