Opportunities in the Digital Arena for Independent Bookstores: An Action Plan for the American Booksellers Association

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Presented to the ABA Board of Directors at its March 2009 Meeting

By Len Vlahos, ABA Chief Program Officer


In 1978 Douglas Adams envisioned a slim electronic folio that contained all the useful knowledge of all the people on all the planets in the universe. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as Adams imagined it, would let you carry in your pocket a device that functioned like an amalgam of Google and an e-book. And while he was trying to be funny, Adams, it turns out, was prescient.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the book industry went through a series of fits and starts with digital content. "Franklin was the first company to provide an e-book type device. In 1986 Franklin launched a fully functional electronic dictionary. This would be followed in the early '90s by Sony's unveiling of the Electronic Book Player. This product used CD-ROM technology to provide book material for viewing. The limitations of this product gave way to the eBookMan. In both cases consumers were tied to the purchase of discs or cartridges in order to view book materials." [a]

ABA's own history with e-books began in 1999. That year the association signed one of the first contracts with NuvoMedia, maker of the Rocket eBook, the first stand-alone device onto which consumers were able to download trade books. The intent was to sell digital content through the BookSense.com network of sites, which was under construction at that time. But early consumer enthusiasm for e-books in general, and the Rocket eBook in particular, evaporated, and a conscious decision was made to shelve our e-book aspirations until the market was both better developed and more settled.

Music to My Ears

During the early part of this decade, while ABA was waiting for the e-book market to sort itself out, a revolution occurred in the world of digital music. It began in 1999 with the launch of Napster.

A site for users to share MP3 files, Napster grew exponentially right out of the gate, swelling to 26.4 million users worldwide by 2001[b]. The response from the music industry was swift and harsh. A series of lawsuits by artists and labels alleging copyright infringement were filed against Napster and forced the site to shut down operations in July 2001. The music industry had won, but it was a pyrrhic victory.

By focusing so heavily on copyright infringement rather than trying to understand the clear shift in consumer preferences and behavior, the big labels and the music retailers were caught flat-footed in the face of the sudden and enormous demand for digital content. Enter Apple.

In October 2001, Apple introduced the iPod. Portable MP3 players were not new, and the early success of the iPod was one of form over function. It was sleek, easy to use, and marketed brilliantly. While sales of the iPod were steady and strong in its first two years of existence, they exploded in 2003. Since October 2004 the iPod line has dominated digital music player sales in the United States, with over 90 percent of the market for hard drive-based players and over 70 percent of the market for all types of players.[c] The key to the iPod's market dominance was a new, killer business model: The vertical integration of content and the listening device.

Apple launched its iTunes store in spring of 2003, selling an astounding 1,000,000 tracks in just five days.[d] By 2006, iTunes had gained 88 percent market share of the legal music download market, with consumers downloading one billion tracks that year alone.[e]

While the burgeoning sale of digital content might, on the face of it, have seemed to be good news for the music industry, it was not. "In 2008, Americans bought 88 million fewer CDs than they did in 2007 -- a full 20 percent drop. At the same time, according to Nielsen SoundScan, digital album sales shot up 32 percent and single-song sales rose 27 percent."[f]

This was devastating to the music industry. Digital music purchases, which typically happen one song at a time, have not been enough to make up for the loss in CD sales. In addition, Apple's proprietary Digital Rights Management (DRM) package, called Fairplay, created an iPod/iTunes monopoly, and the labels found themselves held hostage as Apple dictated below-market prices for content.

The result has been the erosion of revenue at the labels, and a body blow to the ranks of music retailers. According to the "Almighty Institute of Music Retail," an industry research group that provides data to record labels and music retailers, approximately 2,700 record stores closed between 2003 and 2008.[g] Digitization and consolidation were changing the music industry and changing it fast.

Back to Books

As the music industry unraveled, and as consumers became comfortable accessing content in digital forms, the ground for e-books became fertile: The volume of e-book purchases grew.

E-Book Sales History From International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)[h]

(According to the Association of American Publishers [AAP], for the month of October 2008, overall trade book sales, when compared to October 2007, suffered a 20 percent drop, while e-book sales grew 73 percent during that same period.)

In early 2007, as reports of renewed consumer interest in digital content began to permeate the blogosphere and the tech news stream, and as we watched sales of e-books grow, ABA partnered with Ingram Digital to offer e-content in three formats to consumers shopping the family of BookSense.com websites. This was an inexpensive solution that allowed independent booksellers to dip their toes in the vast digital ocean, but it wasn't a comprehensive solution. The formats available to our customers could not be easily read on the most popular devices and the process for searching for e-books was not immediately intuitive.

