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.