Where I buy a print book often comes down to convenience (which store is closest), pricing, availability (is the book in stock?) and loyalty programs (e.g., member discounts).  The choice of a brick-and-mortar vs. an online store adds in the component of urgency; do you need the book today or can it wait till tomorrow?

I’m buying ebooks almost exclusively now.  In fact, I can’t even recall the last print book I bought for myself.  Although I ditched my Kindle on day one with my iPad, I do most of my book reading in the Kindle app on the iPad.  Although Amazon has a major selection advantage of the iBookstore, Apple will catch up at some point.  Then there’s B&N and Borders.  Both of them have iPad apps and ebook stores.  And don’t forget about Google and their upcoming Editions program as well a host of other up-and-coming e-tailers.

So here’s the question: With all these ebook retailers just a click away from each other, what must they do to earn your business on a repeat basis? This is a critical question for all the e-tailers looking for loyal customers.  I’ve come up with a list of some of the items that affect my buying habits:


Reader Features — I’m referring to the bells and whistles the vendor builds into their ereader apps.  Today they’re all about the same but I believe this will be a critical point of distinction in the years ahead.  Integration of social networks (easily sending excerpts to your friends, tweeting them, etc.) is just a simple example.  I’m willing to bet the features we’ll see in ereader apps in a year or two will make today’s apps look pretty basic.

Sharable Content — B&N took the first steps of this for the Nook but that’s not going to cut it long term.  Customers need to be able to share their purchases with all their friends, one by one, of course, just like they can with a print book.  Which leads to…

Eliminating DRM — Which major ebook retailer will be the first to feature nothing but DRM-free books?  We sell a lot of ebook bundles on oreilly.com and I believe one of the reasons why is because we’ve totally eliminated DRM from the transaction.  We trust our customers to do the right thing and they reward us by coming back and buying more.  This is a tough one though as it’s the publishers who need to be convinced DRM is bad, not so much the retailers.  I was pleased to see that one of the larger, old-school publishers who was a huge advocate of DRM at our 2009 TOC conference became a convert by the time they attended our 2010 TOC show.  I figure if they can make the change, anyone can!

Price — It’s the obvious way of winning customers, but is it a legitimate, significant long-term advantage?  Probably not.  I compare the top e-tailers before I buy books for my iPad and I rarely find a price difference.  On top of that, I’d be willing to pay more for each book if the more expensive option offers me some of the other advantages I’ve listed in this post.

Loyalty Programs — Here’s one we really haven’t seen tapped into yet.  When will I be able to take advantage of a “buy-2-get-1-free” ebook campaign?  We’ve done some experimentation like this on oreilly.com and it works.  What’s nice about this model is that the e-tailer has easy access to your account, so you could accumulate buyer points, buy 1 book now and come back a week or two later to buy the 2nd book that gets you the 3rd one free.  Good luck trying that at your local brick-and-mortar store.  If I know that I’m one book away from getting a free one I’m much more likely to go back to that same store for my next purchase.

Non-book Content — Up to now all I’ve been talking about is books.  What about magazines and newspapers though?  When I bought my Kindle v1 I thought it would be a way to always have my newspapers and magazines on the road.  Unfortunately for Amazon, the user experience for newspapers and magazines was awful, so I quickly dropped my subscriptions.  Although most of these publishers are trying to go direct to customers (e.g., iPad apps), there will also be subscriptions through larger e-tailers.  Part of this has to do with discovery, which is why print magazines/newspapers are still at your local convenience store.  How could e-tailers leverage these products to make their site/reader the most compelling one available?

Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head.  What have I missed?  What products and services can an e-tailer offer to earn your repeat business?  Or, with all these stores just a click away, are we less likely to remain loyal to only one or two of them?

Via Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog


  1. Well price is important although with the agency model that’s moot in many cases. There is also compatibility, not everyone has an Ipad (I’m waiting for a tablet that’s more then a glorified Ipod Touch) and eBook readers are only compatible with so many DRM schemes.

    I agree with you completely on the loyalty programs, I was a massive fan of Fictionwise which not only allowed you to select (for unencrypted books) which format of a book you wished to purchase but also had a rebate program which allowed to build up points for free purchases though of course that was done away with some time ago.

    I’m not too sold on the non-book content. I don’t think it’s very wise to assume book readers and magazine/newspaper readers are all in the same demographic. At least for now, most people who used eBook readers are tech savay enough to use computers well also and a massive percent of those people get there news online. I for one can’t remember the last time I bought a paper and even if it were electronic, the thought of actually paying for news (sorry Rupert) leaves a bad taste in my wallet. I’d much rather prefer using RSS feeds which I already do for free.

    And finally as for DRM, it isn’t much of a problem for me as I only buy from stores where it won’t be an issue at all after a few clicks. When I buy an eBook reader I’m buying their device, not the store and I won’t be hamstrung to one.

    The winning combination I think would be a store like Fictionwise was last year with no (or choice of) DRM and choice of format. Have an online library at the site (most do already) but also be able to wirelessly send books to your device (any and all) with a single click if at all possible. Have a membership program and a rebate program with frequent sales.

