The Technology Trap

Josie Leavitt -- March 3rd, 2011

As more and more customers come in asking me when I’ll start selling e-books, I find myself wondering what does that mean for me and my store. These are regular customers who have embraced the Shop Local ethos and want to support my bookstore while they buy books a new way. These are customers who have e-readers and also continue to buy books. But is their buying an e-book at my store ultimately going to help my business or hurt it? We all know that Amazon has done with e-books what they do with bestsellers: they deeply discount them, so deeply that few can compete with the prices.

However, this week with Random House’s announcement that they will sell e-books on the agency model, the playing field changes dramatically for the better. Honestly, I’m not sure yet what this actually means to me, just as I’m not sure what e-books will do to the indies. As an independent bookstore, I am struggling with where e-books need to fit in my store model. Google Books makes it easy to sell e-books if your store has an American Booksellers Association Indie Commerce website, but if you don’t have one, then it gets more complicated, as Google Books hasn’t rushed to embrace having affiliates.

Do I try to offer the very book format that might well be the end of the book as some doomsayers theorize? Or do I cede this market share to the places people have already been trained to go for them? This is the question of the year for many booksellers, and I grapple with this daily. It’s so hard to know what to do. I still offer books for sale on my website and there are still a myriad of places where people can buy books. How important will e-books be to my bottom line? I just don’t know and that is the question that worries me every day.

So, booksellers, readers, and other folks who enjoy this blog, please weigh in. What do you see as the future of e-books and independent bookstores? Can the two co-exist happily, or is the relationship already too fraught to succeed?

12 thoughts on “The Technology Trap

  1. Barbara

    As an author with a young adult ebook coming out this September I would love to know that my book was available in an independent bookstore. My publisher has a bookstore online, but how wonderful to be able to have a book signing at an independent bookstore in my local area just like an author with a hard cover book. Also, in a year, my book will be in print. As an advocate of independent bookstores, I would love to be able to offer it to all of them to review beforehand as an ebook.

    I don’t want to see the demise of bookstores or libraries and I don’t think that ebooks will do that. Too many of us, myself included, like reading books with paper and covers you can open and shut manually. I am excited about my book being published, but I don’t want to stop the publishing of print books. This is a pivotal time and we must think carefully about this new technology and how it can benefit everyone.

  2. Caryn

    In ebook world, I wonder how, faced with a multitude of choices on the same subject, people will be able to tell which title is worthwhile? How will they get introduced to new treasures? How will they find high quality regional books? Brick and mortar retailers are so essential to that process, especially for small publishers! If ebooks become the majority, it will certainly impact the number of bookstores that exist. Although I am glad that Google has chosen to help out the indies, people still have to make that choice to buy local; how many will? Another question is, can small publishers sell enough ebooks to remain profitable? If small publishers go out of business it will impact choice, or at least quality if more people decide to self-publish. (I strongly believe the collaborative process in traditional publishing greatly improves books.) I’m afraid people will only realize what they’ve lost when it’s too late–just like in-depth journalism. But, it’s clear that ebooks are here to stay.

  3. Andrea Vuleta

    We do offer e-books and the Google books. They are a such a tiny portion of our business, you may wonder why we bother. I believe it is helpful to offer what the customer requests, even in the small minority.
    That being said, I had this very conversation last night with a bookstore owner from the midwest. I do not see it as the end of books. I believe that there are currently a lot adopters of the technology, and the very specific reader devices will be collecting dust in short order. It seems to me that the the need to read electronically has a specific and limited appeal, best offered by an app on a broad platform device, rather than a dedicated reader. I am not necessarily a Luddite, but I have owned and discarded a lot of toys over the years (Palm PDA, anyone?). My e-reader has been collecting dust for well over a year. And I never finished one book on it.
    Honestly some tools and technology aren’t always easily improved, and I submit the book is one. Or the mug. Or the fork, as pointed out by my bookstore owner pal last night.

