Should Indies Sell E-Books?

Chris Tabor, Michael Neill, and Christoph Kapp entertained an audience of about 40 on Monday at the Store2012 conference. I had the pleasure of moderating this opinionated panel and I think—bias well in place—that it was a very good panel discussion on how independent retailers can participate in the conversation around digital books.

When you approach these kinds of things you never want to underestimate your audience and I will be the first to say that these tenacious independent retailers have been working hard at trying to find a platform from which it makes sense to sell e-books. The CBA technology committee has been exploring options for their members and, of course, the now infamous Google Books solution has shown there is no easy answer.

I have nothing if not sympathy for independent businesses that are facing this digital age with a product line that has been firmly placed in the material world. Most retailers I know got into the business of selling books for reasons like—they love books, they love the look and feel of a book, they love to have a beautiful space filled with these beautiful objects and being able to walk among their forest of literature, creating amazing displays out of paper books. Their imaginations run wild when they turn out the lights and close the door for the day.

For these reasons, many retailers are not poised, are not enthused, and maybe not even willing to court the idea of selling a product that has DRM, doesn’t really belong to anyone, doesn’t have that certain smell, has no physical presence and so on. So the conversation with them is broader, more challenging and keeps you on your toes—which, for a moderator, is nothing if not exhilarating.

The context that we set up for the panel involved layers of questions:

Is it too late or irrlevant for indies to get any of the e-book market share? Can indies bring value to this space? Is it all about market share? Or is it about offering a service to their reading community? If it is about offering a service and staying relevant—staying alive—who will build a platform for these retailers? What are some the obstacles that need to come down to make it possible for retailers to play on a level playing field?

Everything from DRM, bundles and the agency model came up but the most important thing that emerged out of this discussion is that the indies are not talking about trying to compete with Amazon, Apple or Google—they just want to offer their customers, local or otherwise, the opportunity to support them and be able to get an e-book from them. A curated indie e-book catalogue would work nicely with what indies already do.

So who will build this solution? Christoph Kapp from Login Canada made it clear that they are very interested in building the platform and, in fact, have one. They are working diligently on their solution to improve it, make it more frictionless and provide more trade content for the indies. Another solution is Copia.

On the other hand, only if Michael Neill finds a business model for e-books he finds worthwhile, will he consider building an integrated solution. But when someone asked if indies are becoming obsolete, Michael was also quite adamant that as long there was demand for print books, independent retailers could thrive. In fact, he said when print dies he will no longer want to be a bookseller. An honest and passionate answer, and the fact that Mosaic books is opening another location shows Michael has confidence that print is not going away.

Chris Tabor, whose experience spans close to 25 years of selling digital product and whose latest foray included working with Google on the Google books platform, explained that independents need to manage expectations. There are shifts in technology which then require a shift in business models. Retailers cannot expect someone to hand them a self-contained solution. They need to have an integrated view of the whole digital space. This includes thinking about social networks and how to promote books through them. How to solve the problem of discoverability is not just about someone coming to your website and finding what they want. It’s a different paradigm and one that retailers must think through. Ultimately, it’s about fostering trust no matter how you sell a book.

So to sum up my biggest take away from the panel, I will say that for the independents selling e-books is not just about the bottom line. It is about providing people with a service, and making it an integrated service—a service that can be magical. Bookstores have the showcase, now they need to be able to convert their showroom visitors into their customers, no matter the desired book format. Whenever and whatever the e-book solution, it has to be frictionless, it has to be immediate in the same way that picking the book off the shelf and buying it is immediate. And independent booksellers have always offered quality book curation to their communities, but, in the digital space, they will find that others are also competing to fill that curator role.