Google Books Versus Independent Bookstores

Setting aside the chorus of yawns that Google’s ebookstore was met with, there was one area that generated some positive attention. Google was partnering with “indie” booksellers to power their ebookstores, so stores like Powell’s in Portland, OR didn’t need to build out their own stores or cede the market entirely to Amazon and B&N. Sounds great in theory. But it turns out the reality isn’t as rosy.

The way Google books works is that partner booksellers set their own prices. But an independent bookseller doesn’t have the margin flexibility of a B&N or Amazon, so their prices are trending higher. Google, on the other hand, has plenty of price flexibility, leading to an interesting issue according to Teleread. You can buy a book from Google Books for $9.99, or buy the same book from your local indie bookstore’s Google-powerd ebookstore for $18.99. Same book, same technology, same apps, just twice the price. How much do you love your local independent bookstore?

Personally I think that ebooks might not be the best direction for independent booksellers. The benefit of an indie bookstore is the individuality, the fact that each store is unique and the experience is different than the army of homogenous B&N and Borders stores. A place like The Strand in NYC is unlike anywhere else, and it’s easy to get lost in floor after floor of books. There’s no wall of bestsellers, there’s tables full of books everywhere, and it’s a big box bookstore merchandiser’s nightmare. But it’s the greatest place to just immerse yourself in books and browse, more so than a manicured, curated store like Borders or B&N.

And it’s not just general independents…the New York Times had a great article earlier this year where they covered the success of niche booksellers who stand out not because they try to compete with everyone else, but because they set out to be experts in one or two areas. There are some high profile examples like “Omnivore Books”, a bookseller devoted to food, and “M is for Mystery”, unsurprisingly focusing on the mystery niche. Selling books is about passion and offering great service and suggestions, not following a checklist of “hardcovers, paperbacks, ebooks”. What’s more likely to get you excited about shopping in a store: Seeing that they are passionate about their niche and that their employees know the product, or seeing that their ebooks are twice what everyone else’s costs?

It’s a bad, bad idea to let your customers think you’re more expensive than everyone else, especially double the cost. I can’t imagine the benefit of being able to say “We sell ebooks on our website” is worth the risk of coming across as higher priced and out of touch. Maybe the answer is for independent booksellers to offer something similar to what independent music stores offer, a “Bookstore day” response to “Record Store Day“. In my opinion, bookstores need to find their strengths in where they sell paper books rather than make halfhearted attempts at the ebook market. I don’t think that paper books will ever completely disappear, especially as long as there are stores that make it a singular pleasure to browse and shop, and that’s where the independent bookseller really shines!

What’s your take on the independent booksellers and ebooks? Share your thoughts below!

Categories: eBooks, Editorials

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3 replies

  1. I’m simply going to repeat what I’ve said elsewhere:
    ‘On non agency titles bestsellers are sold below cost by Amazon and Google. Do I even need to point out that no Indie is going to do that?’ Margin flexibility has nothing to do with it.

    ‘Must say that the commenting on this issue has been universally poor from the ebook community. The best I’ve seen is at
    See especially bookavore’s comments at the bottom.

    Indies have always been undercut on new paperbook titles and have had to be creative in other ways to compete. Same with ebooks, on non agency titles anyway. Here’s hoping for something similar to the old Buywise club from Fictionwise being offered by somebody.’ Another option is pbook and ebook bundling (finally!) especially offers of bundles perhaps with used books as backlist.

    If price is all you care about you are not an Indie buyer, period, but this has always been the case. Nor can Indies ignore ebooks since they are already losing customers there as per ABA.

    Of course the agency system seems to be inexorably spreading with Smashwords being the latest to sign on. Thus you will have a curious mix where Indies will match the big guys on many titles and be out of sync with others. It will be interesting to see if any Indies can translate their skills at selling pbooks to digital.

  2. Google Books Versus Independent Bookstores #gadgets

  3. Ten years ago, this would have been a great idea for bookstores…even with the mark-up.

    Now more people shop online, but it still may be worthwhile.

    When customers are in a store, they’re prone to ask questions that begin with, “Do you have….”

    I speak from nine years of past bookstore experience.

    The bookstore that can counter with, “Not in physical form, but I can get it for you right now in digital form” should sell some books.

    Of course, if the customer finds out later that the mark-up was double, they may feel cheated, but that’s pretty much the norm for buying a book in a store vs. online anyway.