Full disclosure. I liked Bilbary. I even went on BBC Radio 4 to say so. The site seemed to be an attempt to take the skills of the shop-floor bookseller or librarian onto the web, while at the same introducing a new way of acquiring that content, lending. I also thought its link-up with libraries was smart. There’s no particular reason why libraries should acquire e-books in the same way they acquire print titles, and Bilbary offered an alternative model. Was it then doomed to failure? Probably.
According to the liquidator’s account, which The Bookseller reports on today, while there was initial “interest from publishers, they later proved unwilling to enter into contracts allowing the trade books to be loaned, consequently the company secured content for sales only to enable it to get to the market sooner”. Liquidator Portland blamed “fundamental gaps in the company’s understanding of the market and the rise in level of competition that had developed” for Bilbary’s demise. “Despite the company’s efforts to cut costs by terminating staff contracts, vacating the rented premises and closing the Luxembourg office, funds of £1.5m was needed to continue with a re-structure of the business. An external investor had pledged to invest £750k, provided this was matched by existing or new shareholders, unfortunately the investor later took the decision not to invest.”
Bilbary’s likeable founder Tim Coates has his own take. The former Waterstones m.d. told my colleague Benedicte Page that the site was hampered by the terms discussions between Amazon and Hachette USA, meaning that investors could not be certain what business model would arise in the future. “The dispute between Amazon and publishers on e-book pricing [and the agency model] makes it impossible to invest. We are in a situation where investors are terrified of risking a new venture because no-one knows what the pricing structure will be. As long as the argument has been going on, any investor says, ‘What is the pricing model?’ and you can’t answer them. Bilbary was caught in the crossfire from the industry dispute and we weren’t alone.”
The liquidators were appointed on 29th April 2014—just as the dispute between Hachette and Amazon broke cover, but it is possible to understand why investors were jittery even before that. The shift to agency four years before meant a new way of doing business with publishers gaining new controls over how e-book content could be sold and at what prices. Surprisingly, a lot of booksellers were against agency: they recognised that it removed a key lever from their customer offer, and knew that publishers would take years to understand how to price to the consumer. The Department of Justice’s intervention in 2012 meant even this new way of doing business had to be re-written. During that time Amazon first lost, and then gained marketshare, with competitors such as Apple, Kobo, and Nook largely failing to make significant head-way in the major markets of the US and UK. At the same time, the massive growth in those two markets halted, at least for the major publishers, while a huge shadow market around self-published books rose – virtually out of nowhere.
Link to the rest at Futurebook