How to Sell E-Books” Focus of Wi6 Sessions

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Two sessions on how to sell e-books drew full houses on Friday, January 21, at Winter Institute 6. Led by ABA Technology Director Matt Supko, the panel discussions featured Paul Hanson of Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, Washington; Clark Kepler of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California; and Jill Miner of Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan. Topics included how to introduce customers to e-readers and e-books, marketing tips and tactics, and the importance of capturing e-book market share.

Supko began the panel with some quick stats on Google eBooks™ sales to provide booksellers with an understanding of what’s been happening since their launch on IndieCommerce sites in early December. There had been an expectation that non-agency titles, which are generally more expensive, would be far outpaced by agency title sales. “But what the data shows is that no small number of books sold were not agency titles,” said Supko. The average price for an e-book was $10.83. The breakdown of sales was 55 percent agency, 30 percent discounted non-agency, and 15 percent non-discounted non-agency. The most popular categories were general fiction and literary fiction, which together comprised 25 percent of the market.

With the launch of Google eBooks, each of the panelists took steps to introduce e-books to their communities. Hanson provided a tech petting zoo at Eagle Harbor. However, before he did that, Hanson organized an e-book conversation with “no device whatsoever.” The point was to share information and foster a “good open conversation,” he said. After the pros and cons of the several e-reader devices were discussed, Eagle Harbor customers were able to draw their own conclusions. Whenever a customer learned that the Kindle is a closed system and they would not be able to download books from the library or any other bookseller besides, they inevitably said “There’s no way I’m getting a Kindle,” reported Hanson.

An indie bookstore’s role doesn’t end there, he added. “Establishing yourself as a resource in your community is ongoing.”

As soon as Google eBooks launched, Kepler’s sent its newsletter subscribers a deep discount special offer on non-agency titles. The goal was to immediately recapture marketshare, said Clark Kepler. The Menlo Park-based store, which is in an upscale community with a high number of tech early adopters, has seen an explosion of interest in e-books. “We’ve seen our customers who want to be loyal, not be loyal, and had a 20 to 25 percent decline in sales,” said Kepler. “We surveyed our most loyal customers, and 25 percent of them were using e-readers. And that doesn’t include those who aren’t coming in at all.” So, Kepler was “very happy to be in the game” and to have the ability to increase the store’s e-book market share.

To help grease the wheels, Kepler is heavily promoting and the availability of e-books. The store has run several promotions, including a 30-percent off sale day, featuring mimosas, champagne, and demos of Google eBooks, as well as direct mail offers.

Since the launch of Google eBooks, Kepler’s has sold more than 100 e-books. Still, Kepler acknowledged that he must increase that many fold. “We’re not a 21st -century bookseller yet, and we have to become one very quickly.”

Kepler is planning more marketing efforts, including working with his NPR affiliate. “It’s important to talk to people beyond my loyal core customers,” he said. In addition, Kepler’s has someone on staff available to help any customers having tech issues downloading e-books.

At Saturn Booksellers, Miner started promoting e-books before the launch of Google eBooks, even though she wasn’t seeing the same level of lost sales as Kepler’s. “We’re a very different community than Menlo Park,” she said. “In Michigan, our economy is in the tank. Many of our customers are retired. We’re a rural bookstore in an area with about 20,000 residents.” Still, prior to the Google eBooks launch, Miner sent out several e-mail blasts to customers to let them know e-books were on the way. “I also went out and used different devices. I said to people, ‘If you’re thinking of getting [an e-reader] for Christmas, come talk to me about it because I’ve been playing with them.”

Customers responded to Miner’s invitation. And, after talking to her, one customer even returned her Kindle.

Once Google eBooks went live, Miner took action in the store. “The first thing I did was ask everyone on staff to download a Google eBook,” she said. “It was an invaluable step. Once they did it and read the books on their smartphones or laptops, they saw how easy it is. They were then really ready to talk about it,” Miner said. The store is also “heavily reliant” on handouts that explain what a Google eBook is and how to buy one.

During the Winter Institute sessions, there was a lot of back and forth between the audience and the panelists. Answering a series of questions, Supko explained: E-books currently can’t be sent as gifts via IndieCommerce sites, but membership would be informed when that feature becomes available. Free e-books are not yet available for booksellers to use for demonstration purposes. And should an e-reader device be lost or damaged, a customer’s e-books are safely stored in the cloud. “You might download it to read, but ultimately it lives on Google’s server,” said Supko.

Bundling an e-book with a print version has not been used as a marketing strategy by session attendees. However, Kepler said, “I think it’s an interesting option.”

When asked which e-reader device he’d recommend, Hanson said, “Frankly I don’t recommend any right now because we’re in the Betamax era. The technology is still in development.” He also prepares customers when they buy their first e-book, so they don’t become frustrated with Eagle Harbor.

Miner recommends that those who are considering buying an e-reader first download an e-book and read it on their computer. “This way they can make sure they want to read digitally, and they can open it right on the computer where they bought it.” 

The panel ended with a few last tips and some news on the IndieCommerce front. Hanson advised that when a customer buys their first e-book, it’s simpler if they first set up an account with the store, then a Google account. Then they can go ahead and buy a Google eBook.

To foster e-book sales among customers who are in the bookstore, Supko recommended the use of QR-codeshelf-talkers, such as those created by Green Apple Books in San Francisco and McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan.

Hanson warned attendees that the Google eBook smartphone app will take customers to the Google purchase site rather than back to the bookstore. Several of the store’s customers reported accidentally buying e-books from Google rather than Eagle Harbor. So, in addition to sending an e-mail to thank customers for buying an e-book from the store (“it adds the personal touch”), he informs customers that they should always return to the Eagle Harbor site to buy e-books.

Supko said the IndieCommerce team was aware of the app problem, and that ABA is currently developing an e-reader app for both the iPhone and Android that would direct customers back to the bookstore’s website for future purchases. 

The three Winter Institute handouts for “How to Sell E-Books” are now available for download from the session Powerpoint presentation; a chart comparing available e-reading devices; and an e-book FAQ for booksellers. Additional information about IndieCommerce and e-books is available at And a previous BTW article offers insights on booksellers’ first wave of e-book marketing efforts.