In search of Project Z

Two years ago The Bookseller was contacted by a source claiming that publishers were working on a major new initiative aimed at blowing Amazon out of the water. It was known as "Project Z". We followed it up, but the anonymous source became very coy, and then ultimately disappeared off the radar.

There's nothing unusual in this. Not all sources make it into the headlines.

I raise this now, not because we are any closer to realising what Project Z is/was about, but because word of it keeps cropping up. It is still discussed in our news meetings, and speculation about its impending manifestation remains alive. It sometimes feels like Waiting for Godot.

That Project Z once existed is no longer in doubt.

It was directly referenced in the suit filed by the Department of Justice against US publishers and Apple last month. In a memo to Pearson's main board dated 4th August 2009, Penguin Group chief executive John Makinson mentions 'Project Z' specifically. "It will not be possible for any individual publisher  to mount an effective response, because of both the resources necessary and the risk of retribution, so the industry needs to develop a common strategy. This is the context for the development of the Project Z initiatives [joint ventures] in London and New York."

The 'common strategy' would, of course, be agency. But the 'initiatives' suggest actual ventures. Back in 2009/2010 the speculation internally was that it was most likely to be a collectivized e-book portal, either based on social/sharing or (perhaps more interestingly) some kind of e-book website: a competitor to the Kindle that would allow publishers to interact with the consumer direct. Just as everyone has been telling them to do.

Within these terms, Project Z might even have been launched, or at least announced. Anobii, Bookish, and even Coursesmart, would all make sense as the 'joint ventures' referenced by Makinson's memo. They've all been launched by a collective of publishers investing, and promise to deliver new ways of finding books online, as well as offering them for sale direct.

In fact, back in 2009 if I was building Project Z, it might look like any one of these.

But the interesting thing about Project Z is that it hasn't really died as an idea, despite the Z-ish projects already born. It's become a sort of Shangri-La, the name given to a project that will somehow right all the wrongs of the modern publishing business.

If Project Z has been launched it's not worked (yet): if it's not yet been launched then get on with it. Whatever the truth, it's never been more necessary.

Detailing exactly what 'Project Z' should be is difficult. But we do know what it needs to achieve.

At last year's Italian e-book conference IfBookThen, Spanish technology consultant and economist Javier Celaya advocated for the creation of a European-wide digital platform to rival the big US companies-—Google, Amazon, and Apple--citing Airbus as an example where such a collaboration has worked before. He said: "The only way we can fight back is to think big and big internationally, we must think European, we must create a European platform to answer back to these global players - not just books, but add in music and video, too. It is difficult but not impossible, we have done it before, think Airbus."

Just this week, the former Borders UK chief executive Philip Downer's has called for something no less ambitious: a trade-wide initiative to help booksellers, from Waterstones to a local indie, compete in what Downer described as the "omni-channel marketplace". Speaking at the World E-Reading Congress this week, Downer said the shift in the marketplace and the rise of digital reading meant specialist booksellers were now "barely competing with each other", but instead were "competing with Amazon and Apple [and] for time as well as spending".

Thirteen years ago, the giant media business, and Random House's parent, Bertelsmann launched BOL.com, a website aimed directly at competing with Amazon during the height of Amazon's cash draining expansion. It was an incredibly bold move that failed principally because the media giant lost its nerve. That was all about physical book distribution and what we did not do then still haunts us to this day. For the reasons Downer explains in detail in his speech, we face a similar cross-roads right now, this time around digital reading.

We need to urgently mount another expedition to Shangri-La. Only this time, get there.

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