Digital Book World Looks at Indie Bookseller Landscape

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ABA’s Teicher on “Bookselling Without Borders”

This year, programming at Digital Book World (DBW) covered everything from metadata to e-book production and design, creating a setting some may have termed incongruous for independent bookstores. But on Wednesday morning ABA CEO Oren Teicher told DBW attendees that “not only are indie booksellers surviving in extraordinarily turbulent times, but many ... are thriving, even recording record sales numbers for the fourth quarter of last year.”

Coming just five days after the conclusion of ABA’s seventh Winter Institute, Teicher’s talk focused on how independent bookstores fared during the 2011 holiday season, the positive steps indies are taking in the digital realm, and the importance for all segments of the industry to “work collaboratively and collectively to ensure a strong and relevant book business.”

Despite the challenging economy and the industry uncertainty in the wake of the Borders bankruptcy, Teicher said that, in 2011, “All the hard work on the part of indies began paying off. Regular customers returned, new customers started browsing, and sales began to climb.”

In addition to Teicher’s comments, DBW also focused on indies at another Wednesday session, “The Bookstore Renaissance: New experiments and innovations from independent booksellers.” The panel featured Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.; Roxanne Coady, owner and president of R.J. Julia Booksellers and Just the Right Book! in Madison, Connecticut; Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida;  Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton, New York; and John Mutter, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Shelf Awareness. The panel looked at a number of new ideas and innovations employed by booksellers to help ensure their continued importance in the book supply chain.

At R.J. Julia, it’s JustTheRightBook, a subscription service that relies on indie booksellers’ biggest strength: knowing “how to put the right book in the right hand,” said Coady. For Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose, innovations include the expansion from literary discussions to educational programs and the recent addition of an Espresso Book Machine. Books & Books’ Kaplan talked about the launch of B & B Press, which has published an anthology of stories by South Florida writers called Blue Christmas: Holidays Stories for the Rest of Us and a special centennial edition of Les Standiford’s Last Train to Paradise.

In a discussion about e-books, Oblong’s Hermans admitted they haven’t been a big money maker so she’s focusing on in-store improvements to foster sales; however, Kaplan said that he’s committed to selling e-books because he doesn’t want to give his customers any reason to shop anywhere else.

At “Bookselling Without Borders: A look at the independent bookstore landscape,” Teicher reported that,contrary to some predictions, “2011 wasn’t a year of attrition or loss for indies. For many stores it was the best year in a long while.” Citing unit book sales across the network of indie stores reporting to BookScan, he noted that for the holiday period beginning with Black Friday and Small Business Saturday “book sales... increased more than 15 percent,” and, for each subsequent week through December 31, “our sales showed real gains” over 2010.

Teicher attributed this success in part to indie bookstores’ marketing outreach to former Borders customers and also to the fact that “millions of consumers understand the importance of the shop local movement,” as was evidenced by the extraordinary success of American Express’ Small Business Saturday.

Citing the results of the latest post-holiday survey of independent businesses [see this week’s related story], Teicher said, “Indie retailers, led by bookstores, in communities with active local first/shop local campaigns once again had significantly better holiday seasons than stores without such efforts. This is no longer just a few of us trumpeting shopping locally — it’s become a national phenomenon.”

Looking at e-books (“the category that many in the industry said indies would never crack”), Teicher noted that sales of Google eBooks™ for IndieCommerce stores doubled in the month of December compared to 2010. For the entire year, he reported that e-books sales were 5.2 percent of all IndieCommerce sales. “Admittedly, we are growing from a small base (having only begun selling Google eBooks in December of 2010),” he said, “but the trend is positive and strong.”

The top e-book title of the year for IndieCommerce stores was Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and other bestselling titles included The Tiger’s Wife, The Marriage Plot, and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Teicher noted that “indie e-book bestsellers are indie bookstore bestsellers,” adding “with the introduction of the agency model and a growing proficiency in e-book marketing, indies are demonstrating that we can offer a curated, compelling selection of content to our customers when they want to purchase it in digital format.”

Of the relationship between e-book sales and total online sales for indies, Teicher reported that indie bookstore customers who bought e-books were about 2.5 times more likely to come back to the store’s website for repeat purchases. “Both the availability of e-books and our marketing efforts are proving to be a potent stimulus for all indie bookstore online sales,” he noted.

Looking ahead, Teicher called on publishers to individually work to “create new ways of doing business that recognize the importance of indies as both a sales channel and an essential catalyst to sales in other channels.” Citing recent surveys that demonstrate the important role of bricks-and-mortar bookstores as showrooms for the discovery and sale of new titles in all channels, Teicher noted that the formulating “new business models that ensure our stores don’t go away has never been more urgent. This is urgent for us, obviously — but given the unparalleled role that bookstores play in the discovery and marketing of new titles, the health of the indie bookstore channel is vital for the entire industry.”

Teicher said, “I remain firmly convinced that our industry has the creativity and commitment to fashion the new business models required to help innovate, strengthen, and expand our industry.” Acknowledging that “there are some doom-and-gloom folks out there,” he stressed that “I’ve come here today to say – as a gentleman from Seattle, whom I don’t usually quote, has said: Books are the perfect invention. And, despite all the tumult and change we are living through, books — and, more importantly, the way they change people’s lives — they are not going away.”

He concluded by saying, “ABA— and our members —remain ready to do whatever we can to sustain this industry, and to ensure that the literary landscape in America not only survives, but thrives.”