E-Books: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

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Last week’s Winter Institute session “E-Books: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going” presented data on e-book sales growth and trends among IndieCommerce websites and a look at some of the creative ways indie booksellers are drawing customer attention to promote sales.

Panelists were Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, California; Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan; and Christie Olson Day of Gallery Bookshop & Bookwinkle’s Children’s Books in Mendocino, California.

ABA Technology Director Matt Supko, who moderated the session, started by noting that, overall, IndieCommerce websites experienced an 84 percent jump in sales in 2011, with e-book sales increasing from .7 percent in 2010 to 5.2 percent in 2011.

The data also showed that customers who bought e-books were 2.5 times more likely to return to a store’s website for repeat purchases. E-book promos like Unbridled Books’ 25 e-books for 25 cents promotion — designed to encourage customer retention, as well as to provide buying incentive for e-book newbies — worked as intended, Supko observed.

 “The early June Unbridled promotion was a huge success for independent bookstores, which many promoted by email or on the front page of their website,” he said. “They saw a unit spike, a large lift in regular priced e-books, and it never really went back down after that. It certainly seemed that a significant number of customers came back and bought full priced e-books.” (Current e-book promos on the IndieCommerce Publisher Promotions page.)

Another factor that helped spike sales was the introduction of the Android and iOS IndieBound Readers.

Supko noted that analyzing online sales based on time of day can help booksellers determine when it’s best to send targeted e-mail blasts to customers. IndieCommerce data showed that “a lot of e-book orders come in late at night, and almost none in the morning,” he said.

The top-selling e-book among IndieCommerce sites in 2011 was State of Wonder (Ann Patchett, HarperCollins), and the top genre was literary fiction.  However, unconventional genres (for indie bookstores) such as romance, science fiction, and fantasy outsold more traditional categories such as history and biography.  The top 10 e-book titles, with one exception, were agency titles. (The e-book session PowerPoint presentation is available here; the PDF file might take a few moments to load.)

Smaller stores can still be big sellers of e-books, Supko said. Six of top 20 e-book sellers had total annual sales of under $500,000. However, the top customer service issue with e-books, he said, is that customers don’t realize their local indie sells them. Olson Day, Mulvihill, and Norcross have each employed creative solutions to address that issue.

Gallery Bookshop found an ideal way to demo e-book availability. For months, no matter how much store staff flogged e-books at events or in newsletters, Gallery Bookshop didn’t see much happening in sales. “Then we got an iPad, put it at the counter loaded with e-books, and it worked like magic,” said Olson Day. “I can happily say that everybody who bought a book from us in the past 90 days knows we sell e-books. Having it right there is like an organic POS script.”

Gallery also distributes bookmarks with simple instructions for downloading e-books and posts a flier that offers store credit for Kindle trade-ins.

At Green Apple, booksellers “threw everything against the wall to see what would stick,” said Mulvihill. Staff posted QR codes (“there wasn’t a ton of response”), fliers, and hung handmade posters all over the store. They also created a sock puppet video  announcing the availability of Google eBooks™ (aka Gooooogly Books).

To tell McLean & Eakin’s customers that they sell e-books, and that most e-books are the same price at all e-tailers, the store uses the tagline: “No matter what your device, they’re all the same price.”

Panelists emphasized that the first step in selling e-books is educating staff. Norcross encourages all staff to buy and download an e-book. The e-book purchases are reimbursed.

Olson Day explained that it’s crucial that staff not only know how to buy and download e-books, but understand that customer retention is a big factor. She said, “Train everyone on why you’re selling e-books.”

For more bookseller info on marketing e-books is available here. To share ways that your store has successfully promoted e-books for a future BTW story, e-mail Senior Editor Karen Schechner or contact @KSchechner.