Publishers’ Social Site aNobii Relaunches To Put The ‘Book’ In ‘Facebook’

Book-readers’ social commerce site aNobii has got the relaunch for which three book publishers invested in it back in March.

Now, with its new beta site, it is ready to actually sell e-books – and to rely heavily on Facebook‘s new media platform.

aNobii was built in Hong Kong in 2006 as a place for book consumers to share their reading preferences. But it took investment from the publishers HarperCollins, Penguin and Random House along with entertainment retailer HMV (LSE: HMV), who want to use it to sell e-books directly to consumers in a bid to fend off Amazon’s growing dominance.

Now aNobii has relaunched with new discovery features including ratings, rankings and user-curated book topics that can be “followed” as though they were Twitter lists. CEO Matteo Berlucchi tells paidContent these trump Amazon’s hierarchy because they are more natural. It’s designed to heighten user engagement with books.

But the real big new idea is retail. From its website, aNobii users can download free Project Gutenberg and buy 100,000 pay-for titles from around 15 publishers, available for reading in aNobii’s own e-reader app on iPad and, soon, other devices.

It’s a retail driven business where the shop is the network,” Berlucchi says. “There’s no shopfront. You go from the discovery to the purchase.”

The app includes a Kindle-like social annotation feature in book margins, but annotations can be shared only with certain “circles” of friends as opposed to the whole network user base. aNobii’s book downloads also come in standard .epub format wrapped in Adobe (NSDQ: ADBE) DRM, for access on e-readers without apps.

Berlucchi also wants to externalise aNobii and make it disappear inside a much larger network. He showed me how he has developed a way to power Facebook’s Books section – part of its new media initiative – with book data powered by aNobii

“You hardly see the aNobii brand,” Berlucchi said. “I don’t care about getting traffic from Facebook to aNobii. I’m trying to own the Books section on Facebook. I’m trying to own as many Facebook book pages as possible, and add a ‘Buy’ button.”

As well as simply selling e-books, publishers bought in to aNobii to learn readers’ preferences.

“Data is becoming essential,” Berlucchi says. “The future competition publishers are getting comes from data people. It looks like Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) wants to build an entire business on data.

“At the moment, publishers only know how many copies are sold – they don’t know who their readers are. If you know which book is successful, it helps you figure out how much marketing money will go in to the next book. If you have the data in a more granular way, you can spot trends.”

For example, publishers may get early warning on any implosion in the teen vampire fiction genre.

But, since it took investment, aNobii has been hit by a major corporate change from one of its investors. HMV, which invested in aNobii for it to support its bookseller Waterstone’s digital activities – but HMV this year sold Waterstones. Now Waterstones has no plans to engage with aNobii – something which leaves aNobii unable to draw on the once-mighty UK bookseller’s heft.

Berlucchi wants aNobii to cosy to other partners. “We want to build an API that’s as open as possible,” he said to me. “Newspapers are looking for e-book partners to sell e-books, and they don’t really want to do it with Amazon.”