My Independent Bookshop is the new bookselling social network that was launched on 8 May by Penguin Random House. I was grateful to have had an opportunity to play with the project in its beta stage, and to set up a ‘shop’ in advance of the launch. I’m an author, and as such I am also interested in using technology to take books and literature to new places, or to the places where people are, so I was naturally interested in what My Independent Bookshop might have to offer.
You can go to my shop — I’ve called it Pick ’n’ Mix — directly, or find me on ‘Author Street’, with other verified author accounts (denoted by a similar ‘tick’ to that used for verified accounts on Twitter).
Setting up a profile, i.e. a shop, is straightforward. It is analogous to setting up a Facebook page, say, or a Tumblr, although with fewer options. You load your own profile picture, for example, but backgrounds must be chosen from a limited gallery of soft-focus images. Another of these first steps requests (or rather insists) that you select between one and three genres. Unable to get out of this, I opted for Art, Modern Classics and Literary Fiction, but I’m not sure how helpful those will be in relation to the (maximum) twelve books that I’ve chosen, or rather, that I am selling. This is, after all, ‘my very own bookshop’ as the auto-composed Tweet generated by ‘Promote your shop’, rather gratingly puts it.
Selling books. Each ‘shop’ has a ‘Stockroom’ where you go to choose or to arrange your books — the real back end of My Independent Bookshop is provided by Gardeners/Hive. Much of the public-facing language here is gentler, and to do with ‘recommendations’ rather than sales talk — press coverage included the quote ‘a desert island discs for books’.
My set-up was not without minor glitches, but I saw this as part of the fun of the early invite. This is the point of a beta stage, after all: to test the product. I’m used to it. I got stuck at page one, which turned out to have been caused by my using an unsupported character (an ellipsis) in the first draft of my blurb. The pleasingly simple, unencumbered design of the set-up screens is obviously partly a product of not wanting to bog users down in lots of detail, but here such detail would have been useful, and familiar from most new online forms these days. I also floundered a bit looking for a ‘help’ button or email address. Then when I ‘opened’ my shop a phantom title appeared on my shelf. A sci-fi novel called 9 Shall Rise, written by Chip Strohs and Tony Ferreira of time-travelling metal band(!) Phoenix on the Fault Line: not the carefully selected Oulipian classic by Georges Perec that I had hoped to see! I wasn’t able to delete 9 Shall Rise, so had to hide it in my stockroom (sorry guys) and then search for the Perec all over again.
Interaction design-wise, from the initial cue (just a book jacket in a virtual shop window), the user has to then cross three further thresholds (by clicking into the shop, clicking through the book cover, and clicking a ‘Tell me more’ button) before there is a clear option to initiate a purchase — or to find out that something is out of stock. If a title is designated out of stock, there is not yet an option for a potential customer to order it. As a shopkeeper, the fact that something is in your ‘stockroom’, does not mean that it is really in stock. I don’t see why some of the more familiar sales info that is available on Hive should not be switched on, or pulled across to My Independent Bookshop. Better to know that something might be available in 10-14 days, let’s say, than simply being faced with an unresponsive greyed-out switch. Since these are all titles that Gardeners list, then why not say ‘awaiting stock’ — as it does on their main Hive website — instead?
Notwithstanding this, in selecting my twelve books for sale, I have chosen some old favourites, and some harder to get recent editions. One is a substitute: Red Lemonade’s new Lynne Tillman collection, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? is not yet available in the UK, so I had to choose her brilliant recent novel American Genius, A Comedy instead. I also selected one UK novel that is not out yet, but will be soon — Vulgar Things, by Lee Rourke — since I am looking forward to reading it and assume that others might be also. Maybe I could get a sale or two! Well, that may not be as simple as it sounds. Over and above the downer that is the un-nuanced ‘out of stock’ message, I was surprised to find that a user arriving at the site cannot search for a book by title or author name, rather they need to know who has chosen it. Perhaps as the site grows, and more books are added, additional search functions will be revealed.
Or maybe they won’t. It was interesting to contrast headlines such as the Guardian’s (rather excitably) comparing My Independent Bookshop with Amazon, with Penguin Random House’s careful assurances in the same article that MIB is
not intended to rival Amazon. “Amazon is a partner of ours and it is in our interest to support what they do.” The publisher has decided against using “intrusive” algorithms – favoured by Amazon – to suggest books readers might like. Instead recommendations will come from the site’s users with the aim of creating a “serendipitous way of discovering books”.
Some of the verified author accounts leading the launch iteration of My Independent Bookshop are household names, including Terry Pratchett and Irvine Welsh. Others — like me — are less well-known. So will authors use the site to try and sell — or at least promote — their own books? Well, perhaps Pratchett and Welsh don’t need to. Elsewhere, writer and digital publisher at Profile Books Michael Bhaskar, for example, asked on Twitter if it was ‘bad etiquette to include one’s own.’
He obviously decided that it wasn’t, or that that was the wrong question. I did too, and that was only partly because I knew that most people visiting the site on launch day, and scrolling along ‘Author Street’, would not have read any of my books. That little ‘verified author’ tick might be important to the casual visitor, for whom such gentle signs of curatorial approval might provide a useful confidence boost. In the end I decided to put up two of my own titles. I chose one of these (my Faber and Faber novel Foxy-T) because it is my best known book (those two little Fs are also a sign of curatorial approval, from another trusted gatekeeper after all). I also included my nuclear novella Dicky Star and the Garden Rule, because it is harder to find, and because I know that a small number of publisher Forma’s beautiful zine-style first edition are still available.
In the spirit of beta-testing, I felt that it would be useful to see what feedback might come from listing one’s own books. Whether directly through comments, or even sales, or indirectly via the stats which My Independent Bookshop generates for each user. Bad etiquette? I don’t think so. As well as a forum for continuing the kinds of conversations that we are all variously using social media for already, My Independent Bookshop could also be another venue for extending the low-level sales potential that many authors are already trying out elsewhere.
I’ve enjoyed playing around with My Independent Bookshop — getting a feel for it, so I am looking forward to seeing how it develops. It will be interesting to see if it sticks, and people really start using it.
FWIW, and based on my brief experiences, here are a few thoughts/tweaks:
- Automating feedback if a form field is filled in incorrectly during set-up, so it is easier to correct. (And more prominent ‘help’ button during set-up.)
- Allowing users to also upload their own background photo, just as we can and do all the time on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and on our phones.
- Pushing the one liner recommendation blurb further forward in the experience. Perhaps on/around the bookshelf or as a halo above the book, (i.e. so they are visible sooner, like the kind of ‘shelf talker’ used for a ‘staff picks’ promotion in a physical bookshop).
- If possible, reducing the number of steps, or thresholds to be crossed, between seeing a book cover and being able to buy.
- Using/showing more of Hive’s sales/availability data on each title, enabling orders whether or not an item is showing as ‘out of stock’ — just as happens on Hive itself.
- Adding title/author search to the existing ‘Find a shop owner’ search.