A continental approach to the 'digital thingy'

On Friday I attended the Publishers Association International Conference on "Facing up to our International Markets". But it wasn't the publishers I was most impressed with but booksellers--namely the international booksellers invited by the PA to talk about their needs.

The morning had been dominated by discussion about the e-book and the digital future for publishers, with HarperCollins' director of audio and eBooks David Roth-Ey arguing that with the launch of Kindle "we are closer to the iPod moment for e-books than ever before".

It was not surprising therefore when Sofika Eleftheroudakis, c.e.o. of the Greek bookselling chain Eleftheroudakis, said that the morning sessions made her feel "unwanted". What room is there for the bookseller in a digital future where publishers push their downloads to the consumer direct?

Her mood was probably not helped when Sonny Leong, executive chairman of Routledge-Cavendish and chair of the PA International Board, said that booksellers were facing extinction. "Publishers do not want to do away with booksellers, but the market has shifted. Unless booksellers invest in technology along with publishers, then I'm not sure they are going to be around."

But everything I saw from the European booksellers on show suggested that they were facing up to the technological challenges -- and more so than their counterparts in the UK.

For instance, Godfried Carbo, productgroup manager at Dutch booksellers BGN, told the delegates how one of its shops had sold out of e-book reader the iLiad on the first day of sale. Planned as a "publicity stunt", the shop sold 15 units in the first hour, and has gone on to sell 150--at €649: that's almost £70,000 of 'new' business, and ultimately repeat business if the customers who bought the device go back to BGN, or one of its websites, for the content.

But is there a UK bookseller who has tested the market in a similar fashion? I can't think of one. [Incidentally, I did phone around some chain booksellers, but, to quote one, was told that they did not stock the "digital thingy", though I could probably buy a Nintendo at one of their larger stores.)

Did the BA recommend stocking an e-book device to its members in its recent report? Nope. But it did identify the lack of a trusted e-book retailer as one of the hindrances to digital content growth. "eBooks need to be  available through the trusted and traditional pre-existing channels to which book consumers go now to buy their books, or through a trusted non-traditional player." It is right.

So which major UK bookseller is going to be the first to stock an e-book reader?

But back to Eleftheroudakis. She had wanted to demonstrate the Greek bookseller's latest digital initiative--a virtual bookstore--but the technology provided at the venue wasn't up to it. This was a shame.

The website allows the user to walk through a digital representation of the Greek bookseller's flagship store (think Second Life), browse shelves, look at books, and ultimately purchase them (see image below). I was personally quite stunned at how good this was, and I wasn't the only one cooing over Eleftheroudakis' laptop when she was able to load-up a demo after the session had ended.

Eleftheroudakis online in-store









It is quite simply a stunning project, which, if well executed, could change the way we think about browsing online. It is also something different to the Amazon-style hegemony that has dominated online retailing for a decade now.

Both Carbo and Eleftheroudakis hinted that it was publishers that needed to catch up with them, not the other way round. I think they may have a point.