Shelfie is a free app that provides free and heavily discounted e-book versions of your physical books; an attractive prospect for serious readers. Yet it has fewer than 50,000 downloads and an average Google Play review rating of 3.5 stars. Why isn’t this app – which sounds so appealing, ahem, on paper – more popular? We spoke to Shelfie CEO Peter Hudson to find out.
Here’s the situation. You take a photo – or a Shelfie – of your bookshelf and the app will recognize the book spines to create a digital library. However, not all of your books are likely to be recognized. Of those that are, a portion will be available to download as an e-book. A portion of those will be available for free.
If you install this app expecting to simply take a quick snap of your bookshelf and instantaneously receive a free copy of every title, you’re likely going to be disappointed. This expectation, reasonable or not, is a hurdle for Shelfie.
“For today, if you take a picture of your bookshelf, about 22 percent of the books on that shelf will be from publishers that we have deals with,” Hudson told me during our telephone interview. “You can either say 22 percent is awesome, because it’s something, or 22 percent sucks because it’s not 100 percent.” A number of Google Play reviews reflect the latter.
“Of those 22 books,” Hudson continued, “33 percent, probably around seven books, are going to be outright free […] the rest are going to be insanely discounted.”
That’s the reality of Shelfie right now. In the past five years, Hudson claims he has made 10,000 cold calls to get to this point. The point where three out of the big five book publishers have deals with Shelfie. The point where Shelfie can provide a digital version of 22 percent of the books in a person’s collection for free or at a discount.
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Hudson believes that if you bought a physical book at full price, you shouldn’t have to pay full price for a digital copy. That’s the vision, but Hudson is challenged with convincing the publishers that this is a good idea as well.
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“We won’t even list a book unless it’s a 75 percent off discount,” he said. “The average discount is 85 percent”.
In other words, of the e-books they currently have available, Shelfie can provide users with at least 75 percent off the e-book price, providing they can prove that the book is theirs. So, what’s to stop someone going to a library and scanning all the books?
To prove a book is yours, you must scan the barcode, take a picture of the front cover, and write your name inside the book on the copyright page. This is the method which would ultimately convince publishers that a physical book legally belongs to a person.
“It was just so obvious that that was the solution that worked because it meant that the book couldn’t be returned, it meant that the book was identified as yours, it was just such a simple solution [for] validating ownership.”
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“One of the things that online has never done well is book recommendation,” said Hudson. “If you’re a bookworm, the problem of ‘what book do I read next?’ is a real, persistent problem.”
Hudson discussed Amazon’s ‘customers who bought this also bought’ algorithm for book recommendation, a service which he feels has stagnated. “Literally, that’s as good as online book recommendation has been for twenty years. It literally has not gotten any better.”