June 13, 2012

A British rival to Amazon? Sainsbury’s buys stake in Anobii


Could there be promising news from the UK, less than a month after James Daunt did the ‘ruthless, money-making devilAmazon a favour by agreeing to sell Kindles in Waterstones stores?

It was widely reported yesterday that Sainsbury’s, the country’s third largest supermarket chain, had bought a 64% stake in Anobii from HMV, the struggling music chain and former owner of Waterstones. You could be forgiven for not knowing what Anobii actually is: it’s a social networking site for readers, similar to GoodReads, that currently has 600,000 users worldwide and a library of 60,000 eBooks. It has readers in over twenty countries, but is most popular in Italy.

It was only just over a year ago, in March 2011, that HMV bought its stake. Its co-buyers, still minority shareholders today, were HarperCollins, Penguin, and Random House. At that time Anobii released a statement saying that the support of these investors would enable it to branch out from social networking into bookselling, with a particular focus on eBooks. Given that HMV owned Waterstones at the time, it’s likely that their plan was to make Anobii a Waterstones-affiliated eBookstore.

But two months later, HMV sold Waterstones, and those bookselling ambitions were derailed. With the departure of HMV and the involvement of Sainsbury’s, though, Anobii’s fortunes could be getting back on track. In contrast with the woe-stricken HMV, the supermarket chain announced better-than-expected profits earlier this year, and has also announced its determination to become a “key player in the digital entertainment market.”

Anobii CEO Matteo Berlucchi was unsurprisingly bullish about his company’s prospects yesterday, and encouragingly he used the press attention to position Anobii as challengers to Amazon. Speaking to The Bookseller, he said:

Anobii was created to support the ecosystem in the UK. Amazon is very unhealthy for competition because it is so dominant in the market and the purpose of Anobii has always been to fill the gap, like Barnes & Noble do in the US with the Nook.

And note this:

He added that the companies did not have their own hardware “yet”, but said: “It is obviously something we are going to look at.”

Could Sainsbury’s step in where Waterstones failed, and help to provide a mainstream alternative to Kindle for British eBook readers? Of course, the fate of the book industry isn’t Sainsbury’s primary concern — though anyone monitoring the events of the past month might wonder whether it’s Waterstones’ either. With Kindles being sold as loss-leaders, and no vested interest for them in the health of publishing, there’s absolutely no certainty that it would be worth Sainsbury’s’ while to invest in a device to rival the Kindle. Still, we can hope.

And meanwhile, a powerful force in UK retail has thrown its weight behind an eBookstore that aims to challenge Amazon. Cause for celebration indeed.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.