The question of how to plug the independent bookseller into the digital revolution is a knotty one. Nobody has really “solved” it.
Two of the smartest guys in the UK, Francis Bennett and Michael Holdsworth, tried to tackle this question in a report for the Booksellers Association in a report published in 2007. While they touched on a whole host of issues, including that publishers are likely to sell digital downloads direct, they really didn’t manage to come up with an action plan for the individual bookseller. Rather, they focused on the need for booksellers and publishers to join collaboratively to solve the problem: start with a public conference, create standards, form a joint trade working party. This is, at best, a path to an answer.
From this I conclude there is no ebook-centric answer. If there were one, these guys would have found it.
Then, three weeks ago, PW did a story headlined “Indie Booksellers Debate the E-book Conundrum”. This article introduced a product/technology called Symtio, which stores (among them Tattered Cover) use to back into ebook revenues. Symtio is a plastic card, sold at a retailer, which entitles the bearer (gift recipient) to download an ebook, an audiobook, or both from Symtio’s web site. If this strikes you as something less than the perfect ebook solution for retailers, you’re seeing it the way I do.
The ABA plans to work ebooks into Indiebound. Len Vlahos calls it a “focus for the immediate future” in a white paper presented to the ABA Board. Ingram Digital offers access to 150,000 ebook titles to independent stores. And stores such as Vroman’s are quoted as enthused about the potential for them with ebooks.
Dick Harte, however, who runs BookSite, which provides Web hosting for booksellers and librarians, doesn’t agree. Not only were ebook sales low on the BookSite platform, often they were erroneous purchases (people thought they were buying a printed book!) which then required a customer service intervention. One particularly far-sighted bookseller quoted in the article is David Didriksen who sees ebooks as very low-margin transactions not worth the effort.
I agree. What distinguishes what independent booksellers offer: local taste and judgment, personalized service, intimate customer knowledge — these things just don’t provide much competitive advantage in the ebook space. And the competition isn’t just Amazon and B&N either.
So independent booksellers need to look elsewhere to participate in the digital revolution. I tried to sketch out a strategy in a previous piece:
1. Set yourself up (probably with Ingram) in the simplest way you can to be able to sell as many titles in as many formats as you can. That is, get the maximum choice you can for your customers with the minimum hassle and investment for you.
2. Don’t expect to make money selling ebooks: consider it an accommodation to your customers to keep them buying physical books from you. Restrain yourself from investing large amounts of labor improving your ebook presentation past the point of acceptable. If the margin from your sales starts to amount to something, you can do it then.
3. Spend all of energy that you might have wasted perfecting the sale of ebooks on social networking, trying to be in direct contact with your customers through Facebook, Twitter, and through postings on popular and well-read blogs in subject matters your store specializes in. Particularly focus on the opportunities to promote to specific groups, such as through hashtags (#s) on Twitter, which identify groups of people interested in a particular thing.
I neglected to add a fourth, very important element of an indie bookseller’s digital strategy, although it is hinted at in the marketing suggestion above. This one is the same as it is for general trade publishers: get vertical!
The bad news about digital change is that it brings the biggest companies in the world — Amazon, B&N, Apple, and every phone company — into the indie bookseller’s back yard. But the good news is that it also brings every customer in the world into that back yard. So a bookseller with a vertical specialty can build a global market. This was the pre-Internet strategy of CEO-Read (originally 800-CEO-Read; if Bezos had invented Amazon ten years earlier he would have chosen a 7-letter name…) They’re business book specialists and their customer base is truly international.
Independent booksellers need to build a reputation within vertical niches. That’s a matter of having the stock, having the knowledge of the vertical subject, and then getting involved in the vertical communities — blogging, commenting, tweeting, reaching out. The bookseller’s web site, if it has good content properly tagged, can rapidly be discovered for relevant searches. Tattered Cover may not be able to beat Amazon at everything, but they should beat them on searches for Pike’s Peak. A northeastern store that specialized properly could come up ahead of Amazon in a search for “autumn leaves colors” or “historical sites Boston”. (By the way, I just checked, an no bookstores come up in the first ten pages of “historical sites Boston”!)
In just the same way that general trade publishers need to use the time they have left when “general trade” still works to build vertical presences that will last beyond that time, so do general trade bookstores. It will work for Barnes & Noble to be “general” for far longer than it will work for any local store. The trick is to be World Class at something, most likely something that has a local root will make the most sense.