Letting the E-Reader Go

Josie Leavitt -- May 16th, 2013

We tried. We really tried. Last year during the fourth quarter we attempted to sell e-readers and try to capture some of the folks who have switched to reading electronically. It was not a success.

We got the Kobo display from Ingram, through the ABA, and set it up. We did staff trainings on how it worked, but without a wireless connection at the store, we were hindered from the get-go about how to actually get the books on the reader. Honestly, as snazzy as the Kobo readers were, we just didn’t fall in love. I found myself feeling ambivalent about chatting them up to customers. I know other stores did well with them and I’m glad for them. I realized that getting people to buy an e-reader from me meant that in some way I might lose a customer.

My experience with people who get e-readers is after a very short while, they don’t come back to the bookstore. These same people are very used to getting their e-books from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and breaking that purchasing track is all but impossible to do. As much as I loathe Amazon and what it’s done to the book industry, their website has become the gold standard by which all other book sites are judged. And, none of our sites really measure up.

It was a sobering moment in February when we returned all of our unsold Kobo readers. I wasn’t sad about it. It just confirmed again that what we do well, very well, is sell physical books to people. We interact with customers. They don’t get a list of “If you like this…” on a screen, they get excited booksellers asking pointed and fun questions about what they’d like to read. I would miss this if all my customers bought books online from us exclusively. I’ve come to see that the reading market has really changed.

Customers who have Kindles we almost never see anymore for their own book purchases. Thank goodness these folks have kids and still believe in books for their children. So, while we cede most of the adult book purchases of these customers to the online world, we get almost all of their purchases for their kids. And that is enough. So, our continued focus will be on reading and stocking the best books we can.

As we head into the summer I have had an internal debate with myself about whether or not we should sell eReaders, and once again have decided to let the folks with e-readers go. After being in business for almost 17 years I can see no point in chasing down the readers who are using Kindles and Nooks. Instead of spending ad dollars and using website space and counter space at the store trying to get the e-readers to buy e-books from us, or to buy an e-reader from us, we will instead focus on what we do best: selling physical books. I feel like every indie bookstore should do this more. Yes, you can still buy e-books from our website, and some folks do, but people come to a bricks and mortar store for the experience. Every day I hear from customers how much they love our store. They love the colors of the walls, the richness and playfulness of the carpets in the picture book section, the chairs, the upholstered cubes scattered throughout the store, they love the smell of the books and then they notice the actual books. These and a hundred reasons are why people will continue to shop at indies.

We provide an experience that cannot be matched online. The minute stores forget that is when we’re doomed. We cannot go head to head with Amazon or B&N (although some would dispute this) in the online world, but we can make every customer want to come back and tell their friends about this great little bookstore in Vermont. Nothing is more fun than going to any store where the people are passionate about what they sell.

I do not begrudge people their e-readers. I think there are enough different types of readers to keep us all going. I believe indies just need to be smarter about how they spend their energy. In rural Vermont, we’ve decided to focus on live customers in the actual store and give them the best experience possible. When that last-minute birthday party invitation comes in, these folks are not logging on at Amazon Saturday morning, they are at the bookstore getting our advice and buying great books for the party.

We remember if someone else already bought that book for the same party and steer you towards a different book. Oh, and we wrap, with ribbon, for free.

11 thoughts on “Letting the E-Reader Go

  1. B Nichols

    I find it incredible that you would try to sell ereaders / ebooks without a wireless connection at the store. No wonder the test failed!

  2. Tim tocher

    I’m not a bookseller, Josie, but an author and avid reader. From my perspective, you are on the right track. Focus on providing the unique bookstore experience: comfortable browsing, recommendations from knowledgable staff, author visits, and other events. Personal attention has always been, and will remain, the independent bookseller’s strength.

    Tim Tocher

  3. Vickie Crafton

    We passed on selling the e books for the same reason we passed on discounting our books when it became the necessary thing to do if you wanted to compete. I have never felt it necessary to try and compete with B&N or Amazon as I would fail. I try to offer my customer the best service available and hope that is enough for them to return.

  4. Alana Joli Abbott

    Josie, this is a complete tangent, but I’ve been meaning to ask here, so I figured now’s as good a time as any. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about having trouble finding new/recent picture books with contemporary African-American children as main characters. (Specifically African American, not African.) We’ve both worked as booksellers, and I’ve also worked in a library; neither of us have a good list at hand. The Coretta Scott King list is a great place to start, but I’m looking for more. Have you done a blog post about this? Based on what I’ve read on your blog, it wouldn’t surprise me if you could name seven titles off the top of your head before doing any extra looking. :)

  5. Theresa M. Moore

    Bravo to you for coming right out and saying it: big booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are not concerned with the welfare of their competitors. But I would also like to invite independent booksellers to stock their stores with independently published books. I have 15 ready to go to you. All you have to do is look on the Ingram catalog and order them. A and BN already have them for sale at a substantial discount, but you can make them important to your customers by reminding them that there was a human being (several, in fact) behind the creation of the book(s).

    1. Alexy

      I’m confused about your opening comment regarding big book sellers having “no regard for the welfare of their competitors”. Are you suggesting this is somehow an indictment of those companies’ business practices?

      1. Josie Leavitt

        I have to admit, I’ve reread my post three times and have not found the sentence you are referring to. Unless, I’ve just missed it and I can say that I never actually said that big booksellers have “no regard for the welfare of their competitors”. I was speaking about the differences in how Amazon and B&N have had more success with e-book sales than indies.

        1. VA

          @Josie, I think Alexy was responding directly to Theresa M. Moore, not referencing a sentence in your post. I agree with Alexy that most business don’t operate with an eye to helping out their direct competitors – that’s not a moral failing of Amazon.

  6. Susan Weis-Bohlen

    I hate to say “I told you” so but I told you so – not so much YOU, but the ABA, Simba Research and others in the industry. I just couldn’t believe how much time was being wasted on this effort to sell ebooks when it’s not who we are or what we do. Sometimes we just have to leave a segment of the business to those who do it better and concentrate on what we do better. We sell books. Not electronic devices, especially not electronic devises that take up more shelf space than it could ever pay for. And at the end of the day, 8 cents per book and $5 per Kobo – frankly I don’t understand how any business person could live with that kind of margin.
    So I have to get back to selling books now. Books that people can hold, have signed by an author, can share with a friend, can leave in a B&B for others to enjoy. Have a great day!

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