Bookshop, categories and sectors

The development of our app in Padova’s IBS bookstore is as stimulating a process as it is demanding. One of the principal issues which we are trying to solve is how to favour independent book browsing in the bookshop.

First of all, it is worthwhile to draw a comparison between bookshop and library. Different requirements and ends translate into to very distinct approaches. A library classifies its books in “rigid” categories, therefore giving them a “fixed” location. Compared to bookshops, libraries tipically have a larger amount and a wider variety of books, which have been accumulated over the course of decades and centuries. Most of all, libraries stock these books for a longer period of time and therefore that these be “returned” is hugely important to them. However, on the short term, libraries obtain a smaller number of books and can afford to spare more time for each item (naturally, we imagine that the available space and resources are comparable). Lastly, libraries do not feel any pressure to display a book in the most “appealing” position for their customers.

This does not mean that libraries do not pay attention to readers, only that, “appeal” does not come into the balancing out of the various interests. A book is never forced into a different categorie or shelf in order to increase its visibility to customers.

On the other hand, the aim of a bookshop is to get its customers to buy books. Therefore, placing an item in an area where it might sell more at a certain point in time is a primary interest. Comercial gain is what distinguishes bookshops from libraries and explains, to a certain extent, the disregard for specific genre classification in the physical layout of books in bookhsops.

Here are two examples. An Italian novelist, reknown for his literary novels, publishes for the first time a “detective story”: a bookshop may choose to place it in a section solely designated for this narrative genre and at a later date, once the novelty has worn off, relocate it along with the other books of the same author in “Italian narrative”. Similarly, when a detailed historical novel about Napoleon and his era is released, a bookshop may decide to place it in the “foreign literature” section, but if the book does not do well there, it may be relocated in a “history\biography” section. Naturally, the opposite can also occur, whereby a historical novel is initially placed in the “history\biography” section and is subsequently relocated to a “foreign literature” section. The main point is that books “move” between shelves.

Let us take this situation from the point of view of a reader who enters a chain bookstore. His behaviour has changed in the past few years and he has become more independent (clearly this is a generalisation, but we are trying to outline tendencies). We believe that these are the two principal reasons:

  1. We have grown accustomed to searching for books by ourselves electronically, with Google, Amazon and more generally speaking, with the internet. We now have the means which render us, or appear to render us, “independent”, in as much as looking for directions in the car, as in searching for an item which we want to buy.
  2. The job of a bookseller who works in a bookshop which contains more than thirty-thousand items is rather different from that of a bookseller who works in an independent or specialised bookshop. In the first case, management issues are a great deal larger, inevitably resulting in less interaction with customers.

By considering these two contexts and by applying the first law of e-commerce (“if users cannot find a product, they cannot buy it”), we have analysed the workflow in Padova’s IBS booksellers; from the arrival of new boxes, to the checking of items and their matching to the receipts, from the division of items into different categories to their positioning on the shelves.


These are the principle phases for categorisation\displaying:

  • Informazioni Editoriali (“Publishing Informations”) classifies the items before they begin circulation.
  • The IBS bookshop centrally assigns a “sector” to the items and this information is inserted into an management program used by the bookshops.
  • A bookshop receives boxes full of books, reads the suggestions from Informazioni Editoriali and the IBS bookshop follows them in different ways. It can go either way, meaning that either; a) books are inserted in the suggested categories\sections, or b) the bookseller decides, for commercial reasons, to insert the book in another category.

(Note: at the bottom of this post you will find a few IT details).

During our stay in the bookshops we are developing a prototype of an application which will allow to:

  1. Assign a barcode or a qrcode to each category of the bookshop.
  2. Scan the barcode reader over the category barcode and then over the isbn of each book which is to be placed in that category (natuarlly, when the book is being placed on the shelf).
  3. Create a list with this simple structure: category code > isbn, isbn, isbn … category code > isbn, isbn, isbn.

In this way, we have solved the problem of cataloguing and locating any book. Furthermore, if one should choose to move an item to another category, all they need to do is scan the reader over the barcode of the destinatory category and then over the isbn and the list will be automatically updated. Lastly, if one should cose to create a new category, all they need to do is assign it a new barcode.

