By Len Vlahos, ABA Chief Operating Officer
"I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." --Wayne Gretzky
In early September, ABA IndieCommerce launched the ability for participating stores to sell e-books directly to consumers. The e-books are fulfilled by Ingram Digital and come in three different formats: Adobe (compatible with Sony and other stand-alone e-readers), Palm (compatible with iPhones and other mobile devices), and Microsoft (compatible with the PC-based Microsoft Reader).
"So great," you're thinking. "I can sell e-books, but how come no one is buying them?" The answer is simple. Your customers have to know about it first. Our corporate competitors have been beating the e-book drum loudly. So loudly that consumers simply do not know or think indie bookstores are in the game. But we are, and we need to tell the world.
What follows are a few ideas to get you started on the road to selling e-books:
1. Curate content on your website.
Using one of your Drupal content areas, create a selection of five to 10 e-book titles to promote to your customers. Choose a specific format to promote. For example, create a section called "Buy e-Books for Your iPhone Here!" and feature titles in the Palm format. Have your staff select the titles as they would for any other staff picks section, and ask them to write reviews. Feature this section on the top of your homepage, above the scroll. There are myriad variations on this theme, but the basic idea is the same -- curate the content and put it in a prominent place on your website. (To help promote sales, a special collection of 20 popular Indie Next List titles available in e-book format is now featured on IndieBound.org.)
2. Promote your website -- and your ability to sell e-books -- in the store.
Does your store's voicemail message mention that you're open 24/7 at [your web address here]?
Is it on your receipts? Your bookmarks?
Is your staff trained to talk about the website?
Is there a sign on the door? At the cash/wrap?
Do you have a bag stuffer?
The store's website is an extension of the store itself. Several booksellers have set up an in-store computer for customers to use and the homepage is the store site. For e-books specifically, create a display of print books that matches the curated content on the website (see #1 above).
3. Promote e-books to people outside the store.
Use your store newsletter to promote the sale of e-books. If you do radio or newspaper ads, include a line about the sale of e-books. Mention it at off-site events. Anywhere you talk about the store, also be prepared to talk about your website and e-books.
4. Be competitive.
ABA cannot and would not tell its members how to price product. That said, it's clear that the e-book market is very unsettled, and there is real opportunity for independent bookstores. Now is the time to act. With this in mind, we believe the focus should be on gaining market share rather than on earning margin. Granted, IndieCommerce stores don't make great margin on e-books to begin with (it varies wildly, but averages close to 30 percent), but you also invest $0 in inventory, and have no picking, packing, and shipping costs. It's a very inexpensive sale. This allows for some flexibility in pricing, and we encourage you to look at different models, and to find the one that suits your business best. While you may not be able to match prices on some e-books, you can be competitive on many titles.
5. Stay informed.
Keep up with current news and trends in the digital space. Read BTW, read Shelf Awareness, read blogs and newspapers. And experiment. If you've never downloaded an e-book, do it today. Go through IndieBound.org and find a store that sells e-books. If you have an iPhone, download a Palm format right to your phone. If you have a Sony eReader, download an Adobe format. If you have neither, try the Microsoft format. You'll see that it's not so hard, and you'll have a better feel for how to answer customer questions.
The ABA staff stands ready to help you make your way through the sometimes confusing and often troubled waters of e-books. If you have questions, don't hesitate to ask. And if you have successes, please let us know!