In June a bookseller briefly became the richest man on the planet. From humble beginnings as a successful Wall Street trader in the late nineties, he saw an opportunity to change the way that books are sold. At around the same time, the first Penguin books website launched, and readers could buy books direct from the website and have them delivered to their door. At the time, of course, this was revolutionary and ruffled booksellers. When I presented the site at the London Book Fair, the first comment from the audience was about “that Buy button on the screen”.
The site continues to sell books today, though through affiliates which is probably a more friction-free experience than when we had to print and fax the orders to the warehouse for fulfillments. Amazon meanwhile side-stepped the dotcom crash and continued its growth towards dominating the world’s retail online as it does today.
But let’s rewind history back again to the late nineties. Would it have been possible for the Penguin website to compete with the Amazon website? Was there an opportunity that was missed at that time, and is there one that publishers and booksellers should be investing in today?
Possibly there was a play that publishers could have made coming together to create a single online retail brand that used all the benefits of existing warehousing and distribution. They could have bought the UK’s leading online bookstore (then The Internet Bookshop, subsequently sold to WHSmith for £9.4m in 1998). But they didn’t. It would have been too contentious a move for publishers to get so deeply involved in “that Buy button”. Politics, relationships with retailers, and a focus on core business stopped publishers’ involvement in digital media just as it was getting started.
So what are the opportunities today? I was asked this twice last week by Oxford Brookes MA students for their publishing dissertations. The questions focused primarily on virtual reality as I had mentioned it during a talk at the university; however virtual reality is not going to change the publishing world. There will be successful adaptions of books into VR as there have been successful film adaptions. But publishers have not become movie studios. There will be VR bookstores with 3D worlds where books can be bought, but they will fail as they have failed before. VR is simply too visual a medium for the written word and it is too big a gap between existing business models and new ones for publishers to bridge.
Behind the public and visible hype around virtual reality is the growth of the technology strand known as artificial intelligence or machine learning. In relation to publishers and booksellers, this allows a lot of information to be analysed and interpreted in interesting new ways. It is useful for publishing because there are already significant quantities of useful information that can be looked at. Trends such as adult colouring books could have been anticipated, dynamic recipe books can be compiled based on consumer habits and indeed AI could anticipate fiction trends based on combinations such as sentiment analysis, sales trends and general entertainment industry movements.
Aside from the attractive growth that artificial intelligence represents, it is also an incremental addition to publishing activities. In essence, it speeds up an existing organization, making publishing and sales decisions faster, more accurate and more predictive. Being an addition to the business removes the fear of revolutionary changes that more glitzy digital options like VR might bring. In an ideal world, it also allows editors to be better editors, marketers to be better marketers and managers to be better managers.
I have written before about the top ways that publishing world can influence the growth of AI. Giving a ‘to do’ list is useful, but there is a broader strategic opportunity with artificial intelligence to take advantage of a new technology trend that set the direction of digital developments for the next decade. It creates opportunities for the next Amazon, for the next Jeff Bezos and for the next evolution in the book publishing industry. The question that can be asked now is: will those great organisations be born as start-ups, or from the entrepreneurialism of existing publishers and bookstores?