UK’s Waterstone’s Pins Hopes on aNobii “Social Bookselling” App

In English Language by Roger Tagholm

Beleaguered bookseller Waterstone’s is counting on aNobii, a book-oriented social networking site originally developed in Hong Kong, to help save them.

By Roger Tagholm

LONDON: Troubled UK chain Waterstone’s is pinning its hopes on the aNobii app which it officially launches next month. Not much has been said about this so-called “social bookselling” website, but it was clear from talking to MD Dominic Myers at this week’s Book Industry Conference, which wrapped up in London on Tuesday, that the chain sets much store by it –- perhaps a pun intended -– and sees it as a way of bringing the advantages of online into the bricks and mortar environment.

The app is agnostic and has all manner of sophisticated uses –- from allowing users to scan the barcodes on books to bring up reviews and bibliographic information, to the ability to sense when a Waterstone’s branch is close by and send a “flash offer” from the shop to the handset. Those who join the website are connected to other readers who can share their bookshelves, and the site also has a presence on Facebook and Twitter. It is to be assumed that the app will also allow downloads of e-books, too.

“It’s very interesting what Barnes & Noble have done with the Nook,” said Myers. “They’ve found a way of combining physical and digital. Everybody has a mobile now, so it’s a good way of reaching people. The challenge will be to see how much market we can claw back from Amazon.”

Dominic Myers

Waterstone's MD Dominic Myers

Waterstone’s parent company HMV bought a substantial stake in aNobii — which is derived from the Latin Anobium Punctatum, the most common bookworm — earlier this year. HarperCollins, Penguin and Random House are also on board, but Myers would not be drawn on how revenues between the parties will be split. The chain will shortly face the task of spreading the word about the aNobii name –- a case of the “discoverability” question again, but in the realm of apps this time.

Before all that though has to come the sale of the company. Myers is growing weary of the subject, and the endless speculation on the business pages, but still managed to sound cautiously optimistic. “It’s quite unsettling having it played out in public, but I’m confident of a positive outcome for the chain.”

Dutch Bookstore Chain: Sales Down 15%

Mattijus van der Lely

Selexyz's Mattijus van der Lely

One of the most stimulating sessions of the conference’s final day involved Mattijis van der Lely, CEO of the Selexyz chain in Holland, and Hiroshi Sogo, MD of the Japan and Far East chain Konokuniya. There’s nothing an audience of booklovers likes more than to see huge slides of bookshops they would like to visit. Selexyz’s Maastricht branch occupies a church and must be one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world –- it looked like a cathedral of the book.

In a quick run-through of the Dutch trade, he said: “Fixed book prices are very important. We have no competition from the supermarkets or the Net, and that means we are able to open these large stores.”

That was the good news. The bad news came soon after. Even with all this protection, he said that sales were ten to 15% down in the first four months of the year and that just that very morning, he had the sad task of laying off 10% of the staff.

In Holland they don’t have World Book Night, but they do have de boekenweek, which culminates in a grand party. Tickets for the event cost €12.50 but that includes a free book which has a voucher for free travel on the trains for one day –- “which gives people the chance to go the city furthest away in Holland, which is Maastricht –- and that means they can visit out shop.”

Hiroshi Sogo

Kinokuniya's Hiroshi Sogo

Sogo, a cheerful figure who is a little like the exuberant party planner in Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride, showed one marketing specific from one of Kinokuniya’s mall shops –- a display for a “Mark Twain” Mont Blanc pen that was specially produced for his centenary, and which included a selection of relevant books.  It was a cross-promotion that worked perfectly, Sogo said.

No Shows at BIC, Bookseller Industry Awards

The presence of these two international booksellers was in part down to generous sponsorship from the Sharjah International Book Fair, which continues to grow in stature –- but it was embarrassing that Sogo could travel half way across the world to be there, whereas HarperCollins, from just down the road, didn’t send anyone.

There were comments, too, concerning supermarket Sainsbury’s win the previous night at the Bookseller Industry Awards, where it was named Martina Cole General or Chain Bookseller of the Year. As the day’s sessions began, one senior Waterstone executive whispered: “Wouldn’t it be good if they asked the people from Sainsbury’s to stand up to be congratulated” –- the point being, none of them were there either.

The BIC is still relevant and it is sad that some publishers and retailers do not bother to attend, in marked contrast to conference stalwarts, like children’s booksellers Sonia and Barry Benster from Huddersfield in the north, who must have wracked up well over 25 conferences.  With admirable honesty Rod Bristow, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association, admitted that this was his first conference, but he went on to wonder if it shouldn’t be more representative of the entire industry by inviting more educational publishers.

Perhaps the most popular, specific take away idea from this year’s event was a terribly simple one.  Julia Kingsford, CEO of World Book Night, urged everyone not to take a bottle of wine when next invited to dinner. “Take a book instead.” Good idea –- and another example of something that would be hard to do digitally.

DISCUSS: What is the Future of “Social Bookselling”?

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).