Booksellers Share Best Practices for Promoting E-Books

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The best approach to promoting e-books is multiple approaches — feature them in general and targeted electronic and print newsletters, advertise online and in-store, train staff, and “just be relentless”— is the collective opinion of booksellers who recently talked to Bookselling This Week about e-book marketing — Paul Hanson of Village Books, Christie Olson Day at Gallery Bookshop & Bookwinkle’s Children’s Books, and Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books.

One of the key elements of a multifaceted approach according to Paul Hanson, the community outreach director at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, is educating booksellers. “Find the tech savvy people and have them jump on board, and give the frontline staff handouts to give to customers,” Hanson said.  (A step-by-step guide to downloading Google eBooks™ can be found here.)

He also recommends having at least one dedicated e-book answer guru and distributing their e-mail contact information to customers.

As the designated answer guru at Village Books, Hanson will sit down with a customer, set up their device, and help them download their first e-book. “We have to set up an account with us, with Google, and with Adobe,” he explained. “Then we make the first purchase.”

The process takes about an hour and a half. “It’s definitely time well spent,” said Hanson. “They’re so happy to see the first book on their device. That’s what independent booksellers do best — one book at a time, one customer at a time. They end up being our most loyal customers.”

Village Books regularly schedules “E-Book Therapy” sessions during which customers are invited to discuss e-books and e-readers. Hanson and store co-owner Chuck Robinson will answer questions, and attendees can compare notes. “Everyone talks to each other, and we always learn something as well,” Hanson said.

The bookstore has also held community technology discussions that include Barnes & Noble and Adobe reps, who talk about various e-readers. (The local Barnes & Noble mentions in its Nook and Nook Color marketing materials that its e-readers can be used to buy e-books from Village Books.)  During the discussion, “we purposely didn’t have the devices here,” Hanson said. “We wanted to talk about the philosophy of e-books and make it about a community conversation rather than about devices.” The point was to share information and foster “a good open conversation.”

Publisher e-books promotions have had one of the biggest effects on sales, said Hanson. Village Books advertises these via the store e-newsletter and in their targeted e-mail list to e-book customers. “When Unbridled Books came out with their 99-cent e-book promotion, it quadrupled sales,” he said, adding that in the following months, they were still triple or quadruple what they had been.

Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California, has also waged a full e-book marketing campaign, utilizing website promotions, e-newsletters with a “download the e-book” button, social media, QR codes on shelf-talkers, special events, and in-store signage. “But the most effective thing we’ve done is talk face to face with customers,” said owner Christie Olson Day.  “And it takes specific strategies to start those conversations. Simple example: We printed a bookmark with big letters: ‘WE SELL E-BOOKS.’ We use it to start conversations.”

Gallery staff also handsells the idea of buying e-books from indies during store author events, e-book tutorials, and community meetings. 

Store staff members also take a proactive approach when they overhear e-book conversations among customers. “We eavesdrop on customers whispering about their Kindles,” Olson Day said. “Then we approach, smile, and say something like this: ‘I overheard that you like e-books, and obviously you like independent bookstores, too.  Did you know you can have both?’ Then we hand them the bookmark.”

Now’s the time to trumpet that indies can sell e-books, said Olson Day. “I think it’s critical that in the next 30 days we all put extra effort into educating our customers about our e-books,” especially in the face of extensive advertising for e-reader devices, including Amazon’s proprietary Kindle.

Usually the support is already there, said Olson Day, and customers just need to know that their local indie can meet their e-book needs. “Customers trust us and feel good about supporting us, so it’s crucial to make sure each interaction supports that feeling. We respond to orders with a message that includes the phrase, ‘Thanks for supporting independent bookstores ... it makes a difference.’”

Green Apple Books, which has drawn a lot of attention with its sock puppet video that explains how to download Google eBooks (aka Goooogly Books), also heavily markets e-books online and in-store.

“We’re re-designing our website to better use page-specific blocks (to show relevant content on e-book pages, for example), and we’re taking advantage of publisher promos,” store co-owner Pete Mulvihill said.

In a store newsletter focusing on e-books, Green Apple promoted a contest that asked customers to forward the newsletter to friends who have e-readers other than Kindles. Customers who copied Mulvihill on their e-mails were entered to win a $25 gift card.  “We got a lot of referrals and a handful of orders, and it only cost us a $25 gift card,” he said.

In the store’s usual e-mail newsletter, there’s always a link to the e-book and the printed book. “We’re also sending out a specific e-mail to everyone who has ever bought an e-book from us to thank them, tell them about the new app coming from ABA, remind them to point their browser back to us to buy more e-books, and ask them for feedback, referrals, etc.,” said Mulvihill. The store also uses Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, especially to draw attention to publisher promotions.

For customers considering the purchase of an e-reading device this holiday season, Green Apple will have on hand published reviews of devices that allow customers to read e-books purchased at indie bookstores, such as the iPad, Nook, Android tablets, etc.

To promote e-book sales to customers who visit the store, “we’ve totally redesigned bookmarks to try to tell each and every customer who buys a book from us that we sell e-books at competitive prices,” Mulvihill said. In addition, Green Apple posts signs above displays of new releases touting the availability of an e-book version. The store also posts fliers promoting e-books and highlighting three well-priced titles (with QR codes).

Looking ahead, Mulvihill said, “We’re probably getting a neon sign for the front window that just says ‘We Sell E-Books.’”

As with Village Books, Green Apple’s most effective marketing tool has been publisher promotions. “Their promotional pricing on certain titles have lowered the bar for customers to try their first e-book from us, which, I think, is the hardest hurdle to clear,” said Mulvihill. “Not all of those first-timers come back, but with follow-up marketing and some percentage returning, we’re in better shape than without these promos.”

Selling e-books boils down to using the same skills for selling print books, he added. “Just be relentless and do what you do well, be it handselling the idea of Google eBooks on the sales floor, announcing it before every event, or yelling it from the mountaintops.”