Penguin Random House’s “My Independent Bookshop” – a rash word of caution, by Thomas Koed

This is a member opinion piece on the creation of My Independent Bookshop, a website launching soon from Penguin Random House UK.

Penguin Random House UK’s CEO Tom Weldon has indicated his company’s focus on getting books to consumers is shifting “from a browse-and-display model to one of online search and recommendation”, and has said “the biggest challenge for publishers is […] building a direct relationship with consumers.” By “browse and display model” he means bookshops (the implication being that a CEO of PRH sees bookshops as merely spaces for consumers to browse through books (and booksellers as merely cashiers and shelf-stockers)). In seeking to provide for (create) a post-bookshop world the publisher is exploring ways to sell directly to the consumer by “getting to know” (i.e. gathering data about) them.

‘My Independent Bookshop’ creating a culture of enthusiastic amateurs
The flagship for PRH’s mission into the supposedly uncharted seas of post-bookshop bookselling will be the website “My Independent Bookshop”(currently in closed beta mode), “a new reader recommendation platform allowing book lovers to set up a virtual bookshop, share their favourite reads and discover, recommend and review books online.”. The words ““My” “Independent” “Bookshop”” need to be nested in inverted commas, both severally and collectively, for the platform recalibrates what is ordinarily understood by these words. Users of the new platform will be able to create their own “bookshop” by placing up to twelve titles on a virtual shelf, recommending them, and locating their bookshop in their very own “high street” of “bookshops” curated by like-minded readers. Visitors to the “bookshops” will be able to purchase the books. The website will also allow PRH to profile its users and use this “direct relationship with readers to tell them about the books they might fall in love with” (i.e. market PRH’s books directly to them). This profiling data is so valuable PRH is prepared to sell other publishers’ books to generate it.

There’s nothing particularly new about any of this (we already have Amazon’s Goodreads, Bookish and the amorphous capacities of Facebook), and there would be nothing particularly wrong with it either if it weren’t coming at the expense of the most effective and adaptable bookselling interface, bookshops-on-the-ground. By calling the new platform “My Independent Bookshop”, PRH are both acknowledging and appropriating the attachment consumers have to independent bookshops and draining the term ‘independent bookshop’ of meaning (thus depriving bookshops of their marketable identity). In a world where anyone can have their own “independent bookshop” just by showing a bit of virtual enthusiasm, the actual independent bookshop and the expertise of the professional bookseller will be lost in an immense ocean of enthusiastically dogpaddling amateur recommenders.

A dangerous connection to make
Users of “My Independent Bookshop” will be able to register their support for an actual bookshop, which will apparently receive a 5% commission from purchases they make through the site (I am generously assuming that this will apply not just to purchases made from the bookshop’s virtual bookshelf).

This may at first seem like a good thing, but we need to consider where “My Independent Bookshop” is designed to attract sales from. If users are being encouraged to believe that buying books through PRH’s platform is way of supporting their favourite independent bookshop, it would seem that they will be buying books there that otherwise they would have bought from that independent bookshop.

If the new platform flourishes, the independent bookshops, given only a small kick-back for delivering their customers’ purchasing focus to the PRH platform, will wither and die in the tiny margin. PRH might appear to be making a nod towards the independent bookshops that have always supported them, but they are maybe more interested in getting the nod from the independents, or, rather, in ensuring that the consumer gets the impression that such nodding is going on. It would be one step too cynical to suggest that the “My Independent Bookshop” platform, with its “bookshop”-lined “high streets” is designed specifically to attract just those consumers whose attachment to independent bookshops and to the local high street has made them resistant to the on-line piranhas Amazon and Book Depository.

The behemoths take over
“Our scale is what enables us to do this properly,” says Tom Weldon. This is true, which makes it important what they choose to do. Will this “new model” be effective and sustainable? Can PRH stand up to Amazon/Book Depository without slitting its own pockets? Pursuing an outdated volumes-based sales model, publishers eagerly (or reluctantly) bent over backwards (or possibly forwards) to give this rapacious double-headed monster the discounts and universal stock-range it needed to sell books so cheaply that high street bookshops (who have subsidised those discounts) have been dropping like flies (something that is usually noticed only after it has happened).

The post-free Book Depository model was never intended to be sustainable: it was only intended to be more sustainable than the bookshops it is designed to replace. A price-war would ensure further casualties on the high street, an over-concentration on titles most likely to attain immediate high returns (without these returns being invested in the diverse list that is necessary to healthy publishing) and the accelerated atrophy of the international limbs of representation, distribution and determination that support and flex the book trade, but these are exactly the effects that abandoning the bookshop model and forming a “direct  relationship with consumers” will have anyway if it is successful.

Will Penguin Random House’s so called ‘Independent Bookshop’ be successful? Will it be successful? Nothing beats a book in the hand. Nothing beats expert forces on the ground and among the people, selling books from hand-to-hand in bookshops. My own small experience with bookselling in the “new media” suggests that it is worth developing but that its best effect is in keeping customers coming in an actual door and in cementing the bookshop as a place where physical and virtual communities can overlap. Without an actual bookshop, without actual booksellers ready to listen and talk about books (and about all sorts of other things), without books actually on-hand, without the chains of supply and support extended by publishers to bookshop where their books are sold, we will all (publishers included) be reduced to standing on some virtual street corner in an infinite virtual city of such street corners crying our wares, or stumbling around guided only by our fellow stumblers. At the same rate that we are realising the limitations and narrow satisfactions of the brave new world of virtual shopping, we are finding that that world is becoming the only choice.

– Thomas Koed

Thomas Koed sells books and produces digital and print catalogues for Page & Blackmore (Nielsen Data New Zealand Independent Bookshop of the Year 2013)