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!