From The Bookseller:
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?
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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.
PG says if you’re going to be one of the leaders in a breakthrough technology, you have to attract, hire and retain really, really smart techies. During this process, you will be competing with lots and lots of other prospective employers, including the aggressive giants like Facebook and Google who give employees meditation rooms, free lunch, immediate coolness and a very impressive line on their résumé, and bleeding-edge startups where success means everybody who got in early will get crazy rich.
Exactly why would such tech talent be interested in working on artificial intelligence in the publishing or bookselling businesses?
PG says for smart techies, the only good publishing or bookselling jobs are with Amazon.
That will change some day, but Random House and Barnes & Noble won’t be the ones who build the next Amazon.
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