#5 Educate consumer you sell ebooks

NEIBA Question of the Week #5

The NEIBA Board members are starting a Question of the Week on the NEIBA Group at Yahoo! Groups (our Listserv). The goal is to share everyone’s common knowledge about bookselling or anything related to independent bookstores.  It is our hope that after the Board has run through with their questions other members will continue the asking.

This week’s question is:

What are you doing to educate your customers about the ability of
independent bookstores to sell e books? – Annie Philbrick, Bank Square


Pat Fowler, Village Square Booksellers

Hi Annie

I place publisher specials as separate pages on our website as a booklist, placing a link to the page on our email newsletter and also on the status of the Village Square Booksellers’ Facebook page. Have had several evening sessions, only 2 attendees but they have bought one of two e-Books. I
found several books with zero cost to use as a demo download.

If I see a customer with an IPad at one of my many community meetings, I set up the IndieBound reader app and also an “Add to Home Screen” from our website’s e-Book Search page on their IPad’s. In some cases I’ve helped them set up an account on our site. Since I am known as a techie, no one thinks it odd that I grab their IPad’s to set them up. It’s more a question of “Wow, that’s great, can you show me how?” Since I normally have my IPad with me, it’s easy to demo it.

One of my customers came into the store before a trip, we set up the App & Home page screen, then I found the 3 books she wanted & put them into her cart. She checked it out with me helping her fill in the form. After her vacation, I asked how she’d liked e-reading. One of the books she chose was David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, which would have been tough to lug on a cross country flight and one you’d want to bring home to add to your collection if you’d paid $37.50 for it. She also placed an order at the same time for several paperback books in various mystery series to be ready when she returned. She takes at least one trip to California each year & one to France, so I think the IPad will be used for those.

We bought a Nook Tablet, but the Android App can no longer be set up- now you have to load books onto your computer into Adobe Digital Editions and copy it to your Nook. I’ve had two customers use this method, one for a Nook, one for another device. It’s a bit of a pain. I doubt they’d do it
if they folks who were not emotionally attached to our store.

All in all, it’s a bit of a struggle to make 26%- maybe $2-4 on a book, less credit card charges. And there’s a lot more of my customers that I know have e-readers (from Facebook status’s) who have not come in to have me demo using our site.

If we had access to the free public domain e-Books that Google “sells”, I think we’d at least get e-reader users setting up accounts and into the habit of using our sites. One customer downloaded an e-Book in September & then forgot how in January & I had to show her again.

Some of the special seem to last longer than the dates mentioned- I have to update my site today & look for some more specials.


Nancy Felton, Broadside

Good morning to everyone. We’ve put up signs on our door and in the store and printed up little bag stuffers which we gave out before, during, and after the holidays. We have gotten many questions about how it works, many customers saying they are happy they can get e-books through us, and some purchases through our website. But it seems that no matter what we do, there are some customers who don’t see the signs, read the email, visit the website, etc. So when I see someone I know with an e-book in hand, I mention to them that the books are available through us. They often seem surprised and happy to find this out. I think this is a long, slow process of education and talking to customers, but I think it’s worth the effort.


Janet Bibeau, Storybook Cove

At Storybookcove we always include it in our newsletters and directions are very prominent 
on our web page. In the store we have an electronic sign that is visible to a very busy food court. We also have the ABA and Penguin supplied signs at our check out. A computer is set up in our window to show people where to go on our website. Anyone who mentions their nook etc. we talk to them about it We give the written directions on how to upload it to their e-reader. We’ve done teen displays with the QR codes leading to our website. People seem happy to know as Nancy said. We’ve had a few sales on our website. We always send a thank you to those who have purchased an e-book from us but I am concerned that no one as of yet has bought a second e-book from us!


RiverRun Bookstore

I’m wondering if anyone wants to share an actual physical (virtual?) number of ebooks sold. I have a sneaking suspicion that Indies role in ebooks will be exactly similar to our role selling physical books online. Slim, hard won, and sourced mostly from our diehard customers. Anyone?