    Other then having a good selection, that’s pretty much all I would want…for now. 🙂

  2. Selection is definitely number one.

    Price is important, but still secondary to selection. (Who cares if Site A has an average overall price lower than Site B if Site A doesn’t have what I want?)

    DRM doesn’t bother me. Would I like it to go away? Maybe for the sake of not having to listen to everyone complain about it. I’m a one e-book device person so as long as I’m getting what I want at a fair price, the fact my shopping location choices may be limited doesn’t enter into my equation.

    I didn’t, (and don’t), lend my p-books, so lending my e-books isn’t going to happen either–no matter if that option is available or not.

    The only thing that might get my attention is a loyalty program. (I’m a Starbucks customer instead of a Caribou Coffee customer because Starbucks give me free stuff.)

  3. Oh, and non-book content…I enjoy reading my NYTimes on my K each morning but I don’t enjoy K-ized magazines. That being said, I still wouldn’t switch devices or shopping locations just to get a better digital edition of TIME. Physical magazines are still something I like finding in my mailbox once a week.

  4. Like Koost, I appreciate a format choice. Over the years, I’ve used multiple reading devices and need to migrate my books between them. I think extensive customer reviews is good (Amazon is the champ at this). After all, if I’m going to spend my money, I want to know that not everyone hates the book or that it’s not some ‘Nazis were really misunderstood victims’ tale. I like the ability to really dig into sub-genres (I’m not looking for generic Science Fiction, I want urban fantasy in the style of Walter Mosley for example).

    As for sharing, sure, let readers share a little but really, books are cheap. Why not let them buy their own copy?

    Rob Preece

  5. Readily available customer support (i.e. easy access to someone who can help you use this fancy e-reading doodad), selling in a format you trust won’t go obsolete (or will be converted for free when it does) and a good E-book/real book integration and balance.

    The first two points are probably self-explanatory, but the third one is harder to demonstrate because noone has figured it how to do it yet. I don’t think anybody wants physical books to go away yet, because a lot of people still prefer the old-school reading experience and having a long-term hard copy. The problem is coming up with a service that figures out how to provide both in a way that makes sense to the user.

    Will this mean bundling the two together? How about offering print-on-demand for the e-book you’re currently reading (including your specific user settings)? Allow authors to publish e-books first then get a physical publishing deal if they hit, say 10,000 copies? Maybe e-books should be just be a netflix or rhapsody style subscription-based service, or make them 30-day rentals for a dollar.

    The business model for a physical book is wonderful; first read the book at a library, on-loan from a friend, or even at the store, then buy the book, then you own it forever and have supported the author. The business model for e-books is first buy the reading device, then buy the book, then you can read the book, but you lose it when you buy a new device. How is that an improvement? E-books simply need an all-new business model, not just new prices.

  6. First and foremost, no lockin. That means multiple format support, no DRM (or a choice of DRM schemes). The ability to redownload at a later date (e.g. for new formats or DRM schemes) is a definite plus.

    Second, reasonable prices. I don’t care if they’re the cheapest available, but I object to being gouged (e.g. $20 for a book that’s already in paperback).

    Without those two requirements, nothing else matters; I simply won’t buy. Once past those hurdles, the main attractions are:

    * selection

    * navigation

    * excerpts, reviews, etc. (ways to find new stuff)

    Good navigation is surprisingly hard to do. Most sites fail horribly.

    The ability to redownload my library is a true ‘loyalty program’, in that it turns a one-time purchase into an ongoing customer relationship. And even though many stores do (or will) provide this, so that it isn’t a unique advantage to any one store, it remains a strong incentive to continue to patronize the same store(s).

  7. I love my Kindle and I’ve always loved Amazon’s simple purchasing process and large selection. Their customer service is fantastic too. Their prices were good too, until the agency model came along.

    That said, I would love to do away with DRM. I download non-DRM music from Amazon all the time, that makes the files mine forever, just like buying a CD. Why not do that with ebooks? Then I could loan or give them away, the same as physical books. I would also like to be able to selectively share ebooks with members of my family. Right now, it’s all or nothing and I have books that would not be appropriate for my teens, so no sharing my account.

    With Kindle for everything apps, format is no longer an issue except that I downloaded a bunch of free B&N books I can’t use.

    Price is really my big driver, I will not buy ebooks that are the same or more than the physical books, they just don’t give me the same bang for my buck. I own my physical books forever and can loan them or give them away. I can’t do that with ebooks so why should I pay the same price? In fact, for paperback books, I can get the book cheaper at discount stores than the ebook price, why not the same discount? I definitely feel like the publishers want to take advantage of me. My answer is to not buy the ebook version and to only get the physical version on the used book market. That way, no profit for the publisher or the author. I just have to wait a little longer for the book. For example, Nora Roberts’ latest is still $9.99 for the Kindle version but $3.49 as a used book, I would be stupid to buy the ebook. Frankly, while waiting, sometimes the book is no longer important, so I buy something else instead and they lose out again.

