Reality Gap: the challenge to selling eBooks on the High Street

By Mark Thornton

Mostly 2

To us, it seems a shame that any discussion about bookselling is always, always about Amazon. As an independent bookshop, we feel that Amazon is far from being the only game in town.

We have always felt that what we offer is something that Amazon can’t : to be a genuine local and physical community hub, offering those real-world activities, such as personalised recommends (listening to customers, rather than using predictive algorithms) and fun book events and gatherings. In short, a physical presence that people still value and which, crucially, allow us to make enough money from to continue to run a business.

You notice I haven’t mentioned eBooks yet.

Our strategy, our gameplan, to keep staff employed and the doors open is the same strategy of most successful indies. To put physical books in the hands of willing readers. And yet, in just a few short years, thanks to Amazon and eBooks, the rules of the bookselling game seemed to have changed out of all recognition.

Back in 2009, we were approached by one of our suppliers to start selling eBooks. There had been a bustle of eReaders to market: Sony, Nook, Kindle (launched in 2007) but to be offered the chance to sell eBooks seemed out of kilter with our main business.

This was still true when we had the opportunity to stock the Kobo reader three years later. Then, the thought of turning ourselves into an Apple-style showroom – and supporting and troubleshooting the inevitable customer problems – seemed way too risky. Our customers expect a high level of personal attention and service, and we risked alienating them by switching focus to gadgets and technology. We weren’t sure selling the technology played well enough to the expertise of our staff. We declined.

The situation has evolved rapidly. The impact was a bit like being dimly aware of a distant war, and then one day having someone turn up on your doorstep telling you to prepare for an attack.

The war analogy is not mine of course, it’s the favoured metaphor of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and within his company the common message to executives is ‘we are at war’. Whether we like it or not (and many people don’t seem to mind at all) all of us in the book trade are dancing to Amazon’s beat – or trying to find somewhere to stand before we are crushed under its wheels.

You have to admire Amazon. They have been ruthless, arguably they have had to be in order to survive. But – with the help of shareholders possessing impossibly deep pockets, a genius for legal tax avoidance, and a pathological desire to adapt to their customers – they have been brilliant in their innovations, single-handedly bringing e-reading to the masses.

With lightning thrusts into the entertainment market, they are responsible for close on a third of all entertainment sales in the UK (when you include streaming video, music, books, audio books, etc). Through their website and ownership of Book Depository and Abebooks, they have 41% of the physical book market (in the US it is now 50%), 85% of the digital book market, and an almost near-monopoly on second-hand books. But people absolutely love them; their defenders are vocal.
We have had no choice but to respond. Our very survival is at stake.

Two years ago we pioneered ‘eBook bundling’ with Osprey Publishing’s science fiction imprint ‘Angry Robot’. The initiative was dubbed ‘Clonefiles’: customers bought the book, and got a free copy of the eBook as well – no matter which device they read on. This made perfect sense to us, because the focus was still on the physical book, with the eBook as a bonus.

It got widespread coverage, and brought people into the shop who had, up until then, considered bookshops to be largely irrelevant to their eReading habits. Angry Robot don’t use Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection to prevent copying – so the technical hurdles were lower. Whilst we never made huge Clonefiles sales, it did allow us to dip our toe into the eBook water.

So when National Book Tokens and book wholesaler Gardners jointly set up the Indie eBook Store last year specifically for independents – we could, for the first time, take our expertise in selling and recommending books, but in a digital format. The book trade exists with strong, trusted partnerships from author to reader, and it gave us the confidence to start actively recommending and selling eBooks online and in the shop.

It allows our customers to download eBooks on a variety of eReaders. Of course this next step on the path to selling eBooks wasn’t going to be straightforward. The vast majority of people who read digitally, read on a Kindle (we estimate 90%+ based on conversations with our customers). And as Kindle is a ‘closed ecosystem’, it makes it incredibly difficult to sell an eBook that can be read on it. There is software (‘Calibre’) that allows you to do this, but it does require a fair degree of technical skill, and of course Amazon have made downloading eBooks from their website seamless and seductively easy.

Partnering with a trusted third-party like National Book Tokens, and offering people the choice to buy eBooks from us, at least gives people an option if they do not want to do business with Amazon.

But eBooks have hit indies hard in more subtle ways. Not least because one of the great values of eBooks is they don’t take up space – on a shelf or in a suitcase.
So those big readers, those readers who like to always have a book on the go, those who will take a pile of books when travelling or on holiday – those people who, because they read so avidly and really engage with books, are willing to experiment with new writers, who ‘must-have’ the latest by a favourite author – these are the people who have most quickly and fervently embraced the eReader. It make perfect sense as well, a great example of something dubbed ‘Ephemeralization’ – doing more with less.

Unfortunately, these have traditionally been the biggest customers of the independent bookshop. So there has been a major shift in our main customer base.
More fundamentally, there is what I refer to as a ‘reality gap’, and it’s a consequence of being a physical bookseller (or even an eBook seller) in the ‘real world’ on the High Street.