Pat Fowler, Village Square Booksellers

I agree- I’ve only sold about a dozen. Even though I’ve physically added the IPad info on their machines, especially since January… Most of them “say” they don’t buy books… Many “say” they use their kindles for public domain books. But it sure is easy to use B&N on their Nooks & Amazon on Kindles & IBooks on IOS devices. Having the new Indiebound Reader app to tie to a link to our website’s e-Book search is definitely helpful. Because it gives you a conversation starter when you spy an IPad. I tried talking to a young man who came in to use our free wifi. He hasn’t set anything up so I am sure he is just using whatever came with his Android device. He has not set up an account on our site. He used to order a lot of paperbacks from us & buy books on hand too. We should have had the Reader app a year ago. We also need our own e-reader. I’ve had a number of customers in angst over wanting to get their family member an e-device & still supporting us.

too little too late.


Carol Chittenden, Eight Cousins

That’s exactly why I’m not motivated to rush into it. It’s probably about 2/3 of the way down in our Great Tower of Priorities. It’s there, but website, Edelweiss, buying, staff training, summer hiring, and about 60 others are above it. Lower than e-books are things like reminding the landlord to install the fire extinguisher, corresponding with self-published authors, sorting through outdated display materials, and FaceBook.
Michael Herrmann, Gibson’s Bookstore

We’ve been offering e-books since December and have only done $130 in business. We’re not going to be in the game until indies have their own branded & dedicated e-readers to sell, and even then it’s going to be a tough and unrewarding fight.

To me the e-book conversation is a lot more about marketing than it is about sales, and there are risks involved no matter what you do. Ignore the category, and you look hidebound, stodgy, in denial, etc., especially to people who only know what they read in the papers, which is mostly nonsense; push the category and you are ignoring your real business and you’re promoting (to my mind, at least) an inferior product which may indeed level off around 25% of sales.

I just want to stay focused on 1) getting people into my store to shop for physical books and 2) helping my customers understand that we are here to help them no matter how they want to encounter books, even if digitally. Look smart, get ‘em into the store. That’s the bottom line, it seems to me.

E-books are definitely a game-changer, but then so were mass market books, paperbacks, chain stores, mall stores, department stores (yes, I am that old), and lots of other cataclysmic events that supposedly meant doom for somebody, and yet look, we’re still here.


Kenny Brechner, Devaney, Doak & Garrett, Booksellers

I agree Michael, and though I also agree with Tom’s point that ebook sales will be ” Slim, hard won, and sourced mostly from our diehard customers,” I don’t agree that ebooks will be exactly similar to our role selling physical books online. The two are not equivalent. Looking at my numbers over the last 30 days I had 148 physical books ordered online and 2 ebooks. More importantly the physical book orders are primarily in store pick up meaning that people are coming into the store and often buying other things. This is wholly different from an ebook sale. Online physical book sales can support getting people into the store, which, as Scott points out, is job 1. Ebook sales are remote by nature. I feel that aggresive ebook marketing by Independent booksellers is asking customers to suspend disbelief about the very nature of ebooks. That doesn’t appear to be happening.


David Didriksen, Willow Books & Café

The current frenzy about so-called “ebooks” (actually not a “book” at all, but really an “elongated text app”) is driven by Amazon, Apple, and the large corporate publishers, not consumers. It represents more profit for them, and less for authors and retailers. The “e-book” market is not one in which small stores will ever be a major force.. However, we still offer a tactile and physical experience which Amazon and publishers can only dream about. To be competitive, we should play to our strengths, not our weaknesses. Many stores had a great Christmas season last year, without selling a single “e-book”. It’s a nice frill to offer to customers, but not a make or break for us.

There is no need for panic. Independents often feel they have to “do something” immediately to face every new challenge in the marketplace. But usually, things eventually come full circle, and local Independents are valued for what they do well, not for what they don’t do.


Alice Hutchinson, Byrd’s Books

Amen, David. I am too small to have eBooks (450 sf over a coffee shop), so will probably miss the trend. I will look at again in a year- but have no thought to providing the service.