However, this move did position our channel to participate in future e-book sales, and it did educate our in-house technical and customer service staff in how to implement digital solutions for end-users. More importantly, it allowed ABA to participate in a digital content dialogue with its members through education sessions, Bookselling This Week articles, and the new functionality itself.

Our timing was fortuitous, as the ground has shifted again. A convergence of factors has brought the issue of digital content to the front burner:

  1. Easily accessible, free content, about anything. An Internet connection and any device with a browser (computer, iPhone, Blackberry, etc.) provides access to the collected knowledge of the entire world. It's Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide come to life. And while it's true that the information available is unfiltered and unqualified, it hasn't stopped society from relying increasingly on the Internet to answer questions. According to Nielsen Online, an estimated 5.9 billion search queries were conducted on Google in January 2009, representing almost 41 percent year-over-year growth.[i] We are training ourselves to think of digital content as the default option for information searches.

  2. Broadband access is ubiquitous. It's the exception, not the rule, to find the consumer and/or bookseller without high speed access in the home and/or store. High speed connectivity enables the easy and wide distribution of content.

  3. Adoption of industry standards. The AAP and the IDPF support the open EPUB format for digital content. This is "an e-book file type for reflowable texts from which any e-book delivery format can be rendered." [j] Just as VHS and Beta battled for market dominance in the videotape market, and just as Blu-Ray and HD DVD battled for market dominance in the world of high definition video, several formats have been competing for eyeballs in the e-book universe. With the industry now backing a standard format, that competition will fade, paving the way for a more seamless mass distribution of content. Random House, for example, announced that it will double the number of digital books offered to roughly 15,000 titles, citing a 400 percent increase in sales in the last year.[k] Standardization and increasing comfort with the market are also helping publishers sort through licensing issues, which were once the largest stumbling block to the widespread distribution of e-content.

  4. Growth of the iPhone, iPod Touch, and introduction of the Blackberry Storm, Google Android, and Palm Web OS. Apple is once again leading the way for digital content, this time in book form. Lexcycle, a company which makes a free e-reader application for the iPhone called "Stanza," recently announced that the app was downloaded one million times in 2008.[l] (Downloading applications to the iPhone has become so popular that Microsoft is planning to launch its own "App Store" for Windows Mobile users.[m]) With the explosive growth in iPhone sales (4.36 million in the fourth calendar quarter of 2008, representing 88 percent growth over the same quarter the previous year), and the growth in iPhone copycats from Blackberry (500,000 units of the Blackberry Storm sold in its first month of availability), Google, and perhaps most importantly, Palm, this market is expected to grow rapidly and exponentially, putting viable e-reading devices into tens of millions of pockets. If further evidence is needed, Barnes & Noble recently purchased FictionWise.com, the largest provider of e-content to iPhone users.

  5. Amazon Kindle and Sony eReader. Industry estimates suggest that in its first year the Sony eReader sold 300,000 units, and in its first year the Kindle sold 500,000 units. While many question the long-term viability of stand-alone readers, the public imagination has been captured by Kindle-mania. Publishers are also buying into the hype, and maybe with good reason: Brian Murray, chief executive at HarperCollins, noted that 20 percent of Amazon's sales of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle were in Kindle format.[n] (Kindle, now also available as an application for the iPhone, is a closed format, shutting out all other retailers, similar to iTunes.)

  6. The next generation of consumers is ready. Digital content is well established on college campuses. Roughly 95 percent of available textbooks from McGraw Hill are offered as e-books in almost every academic subject. One school, Abilene Christian University (ACU), has promised all incoming freshman an iPhone or iPod touch, for the purpose of "educational enrichment." Reportedly, the handhelds will enable students to "receive homework alerts, answer in-class surveys and quizzes, get directions to their professors' offices, and check their meal and account balances" -- and that's just for starters."[o] It's reasonable to assume that ACU will make course work available to these same students in digital format in the future. The National Association of College Stores (NACS) has devoted significant resources to help its members respond to this new competitive challenge.

Given all of this, we now find ourselves at a critical moment. We can either build on the knowledge base that we have established and use the collective power of our trade association to facilitate the sale of digital content through our member stores, or we can cede this business to other channels.

That's a provocative statement, and it's meant to be. The sales figures from IDPF quoted above show the dramatic growth of digital content, but starting from a very small base. So how urgent is this issue? With a sputtering economy, with an unsettled supply chain, do we really need to worry about this right now?

The answer is yes.

One of our favorite charts in ABA education and environmental scanning is the technology adoption curve.

