OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME
Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University. It’s been a blast so far. My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture. More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.
Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers. I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.” In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.
One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading. Really, it’s an oligarchy. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States. And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies. Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.
Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away. But these booksellers have it backward. The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are. How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?
The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently. Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online. I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding. Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete. Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.
Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly. So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats. Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library. Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.
What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic. Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism. The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller. In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures. That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them. The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.
How do you make it work, financially? The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect. Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books. It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway. So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē. Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.
There you have it. Will the Indies run with it? Or will all of the students enrolled in my next “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?
The ePub format is already platform-agnostic and reasonably feature-rich (as much as many think a book needs). The only thing that’s proprietary about it is its use of DRM systems tied to specific stores.
Likewise, there’s no need for a new device. There are enough ebook-reading devices out there now, including some of the major retailers’ devices that can also handle content from other vendors, as well as independent tablets, smartphones, PCs, etc.
So, instead of trying to invent a new ebook format or device, indies should be concentrating on becoming part of the purchasing system. They can set up portals and direct the book purchase through their portal, even if the purchase itself is done through another party (like Smashwords, say), and a portion of the purchase can be diverted to them. If existing bookselling sites have a problem with that, indies need their own IndieBound-type ebook store that they will all tie into.
Each store will allow sales to be handled through their portal, either at the cashier, or wirelessly by the purchaser through its in-store hotspot. The ebook is sent to the purchaser’s device of choice, and the store gets a cut of the sale.
I’ve said for years that this is the best option for independent booksellers to get into the ebook market. It is also good for indie booksellers like myself, as it gives us access to physical location sales that we couldn’t get before (even now, indies are invisible at B&N’s physical locations.
“Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian …”
Given that EPUB sans DRM (or Mobi in lieu of AZW) is an important exception to this statement, would it be important to know whether these tetherings are the will of publishers, agents, rights holders, eBookstore operators or some subset of these?
Would the case of untethered music on iTunes and Amazon suggest that not all of these stake holders feel the same way about DRM? It would seem that Apple and Amazon feel that untethered music is more lucrative. Why would they think differently about eBooks?
Will the real supporter(s) of DRM please stand up?
The subject here is the survival of the independent bookstore. We can rant about DRM at another time and place.
@Steven Lyle Jordan said:
“The subject here is the survival of the independent bookstore. We can rant about DRM at another time and place.”
The assertion I quoted from the article suggests that the survival of Indie bookstores has been threatened through unfair competition by Apple, B&N and Amazon, largely through the use of DRM and device tie-ins. I question this by way of pointing out that Apple and Amazon may be the wrong entities to point a finger at. Based on recent history in the music industry, I suggest that Apple and Amazon would be just as happy and possibly happier to ditch eBook DRM just as they did with music. So who is the real adversary of indie bookseller success here? Isn’t the answer to that question important to any effective indie bookseller survival strategy?
I agree that Indie booksellers would be ill-advised to further Balkanize the eBook landscape by coming up with new and different DRM tactics but what other options do they really have? Unencumbered EPUBs can be brought into most of today’s eReaders but will those who have a proprietary interest (rights holders and publishers) in those eBooks allow that? Most likely not.
Focusing on Apple, B&N and Amazon and their use of DRM tactics is a misdirected effort. They are simply carrying out the directives of those who have a proprietary interest and who insist on DRM. They are the ones who have to be changed or bypassed. Some rights holders might be convinced and most publishers can now be bypassed.
Indies should follow the writer as well as the reader promoting and retailing regional production. More importantly, indies should watch the convergence of print-on-demand technologies with self-publishing. While no one was looking, print on demand titles have overtaken offset titles. Meanwhile digital printing has infiltrated all publishing. Indies should retail paper ebooks. (i.e. regional, local books that sell well on-screen).
Indie promotion and involvement with screen books is counter productive. These enterprises are service specialists for regional, local book readerships of paper editions. Any screen readerships that they encounter would also be regional, local which is a contradiction.
Creating an open ebook system, even if they could pull it off, won’t make a different to the fate of indie bookstores. Mostly because it is too late to introduce another format/DRM ecosystem. (Even in Japan, XMDF failed and now they’re looking to epub3 to save them from Amazon’s rumored entrance to the Japanese native market.)
I suppose some government mandated scheme, say in europe, might make some inroads but they would have to forbid alternatives.
As things are going, the ebook reader hardware is too competitive for anybody not named Kindle, Nook, or Kobo. And it is hardly impossible that one of the two epub players might still fade. Trying to shoehorn into that market is thankless, just ask iRiver, and mostly a fast way for indies to commit mass suicide.
I think the recent article here laid out the viable options pretty clearly:
And since it is too late to bet on ebooks (two years, at a minimum) and the big chains are better placed to bet on retailing, they really need to bet on print and simply become the best print book retailer in their area; focus on customer needs and service, play up the social aspects, play up the author interaction and marketting. And batten the hatches for the coming storm.
Indies don’t need to get into ebooks to survive; they just need to outlast the fall/evolution of the superstore chains and whatever remains of the print book business will fall into their laps. 🙂
The print book business is built to serve the big box bookstores. If the big stores die, there will be no print business to serve the indie bookstores… it will perish too.
Betting on print is a sucker bet for indies. It won’t be enough to support indie bookstores, because local POD services won’t be enough to satisfy an audience that is now used to a global market, and the existing big pub bookselling methods will be increasingly untenable for indie bookstores. Indie bookstores must embrace the global ebook market as a convenient and compelling local outlet, a place to congregate and socialize, and to buy any content the consumer wants, through them. Ebooks represent the most available and accessible content. They must make that part of their draw.
DRM may be an issue with big publishers; individual authors may ignore it. The indie bookstore should rise above such issues, offering the book in whatever form it is available. In fact, they should be able to guide the consumer into purchasing the ebook from the source that works best for them (which may include a DRM source, as many consumers have demonstrated that DRM does not even enter onto their radar).
And as I said before, if no existing booksellers offer ebooks in the way that indies want to sell them, they need to set up their own indie-serving ebook outlet, something that indie authors and publishers alike can use as desired, with the understanding that part of their sales go to the indie bookstore through which the book was bought.