It is extremely difficult for any retailer to crack into the eBook market. Even Apple and Google have struggled. Amazon got off to a massive head start and the likes of Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others are slowly clawing them back. But for other bookshops it is even more of a challenge. The costs and scale required have meant that existing bookshops have had to partner with eBook vendors rather than going it alone in order to sell eBooks. Both Kobo and Google have done this with varying degrees of success mainly with existing bookshop chains rather than independents. Independents in Australia have partnered with ReadCloud and Booki.sh and started out together from scratch where as Independents in the US were able to partner with Google.
However Google announced over the weekend that they would be ending all reseller partnerships with bookshops for eBooks globally. Google partnered with nearly 400 independent bookshops in the US and here with Dymocks (Australia’s largest chain of bookshops), Booktopia (Australia’s largest online bookseller) and The Co-Op Bookshop (Australia’s largest campus bookseller).
There were always going to be risks and concerns in partnering with Google to sell eBooks. The main concern being that a Google eBook reseller had to compete against their own supplier. Competing against your own supplier is perilous at best particularly one with deep pockets who controls (and can manipulate) the most used internet search engine in the world. Through their ad revenues Google can also afford to price match against another competitor already engaged in predator pricing. In ending the reseller program Google said that it “has not gained the traction that we hoped it would.” This is true when returning customers went direct to Google instead of back to the reseller partner.
The other main concern was customer’s data and where it lay in the Google eBook environment and its consequences. Google said that “the reseller program has not met the needs of many readers or booksellers” but it certainly met the needs of Google. The reseller program allowed Google to leverage the goodwill, service, loyalty, expertise and most importantly the customer base of existing bookshops. And now they are moving on demonstrating no goodwill or loyalty on their part.
This is the risk for existing bookshops wanting to sell eBooks. They have to pick the right company to partner with and be wary that their strengths won’t be leveraged for somebody else’s gain.
Content is king when it comes to eBooks but a bookshop’s content is more than just the books on its shelves. A bookshop’s content is its customers and its staff, its knowledge and expertise and its trust and loyalty with readers. These things should be fiercely protected not traded away. A partnership must be equal otherwise one side will exploit the other.
I would much rather partner with a company who has complementary goals to my business. A global company is not going to have any interest other than their own self-interest about the Australian eBook market or, as it turns out, a long term commitment to their partners. Where as a partnership that is mutually beneficial to both parties will only grow in unison.
Bookshops have a vital and important role to play in the future of eBooks. Books are bought, sold, produced and consumed very differently to other products that have made the transition to digital and the eBook market is still developing and evolving, both commercially and as an industry as a whole. There will be some fundamental changes but the basics will remain the same and we will need big and small fish to make the ecosystem work otherwise it will end up swallowing itself.