Indie bookstores have enjoyed a resurgence in book sales over the course of the past year. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20% since e-readers took the world by storm. There were 1,651 in 2009 and this figure jumped dramatically to 2,094 in 2014. These days, indie bookstores don’t just sell print books, but e-book as well, and it is a losing proposition.
Independent bookstores first started selling e-books in 2010 when the American Booksellers Association partnered with Google. This arrangement did not last very long because people needed a smartphone or tablet with Google Play Services, and during this time period many companies did not offer devices with this particular framework. In 2012 the ABA pivoted and signed a new three year deal with Kobo. Bookstores would earn a commission on e-reader sales and also any books that were purchased on the device.
The average indie bookstores has between 1% and 3% of their revenue come from e-books. The ones that have any sort of success have a dedicated person who is in charge of promotions and getting people knowledgeable that they can still support their local bookstore, while buying content online. An example of a successful initiative is McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich. They saw both the sales volume and number of new e-book customers rise in 2014. The store added 71 new Kobo customers for a 23% increase in its customer base. That’s in part because the store integrates e-books into its weekly email blast, its radio promotion on NPR, and even at book talks
Many indie bookstores actually see no point to carrying e-readers or e-books. “We have no plans to sell Kobos at this time,” said Bob Ryan, manager of Wakefield Books in Wakefield, R.I. “We understand the popularity of the e-readers, but we’re going to cater to the print readers.”
Meanwhile, Steven Baum, co-owner of Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley, Md., which once carried electronics, has no desire to return. “We left that industry when the sales tax was greater than the profit margin,” he said. “The Kobo is too little too late. E-book readers are already on a massive decline, because of the tablet.”
Other booksellers were soured by the Google experience and decided not to sell Kobo e-readers. “We did the Google thing,” said Grant Novak, manager of the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, which is not selling e-books.
Amazon currently dominates the US, with a 75% market share. This leaves Apple, Barnes and Noble, Google and Kobo fighting over the scraps. Indie bookstores simply are not in the average customers mind when they think of places to go, to buy e-books. For every person who buys an e-reader from a bookstore is one less print sale, which often has a higher profit margin. Do bookstores really want to take a gambit on their future by actively encouraging these base of customers to switch to digital content?
I think indie bookstores would be better off not selling e-books or e-readers and instead focusing on the community aspect of book selling. I know plenty of stores in New York that have wine parties and cool events that bring the book community together and foster something far grater than buying an e-book in your boxer shorts.
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times.