  4. Kat Brokaw

    I would suggest working your niche. I love my Kindle, but when I want something new, or want something that I don’t know I want, a real live book store is still my resource. The PEOPLE there know their stuff, and can bounce options off me, until I find what hits. Now if you had a terminal to your site where I could hook up my Kindle and drop in the book you just sold me as one of my format options (i.e. hardcover, trade, MM, or PDF/whathaveyou), that would be most awesome.

    Just my thoughts as a reader. Not even beginning to conceive what that might mean as an author. 🙂

    1. Lily

      I’d just like to point out that because you have a Kindle, Amazon would prevent you from downloading a book from Flying Pig. Other eReaders would allow you to download eBooks from any retailer, but Amazon only allows Kindle-owners to buy eBooks from Amazon.

  5. Michelle

    Hi Josie! I am an indie bookseller in south Louisiana. My husband and I opened our store in September of ’09 and after much debate we decided to build and maintain our own website. The indie commerce sites simply didn’t have the functionality we needed. Our store’s site was still in its infancy when the ABA announced its partnership with Google e-books. We immediately applied for an indie commerce site. I think it is important for independent stores to offer e-books. I get so many new customers that don’t understand how I can be a bookstore without the Barnes and Noble or Borders name. Seriously. Not offering e-books was just one more thing that made me a niche business and not a “bookstore” in the eyes of many. I feel that by selling e-books I am further molding the book message in my community, which is what I set out to do.

    Some have suggested that this is counter-intuitive, however we still have no idea where e-books are heading. Through the agency model I can compete directly with the prices listed on Amazon and iBooks. When the price is the same there is more incentive to shop locally. When my site goes live later this month I’ll have to let you know if it works as well in practice as it does in theory.

    Also, in reply to an earlier commenter who suggested booksellers bundle e-books with print books, this is the model that I hope publishers adopt. I know the publishers don’t want print books to die and as a bookseller (and lover of the printed book) I definitely don’t want them to, and I think this is one way we can assure they will be around a little longer.

  6. Rachel

    I think you need to find a way to give your customers the content they want in the format they want it. Some will want their literature on paper and some on screen. Don’t halve your business by turning away one entire group.

    I realize the complicated pricing and logistics make this easier said than done. Good luck with the brainstorming for a new business model for this!

  7. Kitti

    Do what you can to keep up with technology. The paper book will never go away, but you still don’t want to be left out of this newest version of literature.

  8. Fred Zackel

    Consider the combining of the e-reader with Print on Demand. Someone stops in your store, browses (or scrolls) through the catalog and points to … say, “Othello the Musical” by Stephen King. The customer orders it, pays for it, and before they are leaving the store, you can present them with … a perfectly bound copy of their new book. Suitable for autographing if Stephen king is in the parking lot.

  9. Danyelle

    While I prefer physical books to ebooks, I also buy ebooks regularly for convenience. I wish that booksellers would bundle the two. I own two copies of nearly every ebook that I have purchased — ebook and paper book, and often I buy both at the same time.

  10. Kate

    I still prefer paper books by far, but I’m finding that I use my iPad as an eReader for three things: manuscripts and e-galleys (which wouldn’t affect the bookstore) and books for research that I want “right now,” which would. Example: I’m in the thick of reading/research for a new novel and downloaded two titles from the iBooks store immediately when I discovered they existed and started reading & taking notes within ten minutes. I can’t run out to a bookstore at nine o’clock at night when I’m working, but if I’d had the option to buy those e-books from Flying Pig online, I would have done that instead of downloading them direct from iBooks.

    I guess the question then becomes, how many of us are out there in this kind of situation who might be willing to pay a bit more for an ebook in order to buy local? And would that volume be worth it to you? I’m curious to see what other responses you get…

  11. Lucy Mandel

    It makes me sad to think that books and libraries could become a rare sight in the future. Nothing will compare to the true essence of a book in hand. I will NEVER read or buy an eBook! Never! Someone, somewhere will be making piles of money, you can bet on it. Grrrr…

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