With designs on bringing a 'Deliveroo' mindset to publishing, Ampersand Book Co. aims to disrupt the market and capitalise on how people want to read today. Julie Vuong meets founder Alice Revel to discuss how she’s bringing books firmly in to the digital age
On the face of it, what Alice Revel at Ampersand Book Co. is doing isn’t quite what you’d call ground-breaking: her main business is selling books in monthly subscription boxes, delivering everything from chart-topping thrillers to Man Booker prize-winners, and teaming them with recipe ideas, craft beers or deluxe stationery. It’s what Revel defines as a "ready-made reading moment" that’s part of a grander plan to subvert the traditional book buying and reading experience.
"Yes, it’s not ground-breaking; it’s a very simple idea," the journalist and entrepreneur says. "However, I would say Uber isn’t ground-breaking either, and the same goes for Airbnb." Revel has been inspired by today’s tech innovators and taken their core principles: selling a common product and revising how it’s delivered and experienced. "You tweak the model and it’s completely different."
"We understand how people want to read today"
There are three boxes Ampersand Book Co. delivers to doors up and down the country: Reading in Heels for fans of modern women’s literary fiction, Books Plus Beer for tailored choices for men, and My Book Moment for readers of commercial crime and popular fiction.
"We understand how people want to read today," Revel states. "Our long-term aim is to make books more accessible and relevant. Ampersand, the parent brand, came about after we worked on a couple of curated Reading in Heels boxes for corporates. And because RiH is more feminine, we introduced Books Plus Beer and My Book Moment to cover it all."
At the heart of the brand is the power of recommendations, through the boxes and also future schemes underpinned by fresh thinking in social media. "Where do you go for book suggestions now?" Revel questions. "Perhaps the Guardian, Times or Refinery29. Our aim is to think like Spotify or Netflix: as long as our customers follow enough of a pattern, we will be able to suggest their next read accordingly. At the moment there’s nothing out there like it for books (don’t get me started on Amazon!). We’ve got lots of ideas in development, such as allowing people to take pictures of their bookshelves which we would AI (artificially intelligence) and recommend from there. We also plan to gather book reviews from all areas of the internet such as Pinterest to Twitter and pull them into one place."
The box boom
Revel’s offer forms part of a surge in paid-for subscription boxes, from beauty and food to shaving and toilet paper. It’s an industry that’s flourishing, according to the Royal Mail, which has forecast huge growth: 72% increase by 2022 at a value of £1 billion, compared with £583 million estimated spend in 2017. It’s a box boom, and Revel hopes her venture will be a significant player, thanks to Ampersand’s goal to read and anticipate today’s digitally minded consumer.
"Nowadays, are people really going to drop £20 on a single book?" she asks. "These aspects of publishing are not really questioned; it’s just business as usual. For many people it’s too much of a challenge to sit down and read, or to even buy a book. Walking in to Waterstones, it’s hard to see what’s new, what’s old or if it’s stock they just want to shift. It’s like when you don’t have the brain power to browse through Netflix, we are there to cut through it all."
It’s no surprise to Revel to see her subscriber count rise: 27.4% of UK consumers are currently signed up to a subscription box service, either for themselves or on behalf of somebody else, according to Royal Mail’s findings. The introduction of a book box specifically for men could also prove incredibly savvy. Numbers show there is a slight male skew, with 30.6% of men choosing subs over shops, compared with 24.3% of women.
"Nowadays, people want bespoke, exciting and interactive experiences"
To show it means business when it comes to the male market, Books Plus Beer has hired Howard Calvert, formerly of Shortlist Media - and a company aptly called Books and Beer - to work on book curation and content. Another recent hire is Tom Hind, formerly of Heywood Hill, Folio Society and Foyles, to serve as full-time head of operations. Calvert will also work on events; an area in publishing Revel is keen to shake up.
"Personally, I find the usual sit-down with a glass of wine Q&A, well, a bit boring," she says. "We believe it should be more immersive, even if it’s just themed cocktails. Nowadays, people want bespoke, exciting and interactive experiences. Our attention spans are tiny these days compared with 10 years, or even five years ago. If they’re not hooked by the first page, you’ve lost them. That’s why something as simple as creating a context around reading can make such a difference."
Revel has designs to develop an online platform where literary events can be easily found. "There’s no one place to discover what’s happening - you have to be really geeky to be in the know."
Thinking outside the box
According to Revel, who is worth watching in publishing? "I like the approach of Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher at Dialogue Books," she replies, "she’s doing things differently and thoughtfully." As for much of the publishing community, Revel says subscription book boxes are still a hard sell.
"I don’t think they’ve really got it yet," she reveals. "For example, for us pricing is really key, and many publishers don’t appreciate that if we edge towards £15 it gets too expensive for a regular monthly outgoing for a book; £10 is doable."
However, there are many enthusiastic publishers, and Revel cites recent successes as proof of change, such as the collaboration with Unbound and a curated box featuring products mentioned in Pretty Iconic by journalist Sali Hughes (HarperCollins). As the company grows and continues its development in digital reading solutions, expect more unique box creations with the release of bespoke boxes picked by influential figures, including leading bloggers.