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Online Bookselling in Germany: Word-of-mouth vs. Online Search

By Amanda DeMarco

For a small publisher, getting titles onto bookstore shelves is a crucial challenge, to say nothing of gaining attention for them once they’re there. For customers, book buying can be an overwhelming experience. Tubuk, an online bookstore for independent publishers, aims to take the pain out of both.

Independent publisher Andreas Freitag launched the German online community and bookstore Tubuk in 2008 because he was frustrated that it was so difficult to break into bookstores with titles from his small publishing house Schwarzerfreitag (Black Friday). Today, Tubuk offers roughly 1,400 titles from 68 independent German publishers that might be difficult to find in brick-and-mortar bookstores. Selective is the byword for this organization, whose slogan, is “Not every book.”

“It needs to be different in some way, in its language or in what kind of authors they discover or if they specialize in something you normally wouldn’t get in Germany. Or it’s simply good literature,” said Julia von dem Knesebeck, who took over the operation of Tubuk with her brother Gregor early this summer after a long involvement with the organization. “We know what our community likes.” By grouping independents together, Tubuk turns what is often a distribution disadvantage into marketing cachet.

On the consumer end, Tubuk aims to help its users find books online the same way they often come across them in real life— from their friends. That means user recommendations and reviews are actively elicited and prominently placed. “It’s a small, specialist site, but it’s a very active community of a few thousand people who engage regularly,” said Knesebeck. Contests and links to social media sites and microsites (Websites, often with their own domain names, that supplement a larger site) encourage further participation.

Of course, helping readers find books through user reviews is not a new concept. What makes Tubuk’s system noteworthy is the combination of intelligent curation and youthful energy found there. It integrates social media into its platform in a way that encourages participation while keeping the focus on the books. Access is also an important element: 90 authors and all 68 publishers have Tubuk profiles. And just as with everyone else, you can read their posts and send them a message.

A few hundred users also subscribe to Tubuk’s book club, Deluxe, which recommends three books each season from which the subscriber chooses one. Since a significant portion of the users will have read four of these twelve books, Deluxe heightens the sense of community and shared experience, and it also gives the Knesebecks the opportunity to highlight newly added publishers and noteworthy books.

New this season are Tubuk readings. Drawing on profile information, the Knesebecks can see which cities a book’s readers are from and plan accordingly. Next up in Munich is Jana Scheerer’s Mein Innerer Elvis (My Inner Elvis) from Schöffling Verlag. The Knesebecks hope to help readers connect with authors, but also to interact with each other, reinforcing the contacts they’ve made online and ultimately strengthening Tubuk’s identity.

However, the crux of Tubuk’s business model also marks the limit of its success; as a 2009 Tagesspiegel article dryly noted, “‘Not every book’ ultimately means ‘not every customer.’” For the rest of them, the Knesebecks also run a larger online bookstore, bilandia, which lacks Tubuk’s selective aspect but is no less sensitive to the experience of buying books online.

If the intimacy of personal book recommendations is Tubuk’s underlying concept, then creating a semisystematic web of discoveries possible at a bookstore is bilandia’s. “The idea behind bilandia.de is that we want to present the books in a much more thorough and a much more interesting way than Amazon does,” explained Knesebeck. “We want to enable people to find books in a similar way that they might find books in a bookstore. You go in, you browse, you stumble upon things you might not have been looking for.” A more open-ended search is to bilandia what a recommendation is to Tubuk. A customer “can search more creatively” so a query for ‘Paris’ might lead you to a guidebook, a book that takes place in Paris, or to a book by a Parisian author.

To help customers find the book they didn’t know they were looking for, bilandia provides a wealth of ancillary materials, from book trailers to interviews to sample chapters to website links. They also maintain extremely active social networks, including one soccer-related Facebook group with over 40,000 members.

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