#13 What’s after Google ebooks?

NEIBA Question of the Week #13

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:

With the impending loss of Google eBooks in January 2013, the ABA is looking into all options for the sale of eBooks in indies.
If the ABA were to partner with a company that would allow independent bookstores to sell an eReader device and eBooks, would you sell this device in your store? Or would you just sell the eBooks on you website? Or neither?

Rondi Brower, Blackwood & Brouwer Booksellers Ltd


Michael Herrmann, Gibson’s Bookstore

I am torn. I do believe that the only way for us to compete meaningfully in this market is to sell our own devicesundefineddevices that make it as easy as possible to buy from specific indie stores.

But I also wonder if we are chasing a phantom, and one that will be harmful to us in the future. Our primary strength is in selling physical books to people we’ve attracted to the wonderful literary spaces we put up. If we join the chorus and keep telling people that ebooks are so great, I wonder if we are not shooting ourselves right in the foot, or worse.

Pat Fowler, Village Square Booksellers

We would sell readers in the store (so we can demo its use) and on our site.

Wendy Morton Hudson, Nantucket Bookworks

Absolutely, both. Since the announcement though I have stopped promoting Google Books… why teach people to go to them? It sure is a disappointing and frustrating position for us to be in.

Judy Crosby, Island Books

We would certainly do both.

My hope though is that those we have persuaded to buy Nooks in order to purchase e-books from us would still be able to do so with whatever new form of e-books we sell.

Ditto for ipads, etc.

I look forward to hearing what partnership ABA comes up with – the sooner the better!

Mitch Gaslin, Food for Thought Books

I would like to hope that we would do both, but of course the price and quality of an e-reader is going to be a big part of the decision. If it’s a mediocre device for a lot of money, we’re not likely to sell many (in a college town with many poor students) so we’d be less likely to carry them. I also have to agree with Michael Herman’s statement about feeling like we may be undercutting ourselves by spending to much effort getting people to buy things for which they don’t need to come into the store.

Kenny Brechner, Devaney, Doak & Garrett, Booksellers

Here are two other points to consider. Many people, including Google as I recall from their 2010 presentation at NEIBA, expect the market to move away from single use devices, like the gps, and dedicated ereaders, to new generation phones and tablets. For this reason I think Mitch raises a good point, it would have to be both high quality and inexpensive. After all a single use device of this kind is more like a deskjet printer, the profit is in the ink. Secondly, much depends on the type of ebook, which is becoming increasingly varied. For example Australian booksellers partnered with Copia and their “social reading” platform. The concept of social reading, of books as just another form of social media, is antithetical and competitive with what we do. Also I loathe it. Also it is untrue, at least of the physical book. Thus the nature of both the device and the ebook itself will determine whether I adopt it.

Karlene Rearick, The Alphabet Garden

We never signed on with Google eBooks in the first place. We use the Baker & Taylor My Books and More website to sell books online and have been directing people who want to purchase ebooks from us to download the free Blio E-reader (which is compatible with IPads, IPods, IPhones, Androids, and Windows). I have been happy with the relationship so far, and our ebook sales have risen in the first quarter.

Janet Bibeau, Storybook Cove

As more children’s book groups are halving the number of books they need to order because of e-readers, I would be willing to both sell e-books and devices that were economical and versatile. Many schools are getting tablet sets for the libraries instead of computers. We wouldn’t want an obsolete device.

Janet Blevins, Knight Equestrian Books

Since our niche store selection (equestrian) has never lent itself to BookSense or IndieBooks, we would not participate, although we have an active web storefront, and there are a few publishers producing horse oriented ebooks that we’d love to offer.

I’m somewhat of an over-the-hill tech geek, and love my gadgets. I do have a few books on my iPad. Not all come from the iBook store, so I have other apps to hold them.

And it seems to me that we indies would be better off offering “an app for that” which would be adapted to various platforms, rather than venturing into the electronic side. Staff could address installing the app on the customer’s Nook, iPad or whatever, and then introducing them to book downloads. I’d happily opt for investing in software rather than everchanging hardware!

Nancy Felton, Broadside

I think we’d sell both (assuming reasonable price, quality and terms). I do share the qualms expressed by Mitch and Michael, but I think people are going to be buying e-books and if we don’t sell them, they won’t be buying them from us.

