A New Frontier: Independent eBookselling and the Google Experience

Sarah WeinmanBy Sarah Weinman, News Editor, Publishers Marketplace

[An exclusive excerpt from the Program Book for eBooks Go Global at BEA, the first Publishers Launch Conference, from our partners at Publishers Launch. –Ed.]

Google’s eBooks platform, after months of hype and fanfare, finally arrived on December 6, and Google’s partnership with independent booksellers was front and center with its eBookstore launch. Alibris and Powells.com, both large indies with robust online stores, were selling Google eBooks right out of the gate.  By the end of the week, more than 110 American Bookseller Association member stores were able to sell Google eBooks through IndieCommerce, the ABA’s e-commerce platform.

Independent booksellers — or at least, some of them — rejoiced because selling Google eBooks gave them some skin in the digital books game. Agency priced ebooks were the same across any platform, and that meant customers could, if they chose, support indies by buying new e-releases at their favorite bookstore instead of some behemoth retailing competitor that starts with the letter A.

Six months later, the fanfare has faded and independent booksellers are now better versed in selling digital books. The key issues are about quantity (can they sell enough ebooks to make it matter?) marketing (will customers actually buy digital books from them instead of Amazon or Barnes & Noble?) and strategy (can selling ebooks drive print sales? will indies be able to innovate or just try to hang on to what they have?). Answers are still in short supply, but there are some smart and interesting experiments and results.

Green Apple Books in San Francisco and McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan designed shelf-talkers featuring QR codes. This allows customers to scan the square codes with their smartphones while they are in the store and buy the books and download them immediately off of each store’s IndieCommerce website. Books, Inc. has also started using QR codes in its stores, with co-owner Margie Tucker explaining: “We are also using them as a shelf tag/and or bookmark on new titles, both hardcover and backlist. We’re adding about 24 a week.” eBooks also allow indies to try a mix of conventional and unconventional marketing approaches. Kepler’s, for example, experimented with promotions including a 30% off sale day featuring mimosas, champagne, and demos of Google eBooks, as well as direct mail offers at the beginning of 2011.

Also in January, the ABA looked into how Google eBooks were selling at member stores. Technology director Matt Supko told a crowd at the ABA Winter Institute in Washington, DC that originally they believed the more expensively priced non-agency titles – which were marked down significantly on Google’s own site but which indies could not discount, citing margin concerns – would be far outpaced by agency title sales. Data, however, showed otherwise, with the average price for a Google eBook sold through indies at $10.83. The breakdown of sales was 55 percent agency, 30% discounted non-agency, and 15% non-discounted non-agency, Supko said.

So how is this ebook thing going for the indies, and what kind of results do they have to report so far? That will be the subject of our panel The New Frontier: Independent Bookselling and the Google Experience at eBooks Go Global, the first conference from Publishers Launch Conferences, at BEA on Wednesday, May 25th. Tickets are selling fast but there are still some seats left, register here to join us (or here, through BEA).


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