The American Booksellers Association held their seventh annual “Winter Institute” in New Orleans this year, and it took place last week. When I had a meeting at Frankfurt in October with the ABA’s Chief Executive Officer, Oren Teicher, to recruit him to speak at Digital Book World 2012 (which he will do this coming week), he urged me to attend so I could get a taste of the optimism and innovative spirit of the independent booksellers who gather to share best practices and learn more, largely from each other, about how to run successful stores.
(Actually, Skip Prichard of Ingram captured this “learning from each other” zeitgeist beautifully in his opening remarks when he stopped talking and told the attendees, seated at round tables in the ballroom in front of him, to tell each other the most important new thing they had done in the past year. The room buzzed with activity for a few minutes and then Skip resumed his talk, confident that everybody in his audience had learned something during his time on the stage. It was an artful moment.)
I attended about half of the 3-day show and it is easy to see why a number of publishers are so enthusiastic about it. The publishers and other hangers-on (press and observers like me) are hardly noticeable in a sea of booksellers. And, indeed, this year (at least), they were a very optimistic bunch. The anecdotal impression was of many stores who had great years. Some attributed this to the demise of Borders but others thought there had to be another explanation because the closest Borders to them was too far away to be responsible.
There is data and anecdata that suggest that we’ll look back on 2011 as a year when the hockey-stick-like ebook growth slowed. (“Plateaued” would be too strong a word.) We may learn that even the Christmas devices-as-gifts effect on ebook sales wasn’t as strong this year as in years past because many of the “new” devices are actually “replacements”, which won’t spark the same sort of pipeline-filling buying spree that is apparently set off when people get their first ereader. Combined with Borders closing and the closing of other indies, this could have brought national store inventory more in line with more-slowly-reducing print book purchases in stores by consumers.
Anyhow, the vibe at WI7 was great. And so was the program. What I enjoyed most was bestselling author and fledgling Nashville bookseller Ann Patchett, who claims she not only doesn’t read ebooks or write a blog; she claims never to have even read a blog! (I was wondering if she does email.) But she talked about her experiences encouraging booksellers to handsell her work and the joy she gets from handselling the books she loves. Her talk was inspirational and witty and charming. Even though the only “practical” suggestion (not a bad one) was that stores find a local author to be part of their ownership-management (they do attract press coverage, as Ann pointed out), it was a highlight for most of the people there.
But there were two other sessions, which opened my eyes in one case and turned my thinking around in another, that delivered the most compelling additional insights for me.
Matt Sutko of ABA moderated a session of booksellers talking about their experiences selling ebooks. He delivered data before the panel discussion (ABA has visibility into the activity on many member web sites and can present an aggregate picture) and one particular element really caught my attention. This is the one that opened my eyes.
What I found startling were two things in juxtaposition. Matt reported that the percentage of ebook sales to total sales on ABA member web sites rose from 0.7% to 5.2% in 2011. That’s a 750% increase, which is impressive even though the Google eBook capability kicked in during that year. But it is also actually understated, because the total volume of business on these sites rose by 82%. So the share increase of 750% is in an environment where total sales nearly doubled.
(I only wish that Matt had given us a breakdown of the same data by half-year, so we could see the growth within Google’s first year. I think ABA would benefit going forward by tracking and reporting those stats by quarter.)
There is good reason to believe that kind of dramatic share growth can continue into the future. Many stores just got started with their ebook program (Chris Morrow of Northshire, one of the most successful and innovative indies in the country, told me he only started selling ebooks in December! He’s not alone.) And store after store reported steady efforts educating their staff, educating their customers, making things clearer on their web site, and learning how to be good merchants online as they are in their shops. (They also pointed to improvements in the infrastructure being made by Google at their request.) All of these things take time. But they also improve the customer experience and increase sales.
Many people acknowledge that Barnes & Noble performed a bit of a miracle with the Nook, moving to a strong second-place position in ebook sales in a year. But B&N is a chain; their booksellers are paid staff and their learning is all aggregated and reflected on one centrally-controlled web site. The ABA membership, somewhat fewer stores and less shelf space to begin with and without a highly-visible device to anchor their efforts, moves more slowly and with less cohesion into the digital age. But they’re moving and they’re making progress. And they have loyal customers who want to shop with them if they can.
So I personally will postpone writing off Google ebooks or the possibility that indies can be important ebook vendors until we see at least one more year of data.
The thing I got turned around on was World Book Night.
World Book Night, which will take place on Monday, April 23, is an “event” in which it is envisaged that about 20,000 people in the US will each give away 50 books to total strangers, for a total of 1 million books passed from human to human in one book-awareness-raising night. It was first done in the UK and was deemed a success: the books chosen for giveaways spiked in sales and the participating stores and publishers all seemed to think it gave the business a shot in the arm.
I first heard about this from a presentation by Madeline McIntosh of Random House at the BISG annual meeting last September. Certainly no fault of Madeline’s, but I just didn’t “get it” the first time. Twenty thousand people to give away books? Where are they going to find them? How much distracting effort is this going to take? The “harumph” in my brain overwhelmed my imagination, I guess.
But as Carl Lennertz, who quit his job with HarperCollins to head up the World Book Night effort, explained what had taken place and what would, imagination picked up the idea. (Maybe the “harumph” piece was rendered inactive by the overall vibe of WI7.) He described an effort that has already gotten contributions of paper and printing for the giveaway books, aggregating and reshipping (by Ingram) to the contact points, as well as permissions from publishers and authors to include the books and waive royalties. B&N is in. Libraries are in. Everybody is in!
But it was actually Oren Teicher’s appeal to the stores to get involved that brought back lessons of my youth to see the real virtue in World Book Night.
My first post-college “real” job was putting together the McGovern campaign in upstate New York in 1971 and 1972. We saw various hurdles we needed to jump — winning over delegates to the annual state convention of reform Democrats, holding a delegate nominating caucus in each congressional district, getting petitions signed to put the delegate candidates on the ballot, and then components of the primary campaign itself — as a series of discrete “organizing opportunities”. When you have a “cause” and you need help with a specific and comprehensible task, it brings out volunteers who will ask you to tell them what to do.
And that’s what World Book Night presents local stores: an enormous “organizing opportunity”. They get to galvanize their customers around their mutual love of books, enlisting them to participate in spreading the joy of reading. That strengthens the bonds to particular people and to the community at large. They get to take these efforts to the local media and give them a local spin and generate more conversation around these books and books in general. And that is something, as Oren pointed out, that 500 independent bookstores can do better than 500 Barnes & Nobles!
The collective effort of many individuals can have a galvanizing national impact, as we saw two years ago with the Tea Party and over the past few months with the Occupy movements. I’m not promising to stand on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 51st Street and hand out books next April 23, but I’m sure way past believing it is a waste of time to find 20,000 people who will do the equivalent in their neighborhood.
[Subsequent to posting this, I got a note from Jamie Byng of Canongate in the UK, whose idea this whole effort was. It’s clear in that note that WBN is looking for 50,000 US volunteers to give books away, not 20,000 as I mistakenly reported here. I believe the target of 1 million total books as reported here is still correct.]
In addition to Oren Teicher speaking from the main stage at Digital Book World this week about indie booskeller data from last Christmas, the growth of the ebook program, and the business model experiments being conducted by various indies with different publishers, we’ll have a panel of indies discussing new business model approaches in a breakout session moderated by John Mutter of Shelf-Awareness. I hope to see lots of you at Digital Book World or at our kickoff Publishers Launch Conference on childrens books on Monday, also at the Sheraton. If you’re a reader of The Shatzkin Files and you see me, please say hello.