Lorenzo and Adriano slogging away in the bookshop
Lorenzo and Adriano slogging away in the bookshop

The application therefore allows the bookshop to be independent in managing their items and positioning them, allowing the bookseller to have organised and useful information which can be put to use for various ends, amongst which the finding of books with TwoReads. As well as having practical and economic advantages in managing and dealing with customers, the information, which is gathered in huge quantities and over an extended period of time, could become very interesting data for an “anthropological study” in order to understand how books move from shelf to shelf over time, studying regional differences in their categorisation etc. The vast wealth of information, which can be gathered from books, would be clearly visible, just by delicately rearranging the position of books on the shelves.

We are evermore convinced that the change from the old school of publishing to the new is not defined by a rivalry between ebooks and real books, but by the need for a profound reorganisation of information and therefore for an adjustment in the way bookshops work. It is neither revolution, nor is it turning things upside down, but it will certainly require an adjustment, both in order to provide customers with a better service and to sell a few more books.


Technical details on the organisation of data and the backend of our app

Alice is the database for Italian books (both in circulation and not) produced by Informazioni Editoriali (IE). It contains a data sheet for over one million books, with a complete record of the principal information (title, author, publisher etc.) and it often offers other information such as a brief description and a genre classification. Furthermore, for 97% of items a CCE (Commercial-Publishing Classification “Classificazione Commerciale Editoriale”) is given.

IE has passed this database onto us in a large ONIX file (a format for describing publishing products based on XML). Details for its structure can be found here. Updates are added via FTP (a solution which must have been developed several years ago. These days it would be made differently).

Not every book record is perfect in the database. From pour point of view, that is, from the point of view of app developers who want to create data sheets for books, which can be used by the reader, the principle things which are missing, are a cover picture (present in only 47% of the profiles) and a description or blurb (present in only 58% of the profiles).

Apart from this “general” information our app also needs to know which books are in a particular bookshop. The ideal solution would be to connect directly with the program used by the bookshop itself, in which case the information would be updated in real time; at the moment it has not been possible to get a system like this working in the IBS bookshop. Therefore we are working at the moment with a file created by accumulating specific samples of data sent to us by the IBS bookshop. By comparing this and the books present on our app’s database we mark the books which are in stock.

We are missing two types of books which are present in the bookshop.

*Foreign books; IE’s database contains on the most part, details of books published in Italy; from the isbn – which contain a national code – we estimate that foreign books which have been catalogued are around 10 000. Naturally, almost books in the Padova bookshop are Italian, but there is a shelf with one hundred or so foreign items, many of which are not present in the data which we have.

*Books in the “outlet” category: it is a section of the bookshop which second-hand books or last-in-stock items, on display at half the price. These books are managed differently and are not listed in the files received from the IBS bookshop; therefore, although they are listed in our app (because we have their data sheets from Alice) we have no way of making sure the bookshop has them in stock.

Other than these two aspects, which are surely a detail, there is a very important piece of information which we do not have at the moment and of which we would like to get hold: in which area of the bookshop the book is displayed. Presently, we are able to provide information about a particular book to our readers and tell them whether it is in stock in the bookshop, but we have to stop here: we are not yet able to give directions to it. This is the most sought after feature of our app by our users, but in order for us to provide it, a book’s whereabouts needs to be registered in a precise location database. This, at the present time, in IBS bookshops and in most other bookshops, does not occur.

In IBS administration there is a sector which could indicate the location of a book, it is determined centrally and is the same for all bookshops. But there are two main problems in using this:

*The lables were made years ago and do not corrispond to those which are effectively used by bookshops. For example, the central administration suggests “foreign narrative”, but in Padova’s branch there are no distinctions between Italian narrative and foreign narrative.

*The bookseller may choose to display a book in a different category to that which is suggested by the central administration, not because it considers the suggested genre to be wrong, but because in the specific case of that bookshop at that point in time, it is more useful to display the book elswhere.

It is because of this very situation that we have come up with the system described in this post.

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