    The other thing I like about Amazon are all the free books and the low-cost indie books. I’ve been exposed to far more authors than I ever would have been walking into a bookstore, including several that are now on my wishlist. Sometimes the book isn’t the greatest, but it’s not a big loss because the price is so low. I’m a lot more willing to take a risk at $2.99 than at $12.99.

    Amazon just gives them out free too, you don’t have to physically go to the store like B&N to get one free book. Amazon gives out dozens every month.

    I used to split my book purchases between Amazon and B&N with a few from discount stores. I love browsing in a physical bookstore, but now I’m almost exclusively Amazon. I’ll still browse at B&N, my daughter prefers physical books, but I just add them to my Amazon wishlist while in the store.

    The only non-book item I have for my Kindle is Reader’s Digest. I tried some others, but magazines just aren’t meant to read electronically. I got a free emagazine that I get through Zinio, but never read it. As for news, I get that through RSS feeds, I quit getting a physical paper when the Rocky Mountain News went under. I don’t like my news filtered through some editor’s biases.

  8. a) Lowest possible price.
    b) No DRM.
    c) Wide format choice.

    It still wouldn’t work, though, because I’m not loyal to large commercial enterprises. Call it a character flaw, but they’ve never been loyal to me.

    Jack Tingle

  9. I read 15-20 ebooks a month. I don’t care about DRM, bells and whistles, and sharable content at all.

    All I care about is price, selection, and customer service. Amazon so far wins in all these categories plus when you add the 250 free books I’ve downloaded from them I have no complaints.

  10. Price is important to me. Cheaper than the cheapest (new) paper version. If it’s only a couple of bucks cheaper, I can live with that.

    Selection. The store I end up going to most often is the store I will end up going to first, to save time. Selection includes backlist.

    No DRM or invisible DRM. The first time DRM screws up my buying/reading experience is the time I start looking elsewhere.

    Being able to share books with my friends. No DRM is an obvious way to do this, but I’m also okay with being able to have my Kindle dial Amazon and loan to her Kindle. The book can be unavailable to me while she has it; that’s how it would be with a paper book, after all. But I should be able to share as often as I want; none of this “once and you’re done” business.

  11. I’m sort of split between January and Jack Tingle. The only thing I really ask for from a retailer is selection–do they have what I want readily available? If so, I buy. If not, I leave.

    But, as Jack point out, I reserve loyalty for friends, people I have a personal relationship with. A retailer could “earn my loyalty” by being someone I know personally.

    Buyer programs? Sure, cool, I guess, but I don’t know if I want to sign up for eighty zobgillion spams per month just because I get free coffee once in a while (Drip only, not espresso or anything. And you have to pay tax. And if you don’t use it within one week of issue it expires.)

  12. Reader Features:
    This will be irrelevant as eReaders will read eBooks from many retailers.

    Sharable Content:
    I personally don’t see this as a big deal.

    The first retailer to ditch this rubbish will get a huge boost in recognition and loyalty from readers imho.

    Price is and always will be critical. But I see price being standard across retailers in the main, with little variability.

    Loyalty & Non-book Content:
    I see these together as one and I see this as the big differentiator.
    Offering readers the ability to contact fellow readers of that book to share opinions, directly through the eBook software or via online fora. Offering readers additional content such as interviews with authors, back stories about how the book was written, vouchers against future books by this author etc. etc. together with quality reliable recommendations and well constructed and organised discussion forums.
    I believe the first Retailer to put together a comprehensive package like this that brings the customer into a ‘family/club’ environment will be a huge winner.

  13. I will point out that Baen could decide to not use DRM because they are publisher as well as the retailer.

    Retailers who are not publishers do not have this choice (or at least not if they are dealing with any of the major publishers).

  14. Book Selection, Platform Availability, Price. Basically, do you have book I want, can I read it on the thing, or things I got, and is it easy for me to buy it. Those are the major factors for the average reader.

    DRM only comes into the picture when a reader is prevented from reading a book they purchased on their platform of choice. I can see a big call for iBooks to go DRM-free, or any retailer that isn’t Amazon for that matter. Amazon effectively negates the DRM-free argument by having a reader available on just about any platform (other than the nook, which doesn’t have the market share to matter). Kindle book purchasers as a general rule simply never run into a situation where they can’t read their books.

  15. Book selection, platform availability, DRM freedom, and reasonable price (no more hardback prices when book is out in paperback!) are the big four.

    But there are other features that e-book retailers could add that would make me more loyal:

    * ability to re-download books
    * easy way to rate/review books
    * easy sharing of rating/review on social media (facebook, librarything)
    * good “alert” system to let me know of new books by my favorite authors, or on my favorite topics . . . or of e-book releases of p-books on my wish list . . . or of price discounts for existing e-books on my wish list
    * rewards program (buy X, get X free; bonuses for referring friends or rating a certain percentage of books)
    * good customer service
    * freebies (free books or stuff like the “special features” on a dvd)

  16. It’s important to remember that there’s a huge number of people out there who don’t care so strongly about DRM that they find every blog post about it and comment that they don’t like it.

  17. Christian – remember that a reader may be a Kindle reader for a year or 15 months or only 6 months, then lose or break his Kindle .. or even take a dislike to it for a new device. Then where is s/he ?

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