Since its launch last December in partnership with the American Booksellers Association, Google eBooks has yet to capture significant market share. According to the Codex Group’s recent “Showrooming” study, while the number of people who read both print books and e-books has grown from 25% in 2010 to 37%, few are doing it through Google. Last month the Google eBookstore captured 4% of the market, topping the only other device-agnostic e-bookstore, Blio. One year later, sales at indies have gone from zero to 10 to 30 e-books a month. “We always knew the rampup would be gradual,” says ABA CEO Oren Teicher, who is pleased overall. “Because of Google, over 330 of our members are selling e-books to their customers.” And Google made it possible for ABA and Blue Fire to create the newly released Indie app for Android, which works on both the Nook and Kindle Fire. A second app for iOS will be ready soon.
“I think of this as a long-term marketing thing,” says Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, one of many booksellers eager to adapt to changing times. When Google eBooks launched, the store created a video showing that even a sock puppet can download an e-book. It went viral after Google placed it on its blog. Even so, Mulvihill is finding it an uphill battle to get customers to buy e-books. “It’s still less than 1% of our business,” he says. “Given the time we spend on Google eBooks, we don’t even break even.” Far more successful was a Groupon the store ran in May offering $20 in merchandise for $10. It brought in more than 300 new customers, and people spent an average of $45. Still, without Google, Mulvihill says, “I would have lost customers.”
At Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., Josh Cook, online presence manager, says, “We never planned on Google eBooks being a huge percentage of sales. Our strategy is to be prepared in case of a major change.” One change he’s observed is that online sales of print books have jumped. In promoting the store’s ability to sell e-books on its Web site, Cook says that it created a greater awareness that it sells physical books online, too. That’s something the ABA has noticed as well. “Having e-books to sell is driving traffic to our members’ Web sites, and we’ve seen a significant increase in overall business through IndieCommerce,” says Teicher.
Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va., has seen strong growth in Web sales, which now make up 10% of the store’s business. Owner Kelly Justice attributes that to its unique offerings, like autographed books and event tickets, rather than e-books, which have been steadily growing but haven’t reached a significant percentage. “We’ve trained people worldwide to come to us. We hang out with them online, where they are. More than half our sales are from outside Richmond. We know them from their Twitter handles,” she says.
One bookseller speaking off the record says, “I hope that in the long run Google eBooks turns out to be a good thing. It’s been very expensive for the return.” He also lamented the lack of wish lists. That could change, however, since Google has several updates in the works for 2012. “Anything in our eyesight will roll down to all our stores,” Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships, told PW. “Probably the biggest hurdle is integrating e-bookselling into what happens on the bookstore floor.” Google has already completed APIs for ordering e-books prerelease and for gifting, but Turvey declined to say what else is on the Google to-do list. Some booksellers are hoping it includes more timely delivery. Both the hot-selling biography of Steve Jobs and 1Q84 were available one day after their e-release.
“It’s been frustrating,” says communications manager Andrew Getman, at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., who regards Google eBooks as an investment in the future and a way to build relationships. Politics & Prose has gone all out to make sure that customers know it sells e-books, from making belly bands with QR codes for books on display to devoting an endcap to digital books. Even so, Getman didn’t see e-books start to move until six months after their release, when Unbridled did a three-day 25¢ promotion of 25 backlist titles that sold close to 16,000 e-books nationwide.
“It was a conscious effort on our part,” says Unbridled Books copublisher Fred Ramey, who came up with the idea after talking with booksellers about e-book sales in the first half of the year. “Building the e-book customer base is important to the ABA and important to us. We need independents to be actively behind us. The only way we can do that is to be actively behind them.” Other publishers, including HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, and Sourcebooks, have followed suit. Sourcebooks publisher and CEO Dominique Raccah says, “We’ve supported ABA’s digital efforts and think they are mission critical.”
As e-book sales continue to explode at device-centric stores like Amazon.com and BN.com, the ABA and booksellers will need to work even more closely with publishers to grow Google eBooks to the next level in 2012.