The Indies and the E’s

OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?

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10 comments

  1. Lynn Kauppi says:

    Even if ebooks triumph, indies will never go away. They will instead become bookstores adapted to highly specialized markets: rare books, used books, technical books, etc.

  2. The ePub format is already platform-agnostic and reasonably feature-rich (as much as many think a book needs). The only thing that’s proprietary about it is its use of DRM systems tied to specific stores.

    Likewise, there’s no need for a new device. There are enough ebook-reading devices out there now, including some of the major retailers’ devices that can also handle content from other vendors, as well as independent tablets, smartphones, PCs, etc.

    So, instead of trying to invent a new ebook format or device, indies should be concentrating on becoming part of the purchasing system. They can set up portals and direct the book purchase through their portal, even if the purchase itself is done through another party (like Smashwords, say), and a portion of the purchase can be diverted to them. If existing bookselling sites have a problem with that, indies need their own IndieBound-type ebook store that they will all tie into.

    Each store will allow sales to be handled through their portal, either at the cashier, or wirelessly by the purchaser through its in-store hotspot. The ebook is sent to the purchaser’s device of choice, and the store gets a cut of the sale.

    I’ve said for years that this is the best option for independent booksellers to get into the ebook market. It is also good for indie booksellers like myself, as it gives us access to physical location sales that we couldn’t get before (even now, indies are invisible at B&N’s physical locations.

  3. T Scott says:

    I’m puzzled by your statement that “Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.” As noted in the NYT article yesterday on the opening of Parnassus, Ann Patchett’s new bookstore in Nashville, “Parnassus, like hundreds of other independents across the country, will also sell e-books through Google, to lure the many customers who have shifted to Nooks, Kindles and iPads.” These are tumultuous times for indie bookstores, as for publishers & librarians, but those who are innovative and responsive to the times can succeed. A story in the August 17 Washington Post points out that membership in the American Booksellers Association has grown by 400 (to 1830) since 2005, with 100 new members in just the first six months of 2011. While the overall number of indie bookstores has indeed shrunk over the past ten years, it is far too soon to predict their demise.

    • Ted Striphas says:

      That’s encouraging news to hear about the growth in membership in the ABA. As far as selling e-books through Google goes, though, I can’t say that sounds like a viable strategy in the long term. It kind of reminds me of how Borders thought it would be a good idea to outsource its e-commerce to Amazon; look where that got Borders. Also, I wonder at what point you can continue to claim “independent” status when Google becomes the portal through which indies sell their e-books. That actually sounds like dependent bookselling to me!

  4. [...] 17, 2011: Ted Striphas: “Really, it’s an oligarchy. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have [...]

  5. T Scott says:

    Agreed that Google may not be the best strategy in the long term. My point is primarily that there are many independent bookstores who do indeed see the importance of developing an e-book strategy as well as continuing their very important role in their local communities. Working with Google is a useful way to take a step in that direction while looking to develop more robust strategies.

  6. Don Joeh says:

    Yes — the statement “Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats. Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian” is false. Only Amazon uses a proprietary format, their Kindle format — all the rest use the open-source EPUB format. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is what ties an ebook to a platform — if you buy a DRM-free ebook, you can read it wherever. This is akin to saying MP3s bought from the iTunes store are proprietary — if you buy a DRM-free MP3, you can listen to it on any supporting device.

  7. Interesting topic. One very important question is about what our communities would look like without any independent businesses? A bricks-and-mortar retail storefront must depend on walk-in traffic to pay the rent. If you’re comfortable living in a ghost town, then more power to all e-things. Like Ann Patchett and others, we need a sense of place and community. Besides, with more than 3 million books in print and more published every day, isn’t it more useful to talk with a live independent bookseller about what to read next rather than rely on algorithms or corporate advertising? My group champions indie bookstores all over the world. We’re now seeing entrepreneurs and community-minded individuals step up to the plate to open new small scale indie bookstores in Borders’ wake. The ‘Shop Local’ movement is strong and gaining momentum.

  8. [...] The Indies and the E’s: OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME – “One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no [...]

  9. [...] A professor named Ted Striphas offered up a plan for the Indies to band together and launch a “platform-agnostic” ebook system. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of independent bookselling, which the future of independent ebookselling is inextricably linked to, like it or not.  Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson linked to it in this blog post, also a useful read on this topic.  Having all the indies band together and also ally themselves with the smart people who are tech people and also book people is a tall order — but it’s what needs to happen.  The Emily Books dream is that we are harbingers of a future in which a thousand indie ebookstores catering to niche and non-niche markets bloom.  I really hope this can happen, and also that the bricks and mortar indies can find a way to really sell ebooks. One first step would be to realize that they’re not — and I hope someone will tell me if I’m wrong about this — doing themselves any favors by selling Google ebooks, even if they do get some cut of the profit. It’s like letting Amazon set up a kiosk in your store. [...]

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