Blog Post

Turning bookshelves into playlists: Book app ‘Shelfie’ gets social

The vast majority of physical books I own are mostly only good for collecting dust once I’ve finished reading them. Despite that, I’m happy to devote space for them to sit on bookshelves in my office — except of course when I’m traveling and wish I could add a few of them to my tablet without re-purchasing at full-price.

The solution to this problem, according to Vancouver-based startup Shelfie, is to snap a photo of each shelf and allow its mobile app to automatically identify all the titles available as ebooks — some of which can be purchased within the app at a deeply discounted rate (81 percent on average). For this purpose, Shelfie makes for an excellent utility that some have likened to a Shazam for books. Although, it isn’t great when it comes to actually converting your print books into digital book in-app purchases, due in large part* to licensing complexities with publishers. It’s nudged Shelfie into becoming an app that only occasionally gets used, despite seeing regular user growth of about 15 percent per month, the company told me.

Print-to-ebook service Shelfie's new social features.
Print-to-ebook service Shelfie’s new social features.

With the latest update, however, that may soon change.

Shelfie aims to evolve into a service that wants to celebrate your personal library while adding to it. Now when you snap a bookshelf photo, it can be shared to a public feed on Shelfie. Other Shelfie users can follow your activity and vice versa. You can also rate books, or just share when you’ve added a new one to you library. Clicking on a book title gives you some info about it, and provides a list of other folks that also own or have read it. Overall, the new social features are pretty standard, but perhaps the most valuable aspect is that you’re bridging the divide between your print and digital bookshelves.

“Essentially, what we’re doing is transforming bookshelves into playlists, adding that element of socialization to books that helps uncover those hidden gems,” Shelfie cofounder and CEO Peter Hudson said in an interview with Gigaom. “A shelf of books says a lot about what you like to read. We wanted to make that more accessible to the world.”

My "Shelfie" devoted to Warren Ellis.
My “Shelfie” devoted to Warren Ellis.

Theoretically, Hudson makes a good point. I’d imagine most people organize their bookshelves with some degree of methodology. For instance, I have an entire shelf dedicated to author Warren Ellis, and it would make sense for folks with similar tastes to discover a little-known Ellis title upon viewing my “Shelfie” photo. Then again, I also have nearly an entire shelf devoted to stuff I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, which isn’t obvious upon casual glance and may prove useless to strangers.

Although Shelfie generates revenue from referral fees for business it sends to outside sellers like Apple’s iBookstore or Amazon, Hudson explained that the startup isn’t competing with well-known players like GoodReads (even allowing new users to sign up with their GoodReads account), which is focused on detailed book reviews and discussion. The reason, he added, is because reviews are a good way to drive book sales, or for those looking for thoughtful analysis of a particular title. Yet, they aren’t great at “socializing books.”

Shelfie also isn’t concerned about competition from unlimited ebook subscription services such as Scribd or Kindle Unlimited, nor does Hudson believe business strategy of those unlimited services to be favorable to the readers themselves.

“It’s the gym membership model. It’s great, as long as no one comes. Gyms make money because people sign up for a membership January 1, go three times, then never go back but forget to cancel their subscription,” Hudson explained. “Everything works really well so long as people only read two books a month. The problem is, the people who converted (to unlimited subscriptions) read way more than that because it makes economic sense to them.”

One way subscription services compensate for the increased licensing costs is to surface lesser-known, or self-published books that have lower licensing fees, Hudson said. “When you think about the economic model for something like Scribd, they actually don’t want to push the good stuff to you, because those are books from the big publishers that cost the most.” Such a practice would obviously makes it harder to find something you want to read.

“The other challenge for unlimited subscriptions is that there’s no effective way to browse online (that compares with a physical store). Everyone’s done it. You defocus your eyes a bit while wandering down the aisles of a bookstore until something jumps out at you to stop and dig in. That experience doesn’t exist online. You can put about four book covers up on a tablet screen. Any more than that and it becomes too small to read the text, the detail of the artwork.”

The takeaway, from Shelfie’s perspective anyway, is that people will be buying physical books for a long time despite the availability of digital versions. That, and people want options for how to read the book they own, which the startup is happy to oblige.

The new social tools are a huge portion of Shelfie’s strategy for success, but ebook sales are still at the forefront. However, now people have a reason to stay active on Shelfie while it signs more publishers (it already has agreements with 750, including two of the “big 5,” MacMillan and HarperCollins). Additionally, my old books are finally doing more than accumulating dust.

* Lack of selection due to licensing is the biggest culprit, but the process of converting print to digital is also kind of a pain. To get a discounted ebook version, you have to prove you own the print book by snapping photos of a book’s barcode, cover art, and copyright page with your handwritten name in all caps. Although, considering you’re getting the ebook version so cheap (or free), it does seem worth it to jump through hoops.