What the Anobii link-up means

In these times of rapid change, big news can race past before we have time to absorb its impact.

Sainsbury’s' acquisition of a 64% share in social reading site Anobii is a case in point—an initiative that hitherto belonged to the book trade establishment has now passed into a supermarket’s control. This is good news for Anobii, and potentially good news for publishers too.

HMV’s Anobii shareholding was an obvious candidate for disposal. It’s curious that this book trade asset wasn’t bundled up with Waterstones for the Mamut sale last year, but (like HMV themselves) Waterstones perhaps already had a smörgåsbord of challenges to chew on. Sainsbury’s, on the other hand, is on a roll, with strong trading results and a raft of new instore and online initiatives; chief executive Justin King has been ranked Britain’s most powerful retailer, while Tesco struggles to adapt to changing times.  

I’ve argued in the past that the rise of e-books may result in a loss of shelf-space for p-books in supermarkets, as e-readers favour the most supermarket-friendly genres.  Sainsbury’s investment suggests that they recognise this too—but that they don’t intend to bow out of the book trade. Anobii chief executive Matteo Berlucchi now has a much more robust platform from which to argue (with his fellow shareholders, and with the rest of the publishing world) for an end to DRM—for the freedom for e-book buyers to download the product they want on to the devices they prefer, reducing the monopolistic power of the walled gardeners.

Nobody understands their customers better than supermarkets. By comparison, few retailers have a more limited insight into their customer base than bricks-and-mortar bookshops, selling a general range to the general public. And publishers—classic B2B enterprises—have historically seen their “customers” (retailers and distributors) as a very different group to their “readers”.

Sainsbury’s can go much further than establishing which teas and cupcakes sell best to Jenny Colgan fans; while Amazon can draw conclusions from our browsing and purchasing activity, they have nothing like the insight of a supermarket, which can construct rounded pictures of customers’ lifestyles.  

This is good news for publishers, who might gain a clearer understanding of who their readers are, and be able to respond to market opportunities in more sophisticated ways than (at the most basic level) “making it look like an E L James book”.  While Sainsbury’s intends to brand Anobii as its own, the ongoing participation of Penguin, Random House and HarperCollins gives the enterprise breadth and credibility and (for the first time?) might establish a direct and influential link between consumer behaviour and the development of publishing strategy.