Michael Herrmann, Gibson’s Bookstore

I’ve been thinking pretty hard about this for the last 6 months, because we’ve been contemplating an expansion, and my current thinking (can change at any moment) is that indies will never be major players in the ebook market. Frankly, there is no room for us. The only wedge we might have to enter the market is if we do what all the other players have doneundefineddevelop and market our own reader, so we involve our customers in an ecosystem based on buying from us. But absent that I don’t see how we break in.

However: even if ebooks take 30-40% of the market, which I doubt, that leaves 60-70% of the book market for us to compete over. With Borders gone, B&N retrenching, and BAM a lesser threat, I like our chances. Our emphasis here is going to be on providing the community with the best physical bookstore we can. If they want to live their lives in their pajamas and order things from home (or be chained to their desks at work and likewise never go out) we’re going to be at a disadvantage. Our primary job as booksellers is to provide the public with a good argument for shopping in the real world.

I think we do have to offer ebooks because if we don’t we are frankly going to look weird, behind the timesundefinedit would be something I wouldn’t want to have to waste energy explaining to people who only know what they read in the papers. But if we expect to make money selling them we are going to be sorely disappointed. It’s a race to the bottom and that won’t change. People who sell ebooks use what we love as loss leaders to sell consumer electronics, sex toys, and glock ammo. I’m going to beat my head against that wall only as much as I absolutely have to.

Josh Christie, Sherman’s Books and Stationery

I’ll preface this response by saying that our stores currently aren’t equipped to sell ebooks, though I’ve bought plenty from other indies.

If the ABA could find a partner to create an indie-branded ereader that was reasonably priced, comparable to the ones currently on the market, and iterated at the rate of the competitors (we’re on the 3rd iPad in two years, the 4th Kindle in as many years, and who knows how many nooks/Kobos/sony readers), it would be fantastic for our stores. That said, I’m reminded of this cartoon when I think of the ABA search for partners. As important as independent bookstores are, we do make up a small portion of the overall market. I think the odds of a partner that can develop a gadget for what they’d probably see as a niche market that fits all the criteria that we’re looking for are kind of slim. Especially considering how slim the margins are on electronic devices. If the option we’re presented is to sell a “indie” but inferior device, my interest drops to nil.

Of course, I’d be thrilled to be proved wrong and have a competitive device to sell customers that reads indie ebooks (and probably plays Angry Birds).

Personally, I’d like to see an aggressive push for the Indiebound Reader app (or it’s next incarnation after the Google partnership expires) to be preloaded on to devices, just like some apps like Netflix and Pandora come loaded on new smartphones and readers. As great as a reader to sell at our stores could be, how fantastic would it be for people to be able to buy books from us as soon as they turned on their new devices, no matter where they came from?

David Didriksen, Willow Books & Cafe

I agree with Michael. He said it very well. There may be some good reasons for us to dabble in this market (e-books) but it will never be a profit center, nor a major part of our business. In a commodity-driven sales business (which is what the large publishers are pushing), we will always look bad because we can never compete on price alone. Even if we could, we would lose money on every sale, just as Amazon does. (But they do it on purpose.) We must learn to compete in many other ways if we are going to survive. E-books are a very small part of our future.

Here’s an idea: Instead of spending a small fortune developing hardware in a high-risk venture, why not use those same resources to promote what we already know we do well, namely, selling real books to real book-lovers?

Becky Dayton, Vermont Book Shop

Frankly, I think we’re nuts if we think we can compete in this market with our own hardware. Given that B&N has just partnered with its own tech behemoth, Microsoft, to the tune of $300,000,000 (see all those zeroes?) in order to stand up to Amazon and Google and Apple, we don’t have a hailstone’s chance in hell. The ABA doesn’t have that money, we don’t have that money, and like it or not, that’s what it’s going to take. Josh’s comment about “iterations” is well-taken; so, the ABA gets a device, well, they’d better develop a new and better one in 10 months, and then again in 10 more months.

Google was our chance to at least play a bit role, but unfortunately, they did exactly as I predicted in 2009 and used ABA stores as a portal to our market, grabbed it, and slammed the door behind them.