My plan to save independent booksellers

Ken Auletta writes in this week’s New Yorker about the complex world of eBooks, the iPad, and the relationship among authors, computer vendors, and book publishers.

He got me thinking of a radical plan to save my favorite bookstores around the world. To cut to the chase, here it is:

• Sell at these three digital book readers, such as iPad, Kindle, and Sony.
• Sell various add-ons to these readers, including covers, lights, skins, car power adapters and other stuff.
• Pre-load these devices with eBook “staff picks” and have the staff member show off their picks at various times of the week.
• Beef up store Web sites to sell this gear online as well.

I know, it is probably unworkable, but a bold plan. Indy booksellers are my trusted advisors to acquire new titles. I confess that I have gone into these stores looking for new books to read, and sometimes walked out having bought them on my iPhone at Amazon’s Kindle store. Shame on me! But if they adopt the Strom plan, they will bring me back in, and not just for the lattes that they don’t have.

Out of my five favorite booksellers’ (Dolphin Books in my former home town of Port Washington, NY, Left Bank Books here in St. Louis, Powell’s in Portland, Elliott Bay in Seattle, and City Lights in San Francisco), only Powell’s sells eBooks on their Web site. Dolphin doesn’t even have a Web site. None sell the hardware eReaders or any accessories. Admittedly, this isn’t a very scientific sample.

Yes, Barnes and Noble sells their Nook eReader, and Borders has the Sony eReader in their stores. They also sell overpriced coffees and baked goods too. Both chains have some in-store gimmicks to get you interested in buying some etitles, but they are about as impersonal as the rest of their miles of aisles. I want to go up to that multi-pierced bespectacled androgynous 20-something sales clerk that has plenty of ‘tude to tell me what I should be reading next. I want to hold the hardware in my hot little hands and get the contact rush that I have visiting that technologic temple, the Apple Store. I want to develop a relationship with my store, not just shop there for stuff. And I want them to start making some money so they will still be around in a few years, unlike record stores and encyclopedia salesmen and daily newspapers.

All five of my stores have sections in their stores where they display the titles that the staff recommends and typically a 3.x5 index card with a handwritten description of why this book made the cut. Let’s get better than that and use digital marketing techniques. Pre-load the eBooks themselves on the eReaders and let me take them home right then and there.

Sure, I know this is a pain. You need someone who is a refugee from the Apple Store, who has some software smarts, who can do the customer service kinda thing. And the wholesale margins on the hardware are slim. And you have to carry and stock and deal with returns on something that costs more than $35. But would you pay a small markup to get the units with, say, ten titles already to go? But think of the in-store debates about which device is going to be better for your situation. Yes, you can go into Best Buy and look at several different units, but do you really trust their salesperson to sell you anything other than a TV? (And that might be a stretch too, come to think of it.)

It is ironic that the three biggest vendors in the eBook space (Google, Amazon and Apple) are all organizations that are difficult to nearly impenetrable for authors and the general public, late night personal emails from Steve Jobs notwithstanding. It is time for some brave eBook VAR to package my plan for the indy booksellers and dominate this market niche.

(In interests of full disclosure, I have written three books, two published. None have made back their advances. Were I to write another book, I would do it as a self-published eBook first.)

7 thoughts on “My plan to save independent booksellers

  1. An intriguing idea, but I do want to point out two things. First, you actually can buy eBooks from the Left Bank Books website. It’s still pretty new, but it’s definitely an available feature. The second point I have to stress is that while there might be some foot traffic benefits to stocking some e-book readers, the Kindle’s proprietary link to Amazon leaves zero residual benefit to any brick and mortar establishment. eBooks for the Kindle can only be purchased from Amazon.com, so selling them in an independent bookstore would essentially be a big farewell to future business from any customer that purchases one.

    • I disagree. We readers still want personal recommendations. While you might not get future cuts on Kindle ebooks, you will bring me back in the store. Yes, Amazon will get more of my money, but you will get more of my loyalty and I might just buy some physical merchandize as well. And if I don’t buy a Kindle but get some other reader that offers you a cut on the ebooks, you will get some of that business too.

  2. I am fascinated by the flagrant opportunism of this idea that someone walks into an independent bookstore, trades on its knowledge/recommendations/stock, and then feels free to shop elsewhere. It’s just like stealing. If the bookstore disappeared this reader would be the first to bitch, and yet there is no sense that spending a portion of the budget for books and time to read a physical book is what keeps that bookstore operating. Amazon’s ebooks are proprietary and not available for the idea of “stocking them.”

    There is a very good saying, Shop Where You Live. If you go somewhere for recommendations and to be steered to products you will use, then support that business — bookstores are a business, not a library, not publicly funded, not charitable institutions.

    A good model is to think of an independent bookstore as like PBS or NPR: the latter ask you in their frequent fund drives to give you money and in return they give you programming. A bookstore needs you to buy books and in return it gives you programming of various sorts.

    Ebooks have their uses, aside from making you look hip to own one and providing instant gratification, perhaps to the point that while the owner loads one there is never actual time to read the book. But if you travel, a touted use, they are portable electronic devices meaning you can’t read them in some situations, they need power/batteries (if you like I had been stranded at Machu Picchu in January you would have been pleased to be carrying a regular paperback or two), they can cost the earth to load from foreign locations, they break….

    Ebooks like audio books are a different way to experience, a different platform for story delivery, so let them be part of your cache of reading and spread your money and time to the advantage of all.

    For full disclosure, I own an excellent independent bookstore in Scottsdale AZ and this is the message we deliver to our thousands of customers regularly, one that seems to have been useful.

    • Barbara, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I do want to keep my local booksellers in business, truly I do. And while the Amazon eBooks may not work, eventually you will be selling eBooks of some form or another. Why not embrace the format now and get out ahead of the curve? Sell the hardware, get people used to the idea of combining both print and electronic versions, and build up that link with the local customers? I am glad you are part of the landscape, and hope you and others can continue to serve our reading needs.

  3. I am uncertain HOW to sell the Ebooks. When I order new books & ne Audio books from my distributer there is never an option to order eBooks to resell too. Any ideas of how Powells and the like actually hook these eBooks up to their sites? It’s hard to be modern in the bookshop when you are not sure how.

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