Len Vlahos of the ABA is the latest to take on the noble but very difficult task of encouraging independent booksellers in the digital age. Independent booksellers face a challenge similar to that of publishers adjusting to the change we’re facing: the skill sets and predelictions that are useful for what they’ve been doing don’t necessarily map to what needs to be done in a digital world. But none of us wants to hear that.
Vlahos’s piece reviews the history of books and music and devices. Most of it is good history. He comes to the conclusion that ebooks could well be about to take off and be a meaningful part of the business. That takes him to the hard part: figuring out what a bookseller can do to benefit from it. I’ll let you read what he’s thinking.
I’d say the right digital strategy for a bookseller is pretty simple:
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 sales start 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.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about. What I wanted to write about is “the book business ain’t the music book.” And the subtitle is “anything you think you learned about media consumption through the iPod doesn’t necessarily apply to the Kindle.”
As Vlahos acknowledges, the “unit of appreciation” in music is “the song.” But the record companies were selling “the album.” This is not often the case in our business, and the books to which it applies (soft reference) have declined in commercial appeal as a result. Most book-length narrative reading: not so much. (My first use of a brand new cliche! How long have we had “not so much”?)
But that’s not nearly the most important difference.
There is almost no benefit to carrying every book you’ve ever read around with you in your pocket. There is, obviously, enormous benefit to having all the music you own in a single device. On top of that, the iPod came out after the music business had stocked you with what are known as “gold masters”, infinitely copyable digital copies, of all your music. If CDs hadn’t come before the iPod, the barrier to adoption would have been much higher. You ever try to “rip” a cassette? or a record?
So from the day the iPod came out, anybody could — with the investment of a little bit of time — listen to all the music one owned on it. That was much more important to the spread of the device than their ability to buy more music at the iTunes store, even though their sales have always been impressive. I had three thousand songs on my iPod before I bought anything I didn’t already own.
So here are the two ways the book business is different than the music business.
1. We can’t just put all our already-owned content on a book-reading device.
2. We wouldn’t want to if we could.
Anytime you hear the iPod invoked in a Kindle conversation, the first thing to check is whether any comparison is relevant. Usually it isn’t.