Publishers’ Social Book Discovery Site aNobii Nearing Relaunch

A new electronic book discovery and retail service jointly owned by publishers and a retailer expects to beat similar Bookish to market by launching toward the end of June – but its course could soon be altered by the planned sale of Waterstones.

aNobii had already operated as a social book recommendation website from Hong Kong since 2006. After being bought through investment last year from HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House and HMV, an overhaul has been underway which will leverage HMV’s high street bookseller Waterstones and its digital entertainment service 7digital to also sell those books.

Sounding like GoodReads, aNobii, which already claims 13 million monthly page views, will be a “socially-driven retail platform” that aims to give the publishers more consumer data than they currently get from digital sellers, though aNobii remains independent from them, CEO Matteo Berlucchi – formerly CEO of Livestation – told me.

“The one thing Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) and Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) don’t do is help you decide what to read next,” Berlucchi said. “You can’t find a better book with an algorithm – 99 percent of the time, books are recommended by somebody you know. Recommendations on Amazon are worthless as they are made by people you don’t know. Trustworthiness of the recommender is a pretty crucial thing.”

As well as recommendations, aNobii wants its members to help create a more refined index of available books, split in to what Berlucchi expects will be an index of over 40,000 topics. Like Quora, members could follow individual topics; members and well-known authors alike could build and share reading lists. Particularly knowledgeable guides will be “mayors” of their topic areas.

Going up against dominant Amazon and Apple is certainly brave. “If this works, you end up having the natural destination you go to every time you’re looking for a book,” Berlucchi said. “Then you’re going to intercept readers before they go to Amazon – at that point, it’s for you to lose them. If you can offer them parity in the transaction and the reading, then you have a chance to monetise the system.”

To do that, aNobii will need both retail capability and an ability to get on to e-readers like those sold by the market’s big guns. For the former, 7digital, which is more commonly known as a digital music retailer and is half-owned by HMV (LSE: HMV), will work with HMV’s Waterstones bookseller, which already does online ebook retail, to offer aNobii members ebook purchase and access via 7digital’s new cloud storage system. “Then you need some apps and potentially some physical readers, in partnership with other people, and maybe an API,” Berlucchi said.

Just as Amazon took Kindle to iPad, aNobii is building apps for several systems which would give access and, perhaps, purchase through its store. Apple’s new in-app purchasing terms, in which it claims 30 percent of in-app transactions, would appear to pose a problem to both Amazon and aNobii on this front – but Berlucchi hopes Apple will relent at least partly.

Berlucchi says aNobii will lead heavily on “open standards”, allowing buyers to export and backup their books to other devices.

Much of this may depend on new e-reader hardware the iPad- and Kindle-dominated market with an approach that is similarly open. But Berlucchi is confident: “Suddenly, in an e-book world, Amazon is not as scary anymore.”

How does aNobii differ from Bookish, the yet-to-launch JV between Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group (USA) and Simon & Schuster? (NYSE: CBS) “Bookish doesn’t have retail genes,” Berlucchi said. The extent of its sales offer is so far unclear.

aNobii is the largest book site in Berlucchi’s native Italy but, based in London, where it has 15 staff, will likely launch first with UK retail capability. “We want to build a global discovery platform for books. The UK actually holds most of the international e-book rights – if you have UK e-book rights, you get quite a lot of other rights. In the U.S., it’s generally only U.S. – so, for once, it might be better to be based here than in the U.S..”

One thing that could disrupt aNobii is the imminent sale of Waterstones by its troubled owner HMV – a move which would divorce one of aNobii’s shareholders from its book company. “What happens to HMV could have repercussions but I am not concerned at all,” Berlucchi said.

The site will even retain its original, five-year-old name (Latin for a type of bookworm), though it may be difficult, ironically, to recommend to a friend without spelling it out. “You can tell it any way you like,” Berlucchi said, “- we bought all the domains for the different spellings.”