“We definitely want to support local bookshops, we all love what they do," John Bennett tells Molly Flatt, in this installment of her series on our FutureBook 2015 BookTech Awards Showcase shortlist. And then the other shoe falls: "But we also want to use digital technology to develop a better way of buying books that combines online and offline." In short, the latest oddly named startup to capture a spot in our BookTech competition, ooovre (three o's, and lowercased) is meant to help bookshops do what many of them don't want to do: thrive in cyberspace. There's solace here. When Flatt asks Bennett to name his fave bookstores, she writes, "unsurprisingly, a certain new shiny, algorithm-driven, deeply-discounted Seattle store doesn’t make the list."—Porter Anderson
Last week’s news that Amazon had opened its first physical bookshop—a 5,500-square-foot store in Seattle “that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping”—sent UK booksellers into a tailspin.
While some expressed outright horror—competition from Amazon is, after all, one of the top two reasons independent booksellers give for forcing their closure in the UK—others welcomed the development as inevitable and even positive. As put by Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page (who is a keynote speaker at the FutureBook 2015 Conference on 4th December), “all retail is moving towards omnichannel retailing." And some would argue that independent bookshops have hastened their own decline by failing to adapt fast enough.
And my first question for John Bennett, the founder of ooovre: aren’t the indies simply too far behind?
“One shop is not enough,” Bennett says. “The Amazon bookshop may just be an experiment. They have focused brilliantly on online service, and there's no disputing their current success, but if you accept the analysis that the future of retail is omnichannel, it's just a question of who in the book business gets there first. The question is whether Amazon can roll out their physical bookshops more quickly than booksellers can roll out digital.”
Ooovre aims to tip the balance in favour of the little guys by providing a platform that makes it effortless for customers to click and collect from a range of bookshops in their local area. Unfortunately, similar sites such as Hive, which launched in 2011 with 350 independent bookshops on board, have failed to stem the tide of closures in recent years. So why does Bennett think that ooovre has what it takes to save the day?
“I guess that depends whether you believe the idea is flawed or the execution,” Bennett says. “We've focused on user experience and brand, and will work closely with booksellers to build a commercial model that works for them. After all, Google wasn't the first search engine, nor was Facebook the first social network.”
That user experience is centred on simplicity, offering a straightforward service that allows a reader to search for a book using their postcode, order it from a local bookseller of their choice and then pick it up from the shop, often within 24 to 48 hours. The clean graphic design of the site, beautifully engineered to appeal to the app generation, reflects Bennett’s longstanding experience in digital strategy; having worked for internet and technology companies throughout the late ‘90s, he now leads teams on a range of big projects including the recent award-winning TfL digital rebuild.
But this London-based tech-native is still, at heart, a bookworm who grew up in a small village near Inverness, and his own debut novel was published by Vintage in 2006. As a consequence, Bennett is passionate about ooovre being seen as an authentic and valued part of the bookselling community.
“If independent bookshops disappeared, we'd lose a vital component of civil society,” he says. “Independent booksellers do much to bring new writers, ideas and books into the mainstream, but the online giants never do this. They are only interested in shareholder value.” Unlike its predecessors, the beta version of ooovre won’t charge booksellers a penny. Once the site has gained traction, Bennett’s team will then “spend a lot of time with booksellers developing the commercial model,” which they know will become unviable for small local shops if they levy much more than 10 percent of sales.
Of course, ooovre must build a solid groundswell of awareness and loyalty amongst consumers too, and in a recent Medium post, Bennett set out the company’s staunchly user-centric philosophy. “We definitely want to support local bookshops, we all love what they do, but we also want to use digital technology to develop a better way of buying books that combines online and offline. If we can’t do that, then we ooovre won’t be a success.”
The journey won’t be easy, but he’s committed to iterative grassroots growth.”Our biggest challenge will be reaching enough users,” he admits. “That's always the biggest challenge in digital. Amazon spends huge amounts on Google search to buy traffic and it's hard to compete with that, but we believe that if we can build a community then we'll go some way to solving this problem.”
When asked to name-check his own best-beloved bookshop, Bennett groans “that's like asking me which of my children is my favourite. However, if pressed I'd say Foyles for scale and ambition, Mrs B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath for the selection, Achins Bookshop in Inverkirkaig for managing to sell books for many years in one of the remotest parts of Britain, and of course Rye Books in East Dulwich, which is my local, and well worth a visit.”
Unsurprisingly, a certain new shiny, algorithm-driven, deeply-discounted Seattle store doesn’t make the list.
The BookTech Showcase (#BookTech) is a new element of the FutureBook Conference. Hosted by tech and culture journalist Molly Flatt, the session invites eight book tech companies to take part in a live pitch-off for a panel of industry and tech experts. A real-time vote will then determine the winners of the bronze, silver and gold FutureBook Awards. The overall winner will be named The FutureBook BookTech Company of the Year 2015.
The judges of the showcase, who will interrogate attendees from the selected book tech companies, are Hannah Telfer, Group Director of Consumer and Digital Development at Penguin Random House UK; Dan Kieran, CEO and Co-Founder of Unbound; and Eileen Burbidge, Partner at Passion Capital and one of the UK’s most influential tech venture capitalists.
In Molly Flatt's series on the contenders:
- BookTech Showcase: Where book and tech come together
- BookTech Showcase: oolipo
- BookTech Showcase: Shulph
- BookTech Showcase: Reedsy
- BookTech Showcase: The Owl Field
- BookTech Showcase: ooovre
To book tickets, please visit the FutureBook Conference site.