Rent, rates, staffing costs and taxes are still optimised for a High Street of 30 years ago, in which shops were the only options for buying things. Town centres were then the main community hubs, places people had to visit. Increasingly, town centres are becoming ‘shopping of last resort’. Shopping on the internet, in the comfort of your home or from your work desk (particularly if your boss hasn’t twigged) doesn’t eat into leisure time. Leisure shopping is in huge out-of-town malls. You don’t see many bookshops in those.

Despite the retail world changing beyond recognition, rent, rates and leases have not changed at all. Leases are positively Dickensian, with the odds stacked in favour of the property owner. The system is widely recognised as broken, but it’s deeply-embedded and complex, and it’ll take a generation or more to fix. By then the High Street as we know it may have disappeared. In some places, it has gone already.
There are plenty of supporters and initiatives to support High Streets, so the situation is not inevitable. And on one level developing an expertise for selling eBooks, recommending books to customers – our bread and butter, and the thing many customers value about independents – shouldn’t be too large a step. We are ready and willing to recommend titles, and have them loaded onto eReaders for our customers.

But now we come to another problem.

There are a huge number of books available digitally that are cheap and easy to buy. And by educating customers to pay less – or even nothing – for eBooks (via daily deals, promotions, and a tidal wave of self-publishers making pennies per book – or giving them away for free) Amazon has created a market in which there is little value in the supply chains for independents to use their expertise to recommend eBooks.

It has become difficult to tell if what you are buying has been championed and received input from a publishing team, received any expertise at all in its inception. Which is terrific for indie authors, who are enjoying something of a boom time. But, more than ever, choice is overwhelming.

At the same time, newspapers are deciding they can live without their book editors, schools without librarians – heck, even without libraries. Crowd-sourcing is the new expertise.

Mark (right) with Nick Harkaway at a recent event.
Mark (right) with Nick Harkaway at a recent event.

You might think that all this choice would make the independent bookshop essential as someone plugged into the book trade and offering a curated stock selection. There to expertly match the right book to the individual child, to navigate the teenage reader to being a lifelong reader of adult books?

And indies have adapted before, probably because we’re a tenacious bunch who believe that the ability to put the right books into people’s hands is still of lasting value.

But increasingly people are happy to pay 99 pence for a book they may not particularly want to read, but may simply buy it and have it for the future. Read a little, give it a try. You don’t need an expert to help you make that purchase decision.

If they don’t like it, next week they’ll move on to the next title with only the donation of a small amount of money and a tiny bit of digital space.

The landscape changes again. It is changing the way people shop for and buy books. If you are in business it’s imperative to face up to economic reality. You have to offer what people want, or customers will simply go elsewhere.

We have made subtle shifts in the goods and services we offer – and I am sure all indies have done the same. Indies have found they can bring in customers with coffee and cake, and then sell them a book. Look closely and you can see independents bookstores are no longer simply making their economic reality selling books. Witness the shift in expertise, into the quality of the coffee they are offering, a side-store of chocolate, art space, create space, event space.

We have made a shift towards more and more books for gifts, more books for children, toys and games, greetings cards, fewer literary novels for the heavyweight readers, fewer novels aimed at book groups – more crime fiction, more middle-weight fiction, fewer sales of literary prize-winners – fewer hardbacks.

Mark & Nikki
Mark & Nikki in the courtyard

Day visitors to our town have become our biggest customers – the people with leisure who like to browse. Sales of walking and cycling maps and guides have been strong, particularly reflecting the good summer. We can sell these.

These are all the markets where eBooks have hardly made any inroads: books as gifts, children’s books, books people want on their shelves and to hold in their hands. There are many people who still prefer to read physical books. The market is now sliced and diced it becomes difficult, sometimes to get a proper view of all of this.

But with predictions now that the sales of eBooks will have taken over the total sale of paperback and hardbacks combined within two years (and Amazon with 90% of the market) it doesn’t take much working out to see that between eBook and the squeeze on the high street that independent bookshops are being pinched hardest of all.

With the number of independent bookshops already at an all-time low, with numbers declining year on year – and declining rapidly, the big question is: are we all just chasing fewer and fewer sales opportunities? Are there really enough people committed to physical books and high streets to make the sector viable?
Research is done now every year into the number of children reading digitally and the impact on reading.

Although many of the early eReader device companies have folded, children, it appears, are increasingly reading on the preferred format of iPads and tablets – particularly teenagers.

Sales of dedicated e-Readers have started to slow, even as sales of eBooks rise.
As long as readers are not reading exclusively on Kindles – they can buy from anywhere. Is it too optimistic to start to see a future where Amazon does not continue its hold of 90 per cent of the market? Is it the taste of children’s reading that will fundamentally make the difference?

If there is a rise of reading on devices other than Kindle there should be a corresponding rise in the market share of eBooks.

In this particular war, as the eBook market matures, there is the possibility of a ‘rebel alliance’ forming around digital publishing, working together to do what the traditional book industry has always done successfully for centuries: nurture new talent, curate authors and books, and place inspirational, entertaining and often life-changing literature in the hands of readers who love it.

We hope that our role as ‘curators’ within our community can still add enough value and that, with a bit of practice, with partnerships, and growing confidence, we still have a role in bridging the reality gap between the virtual and the real.
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Mark and his wife Nikki own  Mostly Books, an indie bookshop in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, and this week marks the 8th anniversary of opening the shop!

Pictures are included with permission from the Mostly Books blog.

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