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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Predicting the Future of Ebooks and Independent Bookstores (why not, everyone else is)

For the past couple months I have been listening to fellow independent booksellers discuss, worry and fret over what kind of impact ebooks are going to have on their businesses. Moreover, I have heard many of them discussing strategies as to how they plan and hope to capture some of that market. The assumption from these booksellers is that if they don’t get in there and compete as ebook sellers as well, they will be losing existing book sales. There were some excellent words by Copperfield’s Books Tom Montan last week about independents staying out of the ebook market. What Tom said rang true for me, but I am going to take his point a bit further here.

Since this seems to be the year for manifestos and bold predictions about the future of the book industry, I thought I would add my voice to the noisy debate with my own prediction about ebooks and independent bookstores :

Prediction :

The growth and proliferation of ebooks and ebook reading devices, no matter how vast, will have little to no impact on physical independent bookstores.

Assumptions :

I certainly believe, as many studies show, that ebooks will slowly replace a sizeable percentage of the physical book market. Yet, I also believe that the converts from physical books to ebooks will be converting sales that were happening mostly online, not in stores like mine. As far as I have seen, there has been no real data assembled to look at where current ebook buyers bought their books prior to their ebook lifestyle. My guess is that if that analysis were ever done, we would find that the majority of these customers’ prior book buying habits were not in physical independent bookstores.

Most independent bookstores that are still in existence, have been fighting the battle of reimagining themselves for years to make sure that what they offer (products, services, amenities) is not only relevant to their customer base, but is essential to those customers, and is not easily duplicated elsewhere (online, chain stores and big box retailers).

Plus we already know that of our most customers don’t make all their book purchases through us anyway. They have a handful of book needs that we, somehow (price, convenience, etc), don’t always fulfill best for them. That has been true and it will remain true. Therefore, the customers who currently find value in strong robust independent bookstores, will not make a significant change in the way they shop at them, even if they change part of their reading to electronic devices.

Anecdotal Evidence :

Our store acquired a print on demand book machine (the Espresso Book Machine) this past year. One of the things the machine does is print perfect bound paperback copies of public domain titles provided by Google Books. The day after the first major article came out about it in our local paper a customer came in with a list of over 15 titles that he wanted printed. These titles were all public domain books that he was able to read for free via Google Books on his computer or other electronic reading device. Furthermore, they were also available for free for him to download and print on his own. Yet, he came in our store, quite excited, to have us print copies for him to buy because he was finally able to have physical bound copies of these books he had been only able to read electronically until now.

Further Assumptions :

My prediction is based on the concept that a number of other factors in the industry stay the same or improve. First and foremost, my prediction will not have the slightest hope of succeeding if publishing industry does not work more aggressively on ceasing the devaluation of their product by allowing books to be sold in multiple venues at less than their true cost. Likewise, publishers will need to find ways to further support physical bookstores who maintain a breadth of their inventory (which I discussed in a previous blog). 

I also assume, as I have seen no evidence to the contrary, that purchasing an ebook via an independent bookstore, no matter what the method, will always be an extra unnecessary step in what could be a much simpler process for the ebook buyer if they went elsewhere.

It is therefore my hope that my fellow independent booksellers (some of whom have gone to the lengths of renting e-readers to customers) and the American Booksellers Association not waste precious time, energy and money in a part of the market, that I believe we will not be able to compete in with any kind of significance nor will we need to be a part of to continue to exist. 

Posted by Robert Sindelar 
Managing Partner, Third Place Books

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