eBooks- Is there a place for Independent Bookshops?

I was at a meeting last night with a group of booksellers from around Sydney and NSW and conversation at dinner afterwards turned to eBooks. One bookseller told me that he didn’t understand why independent bookshops wanted to be able to sell eBooks. His rationale was that the only way to make money from selling eBooks was to sell in volume and a stand-alone, independently run and operated bookshop was never going to be able to sell the volume required to make it worthwhile.

On the one hand he is totally correct. The eBook market as it currently stands is all about volume and price, two things independent bookshops do not traditionally compete on. This is primarily because of the current wholesale structure to eBooks and because some very large retailers are fighting a very large market share war. This has seen massive pressure put on the retail price of eBooks and as a consequence traditional margins for retailers have been reduced. Digital wholesalers have added another level to the supply chain and are also taking a cut of a pie that is getting more and more thinly sliced. With one eBook wholesaler a bookshop would have to sell 500 eBooks a month to break even. Another charged the retailer a fee when they sold a ‘free’ eBook. Under these circumstances I agree that there is no place for an independent bookshop to sell eBooks.

But independent bookshops have survived and thrived for decades against big chain and discount department stores, all of which compete on volume and price. Instead of trying to compete in these areas, successful independent bookshops compete on areas like service, knowledge and specialization, all of which can apply to the digital world. I know from my experience that as a bookseller I want to be able to provide my customers with the book they want in the format they want. We try to source books for our customers from all over the world and I would like eBooks to be one of the sources we use.  I don’t want to have to say to one of my loyal and dedicated customers “I can’t get that for you try [one of my large, multi-national, competitors]”.

Selling eBooks is never going to be 50% of my business; it might not even be 5%. But that is not the point. A bookshop is a place where people go to talk about books and find out about books. The bookshop maybe a physical store or online (or both) and the books they are looking for maybe physical or eBooks (or both). Either way people need booksellers to help them find the books they are looking for (or not looking for as the case maybe). Therefore eBooks will need independent bookshops just as much as independent bookshops will need eBooks. With Google about to enter the eBook fray there is a glimmer of hope for Independent bookshops with what they have to offer resellers through Google Editions.

I would love to know what others think about independent bookshops and eBooks and whether they have a role to play.

5 thoughts on “eBooks- Is there a place for Independent Bookshops?

  1. Good blog Jon. Like you, I don’t want to have to tell a customer to go elsewhere, especially to a big multi national competitor. I don’t expect that ebooks are going to be something that we make money on, but that it is part of the service we offer. We want people to think of their local bookshop when they are thinking of buying books, no matter what format they are in. Heather

  2. My perspective is that of a reader rather than a book seller, but I do buy my books from independent bookshops rather than chains. I agree that ebook do need to form a part of the stock, so that each person can get what they are after. Having said that, as a reader/book buyer, I can’t imagine going into an independent bookstore and buying an ebook. For me, book shopping is about the actual books and buying an ebook would take out some of the fun for me.

  3. Nice post Jon. When I read your article, it reminded me of Chris Anderson’s great book The Long Tail and how unlimited choice will drive the economies of the future. He says that successful businesses need to follow two rules:

    1. Make everything available
    2. Help me find it

    All booksellers – big and small – need to embrace ebooks and other technologies. Those that don’t, I fear, will not be around in 10-15 years’ time.

    Clayton Wehner
    Boomerang Books

  4. Jon, I read your quote in the online newsletter from Bookseller & Publisher this week and want to endorse your remarks. So this entry is mostly relating to your last paragraphs that were quoted rather than the bookselling world and how eBooks will play its part.

    We only have 24 hours in the day and how many of those can we actually spend reading. With more and more books coming on to the market customers will require from time-to-time, experienced booksellers aka “knowledge experts” to help us navigate our way to the book that suits our criteria of the day. How frustrating it must be to purchase a book, take it home and start reading it only to realise that it was just so-so. Alternatively, what if we could read the first chapter of an e-book, but is this one better than that or the thousands of others… and how many first chapters do you really want to read? Which is what will happen. The ultimate victor will be someone who knows a lot about books and how to match them up to a customer. So what’s changed? Isn’t that what has been happening for the past couple of hundred years and more in any good bookstore around the world. Those that will not survive are the ones that buy the product, stick it on the shelves and hope that it moves. Unless you just love to discount and then you will certainly sell them and we all know who likes to play that tactic. Quite frankly it is a shame that they do not care if one is a good book over another as long as it brings someone in to their store.

    So if publishers want independent, passionate booksellers to survive and keep selling their books we better work together because the physical book is going to be around for a long time yet.

    Just on eBooks, we are going to be selling them through our website in the not too distant future but we hardly expect to make money out of them in the foreseeable future because the demand isn’t there yet but no doubt one day it will and when that happens we will be doing our best online to assist customers to select one over another.

    Tony Nash
    Australia’s largest online bookstore

  5. I think both can be contained on the one store/site. They are both vehicles to give the Customer the information/story they want, and in most cases the Customer has already decided which they are searching for regardless of which we the bookseller prefers to sell.

    I know people who will want to buy novels for an example on ebooks (read once throw away), but a paper version in another genre they may want to re-read or keep as a possible collectible. Another area ebooks cannot compete is the rare books market. You can’t really collect/invest in an ebook. But many a book buyer has done just that with paper books. For those into rare and hard to find books, ebooks are just not in anyway an option, nor do they want them to be.

    So in a pure business sense, accepting ebooks are here to stay in one version or another, so does help make the decision for the bookseller easier to have them if they want to retain the Customer regardless of format.
    But i also think it is important for bookstores to be bookstores, and in my mind that means books (in hand, paper, possible collectible, can be signed by author, inscribed, can be placed on a shelf, handed down over generations…) But that is just me!

    Australian History Books

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