Ebook Fascination

Hamlet likely wasn’t the first to ponder matters of life and death, but the question he poses in his famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” remains as relevant today as ever before – especially for independent booksellers. Of course, the question needs to be updated a bit, since it’s now “To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’,” as booksellers define their stance when it comes to e-books.

Just as we’ve seen a number of booksellers celebrate the launch of Google Editions – giving them the opportunity to offer e-books to their customers and make a bit of money doing so – we’ve also heard from several others who are adamant in their refusal to join the fray. We thought that it might be beneficial for indie booksellers to look at both sides of the current debate before they decide on an approach that will work best for them and for their customers.

Everywhere you look, there seems to be yet another pundit predicting the demise of the printed book or the brick-and-mortar bookstore. After all, no one can dispute that the rapid acceleration of technology has contributed to obsolescence – just think of cassette and VCR tapes, vinyl records and turntables. There will always be a segment of the population enthralled with the newest innovation.

Some perspective here might be valuable. Industry figures tell us that publishing is a $12+ billion a year business, with e-books accounting for 3-5% of that figure; some are predicting that e-books will continue to grow in popularity, and account for 10% of the market within the next few years. A closer look at the “digital reading revolution” shows that Amazon and Kindle is the dominant market force, with Barnes & Noble and their Nook e-reader and Apple’s I-Pad distant runners-up; between them, they account for at least 80-90% of the market.

Thanks to Google Editions and the American Booksellers Association’s efforts to provide their members with competitive web-based technology, indie booksellers can now tout as an advantage that e-books they can sell can be read on just about any device except a Kindle. But to whom should this message be aimed? Customers who don’t yet own a reading device of any kind but are expected to? After all, the argument goes, readers are readers, and want to be able to read whatever, wherever, and whenever they please.

It’s understandable that booksellers desire to remain “relevant,” whatever that means. We wonder, though, how this fascination with technology may be causing too many to stray too far from the core business practices that contributed to their success in the first place. Almost all the indie booksellers that we know are passionate about books, and love nothing more than to talk up a great read. Passion and knowledge are but two of the characteristics that define them, along with character, personality, and community – the cornerstones of the American Booksellers Association’s former BookSense program.

In our work with prospective booksellers, we want them to be clear about what it takes to compete in today’s retail environment, and what they should claim as a competitive advantage. We still believe that it all comes down to the customer experience, from their perception of the physical surroundings the moment they enter the store, to their face-to-face interaction with a bookseller, to how they feel as they’re ready to leave the bookshop.

There’s no question that our lives will continue to be impacted by technology, but if we are guided by our core beliefs and a sense of how we treat others and want to be treated by them in return, there will always be an important place for independent bookstores to anchor our communities. Let’s remember to embrace the words of Mark Twain, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

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