Where the devil lies

The book world is buzzing about Amazon's interest in seeing independent stores sell Kindles.  On one group, a bookseller writes that Amazon is the Devil.  On another, an author equates saying no to Amazon to saying no to the future.  The author doesn't say it in so many words, but her point is clear: Amazon = Future.  It's a common -- and dangerous -- misperception, equating Kindle with all ebooks.

Now I'm no luddite and I'm not opposed to progress.  But I am unabashedly a book lover -- books on paper, with covers and pages and dust jackets and crisp type and elegant design.  I'm really high right now on the Penguin horror hardcovers, which we're displaying prominently in the store because they look so good.  But we also feature day to day stuff like Penguin classics because folks (students especially) can build a library out of these books that are a pleasure to own.  We've sold a ton of copies of Matt Kish's MOBY DICK because it is such a cool, cool physical book.

It's easy to know what to do with cool books.  The dilemma right now is how to handle ebooks.  Obviously, we don't associate with Kindle.  There are other platforms out there, ones that don't tie us to a major competitor.  In the real world, no one would expect Target to carry a Walmart product, so it's kind of comical that anyone would suggest that an independent bookstore should feature an Amazon product.

Last year, the American Booksellers Association put together a nice program that allowed stores to sell Kobo readers and to earn a commission on the sale of Kobo ebooks. The association made it essentially risk free to get started.  We're glad we did, not because of profits -- which are minimal so far -- but because it allowed us to show our customers that we are participating in the future.

But here we are beginning year two of the program, and the we're trying to figure out where we go from here.  The tune from the end of the Buffy musical runs through my head a lot these days -- "Why is the path unclear / When we know home is near?"  Is the problem simply the weirdness of selling a digital product in a physical space?  Or is there more going on here?  Year two ABA program terms aren't as favorable, so it's not as obvious what we should be doing on the device side.  I do think it's vital that we help keep Kobo visible, otherwise we're helping to foster the impression that Kindle is the whole ball game.  But beyond maintaining the Kobo presence in the store and on our website, the path is really unclear.

It's hard enough to figure out what to do on the bookselling side.  I'm also confronting all these issues on the publishing side too.  We've gone to some effort to produce a pretty nice physical book for Terence Faherty's EASTWARD IN EDEN, which we just published last month.  This is something we do because we love books, and it's important to us to design something that you'll be happy to have and to hold.  This matters to us.  The packaging works in physical spaces.

But these days, we also have to sell digitally, and it's a struggle.  We publish on the Kindle platform but we've resisted all of Amazon's efforts to get us to commit to it exclusively.  So we also publish on Kobo, Nook, iTunes and Smashwords.  Our ebooks are selling, little by little, mostly on Kindle but on the other platforms too.  Overall, though, we're not selling in quantities that we'd really like to see. The main challenge here, I think, is figuring out how to enlist the help of booksellers in promoting these books.  The two series that we're working on this year -- Carlson's Maggie Ryans and Faherty's Owen Keanes -- are the kind of series that really benefit from recommendations and handselling. 

Publishers get how that works in physical stores.  We send out reading copies, booksellers get excited, that excitement gets stores to put copies on their shelves and into the hands of their customers -- literally.  But how does a small press make that work in the digital space?  As a publisher, I am enormously grateful for the support that independent stores have provided for the physical books that I've worked on.  You all make these titles possible, and it's obvious how this is a mutually beneficial relationship.  The books that I publish make money for you too, and help bind customers to your stores because they're appealing and "unique" titles that folks won't find elsewhere.  But that connection is less clear in the digital realm, where most promotional efforts bypass stores.  Authors and publishers sell direct-to-consumers/readers.  Or we see lots of platform-based marketing: I get a ton of emails from Kobo about new releases with percent-off offers.  All this bypasses independent stores, right down to the very concept of a "unique" product.  On the internet, nothing is unique.

At some level, the real question for physical bookstores, it seems to me, is whether the devil is Amazon or whether the devil is digital itself. Folks have enormous affection for the physical space that is a real bookstore. We just love being in a bookstore, and we know that the smart and friendly and knowledgeable people who inhabit that space will put the right books onto their shelves and into our hands.  We all understand how that process works, and I think we're seeing that today the bookstore experience is more valued than ever.  The plusses and minuses of reading digitally are also more or less clear these days.  But when you think about the fact that what you read is more or less determined by your route to text -- whether you're talking about print or digital -- the implications are not at all clear.  This isn't just about stores, it's about text itself.  Revolutions in publishing aren't just about publishers and booksellers, they're about what kinds of texts the marketplace supports.  Think about how the rise of the mass market paperback fostered writers like Mickey Spillane and you'll see what I mean.

Michael Pollan writes that "most of what presents itself to us in the marketplace as a product is in truth a web of relationships."  We understand those relationships in the physical world.  But we don't yet online, and until we do, it's going to be hard to know where the devil lies.