(Each line of the chart represents a major new technology. The X axis is time; the Y axis is the percent of penetration into consumer households.)

New technologies start slow, finding their way through R&D trial and errors, consumer education, and the building of a manufacturing base and necessary infrastructure. From cars to washing machines to cell phones, new technologies need time to mature and grow. Many such technologies -- maybe even most of them -- ultimately fail. Consider telephone pagers and eight-track cassettes. These were stepping stone technologies. But these technologies failed in their execution, not their concept. People wanted mobile communication and portable music. It took cell phones and the WalkMan to get the concept right. When an increase in utility meets a decrease in production cost, the line curves sharply up, and adoption explodes.

E-books, it would seem, have arrived at that bend in the road.

The Opportunity

"Before you act consider; when you have considered, tis fully time to act." --Sallust (Populist Historian of Ancient Rome)

ABA has devoted significant staff resources to revitalizing the e-commerce tool (formerly known as BookSense.com) that it offers to members. These retooled store websites are more than capable of supporting the sale of digital content in any form we deem desirable. While there are many improvements we can, should, and will make to these sites -- loyalty program functionality, wish list functionality -- it is our strong belief that, once the migration to the new platform is complete, a meaningful digital content solution needs to be our top priority and main focus for the immediate future. It is our hope and plan to introduce such functionality no later than this summer.

A digital content solution should include:

  • The ability for consumers to easily search for and purchase digital content across a wide breadth of titles.
  • The ability for consumers to easily download that content in a variety of formats and to a variety of devices, including the iPhone, the Sony eReader, the Blackberry Storm, and the Google Android.
  • A process of reviewing our offerings and adapting them as this rapidly changing market evolves.
  • The creation of promotional opportunities to feature digital content online and in-store.
  • A plan to leverage the unique value of our members, as independent and locally owned curators of content, in the sale of digital product.
  • A carefully planned public relations campaign to educate consumers on the availability of e-content through indie bookstores.
  • Partnerships with other indie businesses (e.g., music and movie stores) to cross promote digital efforts.

In addition, once the association provides the technology, we need a significant effort to educate members on why and how independent booksellers should engage in digital commerce and to share best practices for communicating the benefits of buying digital through indie stores to the consuming public.

While building a solution through our e-commerce product should be our main focus, the association would be well served to consider the issue more broadly. As such, we suggest proceeding along three parallel tracks:

  1. First and foremost, we should conduct further study. ABA needs to convene a task force of staff members, booksellers, publishers, and technologists to make sure we understand the issues, the challenges, and the opportunities. We need to carefully study and assess industry trends to find out what consumers want and expect, and to look at what our colleagues at other trade associations are doing to address this issue.

  2. We need to continue to engage in a dialogue with key industry partners -- Ingram, Symtio, etc. -- while also reaching out to potential partners both in and out of the book industry and conducting careful, measured assessments of their products and services.

  3. We should step up our education efforts, making digital content and all that surrounds it -- social media, e-commerce, etc. -- a centerpiece of the education we offer through the balance of 2009 and all of 2010. We also need to write about this issue in Bookselling This Week, on ABA's "Omnibus" Blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, and through any other forum in which we communicate with our members.

While there is no guarantee that digital content will have the impact that some are predicting, and while we should not let the issue derail us from other important work we must do, it is clear that this is something that requires serious study and attention now.

And remember, the reason the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was so successful were the two words in giant letters printed on the cover:

[a] Ebookfanatic.com
[b] ComScore.com, Press Release -- July 20, 2001
[c] Wikipedia.org, "iPod History"
[d] ABCNews.com, "1 Billion Served" -- February 23, 2006
[e] Wikipedia.org, "iTunes Store"
[f] ColoradoDaily.com, "RIP, CD" -- January 13, 2009
[g] http://www.almightyretail.com/
[h] International Digital Publishing Forum, Industry Statistics: http://www.idpf.org/doc_library/industrystats.htm
[i] MediaPost.com, Online Media Daily, February 12, 2009
[j] Open letter from the Association of American Publishers, May 12, 2008
[k] New York Observer, "Random House CEO Markus Dohle to Staff: 'Our Future Has Begun' as 'Evolutionary" 2008 Ends" -- December 18, 2008
[l] MediaBistro.com -- Galley Cat, January 9, 2009.
[m] New.cnet.com, "Microsoft Readying Apps Store for Windows Mobile?" -- August 31, 2008
[n] New York Times, "Turning Page, E-Books Start to Take Hold" --December 23, 2008
[o] Engadget.com, February 28, 2008