Stefanie Kiper, Water Street Bookstore

We’ve sold just over 100 ebooks so far. While that number isn’t too impressive, what I’m excited about is that we’ve sold 21 ebooks so far in February, and about 10 in January. And we’re hoping that the number of ebooks sold each month continues to climb like that. We also have a handful of loyal ebook customers who keep coming back, which I think is the key. Our biggest challenge here will be translating ebook purchases to store visits. What can we do to get our ebook customers to continue coming to the store? Is it customer service? A great website that promotes what’s happening in-store? Being able to sell ebooks for us is just another way to market the store to our customers and beyond. We aren’t thinking about ebook sales as money in the bank, because there’s just no point with such a small margin. If we think about selling ebooks as customer service and advertising, we’re going to see the return.


Rondi Brower, Blackwood & Brouwer Booksellers Ltd

At the moment, for us it’s a moot point. We tried to sign up for Google eBooks and were told they were not accepting new affiliates.

Has anyone else had this problem?


RiverRun Bookstore

Thanks for all the great responses. eBooks is one of the only reasons I would consider going back to an extremely costly ABA website. I’m frankly still miffed that they only made the ebook component available to people using their website. You can’t tell me they couldn’t create some little widget that could work on any site.

Anyway, I’ve added an ad for google ebooks on our website, so that when people say “do you sell ebooks” I can say “yes, we sell google ebooks, just go to our site and click on the button”. Obviously I’ve only made a few cents on the transaction, but I’ve done exactly what we’ve been discussing: I’ve offered the customer a solution without sounding like an ostrich with my head in the sand.

It’s actually led to several nice interactions about Google Books Vs. Kindle.


Carol Chittenden, Eight Cousins

Rondi, the same thing happened to us last week. I’ll check again in May.

Jon Platt, Nonesuch Books & Cards

Trader Joes has the highest sales per square foot of any retailer in the U.S. Why? They have healthy, cool stuff, at good prices. Cool stuff is out there, you have to go find it and take risks. E-books are just not cool.


Willard Williams,The Toadstool Bookshop

This is an important question and I really think we all need to address it realistically. Before Christmas we were determined to let people know there were alternatives to the Kindle ereader, that the ebooks for the Kindle could only be ordered through Amazon, and that if they wanted to support independent bookstores such as ours they should consider the alternatives before purchasing the Kindle as a present or for themselves. We sent this message out as an email to all those on our Constant Contact lists and posted a sign at the counter. This counter sign in particular started a lot of conversations and gave us the opportunity to talk about the availability of Google ebooks at our website and at those of other independents. And it tied in well with all the great Buy Local buzz this Christmas season. It was frightening to hear how many people already had a Kindle. Most of them hadn’t known that independents can sell ebooks, and many expressed some dismay that they couldn’t buy from us. Most heartening was the appreciation that people expressed in being informed of the alternative ereaders and of their intent to take a second look at the other choices. Those with Ipads and other compatible ereaders were really glad to know they could in fact get their ebooks from us. We showed them the Google ebook logo on our website and the directions for downloading. We also stressed that our prices for at least the six major publishers would be the same as that offered by any ebook vendor since the price is established by the publisher.

Since Christmas we have averaged an order a day, many of which are for multiple titles. This is up considerably from pre-Christmas and is, I am sure, a result of our engaging people on the topic. Is it a significant contributor to our sales? – no. But in time I think it will help slow an inevitable erosion as people get over the initial hurdles of buying ebooks from us.

Also posted at our counter is the wonderful December 5th New Yorker cover of a very dismayed bookstore customer being shown the sole paltry shelf of books amidst a store full of “literary” coffee mugs, posters, t shirts and ereaders. We tell people that with their support this will never happen to us. They fully understand our commitment to a real bookstore.


Dick Hermans, Oblong Books & Music

It will be a whole lot easier and fun to organize against ebooks than to do the handholding it will take to make independents a force (or even relevant) in the ebook marketplace.