Despite technological petting zoos, QR codes on shelf-talkers linked to bookstores’ Web sites, and in-store displays of physical books with signage reminding readers that they can also buy e-editions, only a handful of independents are making more than about $100 or so on e-book sales a month. To help, some indie publishers, including Algonquin and Sourcebooks, have begun, or are about to begin, programs directed toward helping independent bookstores build a following among e-book fans. (See sidebar on facing page.) At the same time, booksellers are asking whether they need a reader of their own to crack the e-book market in a meaningful way.

“If you’re a large-scale retailer like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you have a very holistic view of how you want to drive sales,” says Anne Kubek, executive v-p, general manager, of e-book wholesaler INscribe Digital, which supplies e-books to Google and other e-tailers. “For Amazon it’s the world, obviously. By integrating the Nook so deeply into their stores and Web site, Barnes & Noble has a very clear message: any way you want that book, you can get it.” For independents, the message regarding e-books is much more diffuse. In recent postings on listservs for New England and Southern booksellers, many have stated that they prefer to stick with physical books.

But Kubek questions whether independents can afford to give up market share. “From my experience at Borders,” she says, where she worked for 20 years, most recently as executive v-p of merchandising and marketing, “if you have a great store and begin to shave off 10% to 20% a year to another format, you go from profitable and solvent to unprofitable and insolvent. I think there’s still opportunity here. I think it’s a moment where the ship hasn’t sailed yet, but it’s going to sail soon.”

The American Booksellers Association is rumored to be working on a partnership to create an indie e-reader, which can’t come soon enough for some booksellers.

“The Kindle is cheap and easy to use. Why can’t we booksellers together with our trade associations come up with a device that’s hip, slick, cheap, and easy to use to promote Google eBooks?” asks Katherine Bennett, owner of Undercover Books & Gifts in Christiansted, the U.S. Virgin Islands. “My sales are slipping because I can’t compete with the Kindle. We need to come up with something, and fast.”

Mitchell Kaplan, founder of seven-store Books & Books, headquartered in Coral Gables, Fla., would also like to see an indie e-reader, one that would be both elegant and hip. “I want the customer to realize they can get it from us,” he says. “Any time, any format, but from us.” As Kaplan sees it, there’s plenty of room for another e-reader. He points to how headphone makers like Skull Candy, Bose, and Beats have carved out audiences for very similar products. Jack McKeown, who owns the Books & Books in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., and who showed that consumers would buy a well-priced indie e-reader in the most recent Verso survey, says, “I remain convinced that there is room in the market for such a device. I believe that indie bookstores need such a device in order to properly formulate an effective e-book strategy by closing the loop with their customers.”

Even Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., who offers shoppers perhaps the clearest link between e-books, e-readers, and a physical bookstore through the in-store boutique he set up early in 2011 with TD Curran, a local Apple dealer, is open to selling an indie e-reader. “The folks from the [Apple] dealer talk with people every day about e-books and how to purchase them from us,” says Chuck Robinson, who saw the store’s e-book unit sales rise an astronomical 4,800% in 2011 over 2010 as a result. Revenue increased 1,500%. Of course, Google eBooks didn’t launch until December 2010. So far this year e-book sales are up by 20%.

While Robinson isn’t a big proponent of an indie-branded reader—he knows how little Apple dealers make on iPads, just 10%—he says that he’s more interested than he was a year ago. Moreover, he says he would welcome a partnership with Barnes & Noble that would let him sell the Nook. “We send a fair number of folks to B&N to get a Nook, if they’re looking for a dedicated reader,” Robinson remarks. “I think they’ve done a great job with the reader, and their support for it seems to be strong.”

Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., is concerned about being responsible for technical support if her store were to sell an indie-branded e-reader. But that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. And she worries about pricing, particularly at a time when both the Nook and Kindle seem to be on a race to be free first. Still, she says, “I think we’re all surprised by how device-driven e-books have become. Over the holidays we had several [middle-school] kids come in and say, ‘Mommy/Daddy I want that book.’ And the parents said, ‘You’ll get it on your Kindle.’ ” A potentially larger hurdle that Coonerty Protti is working to overcome is that her customers don’t equate shopping on her Web site ( with shopping local.

Because McLean & Eakin Booksellers is located in a vacation area, Petoskey, Mich., co-owner Matt Norcross is especially eager to find ways to generate sales after tourist season has passed. As part of that effort, he’s tried to make the store and its Web site ( sources for entertainment. “We don’t just sell books,” says Norcross. “I sold over $20,000 in DVDs last year on a one-foot-square spinner. The more you can offer, the greater depth you can provide, the more your customer is going to shop with you.” So far, it’s working, because sales for both the store and Web site are up. The latter, which includes sales for e-books, is also contributing more to the bottom line. Backing out online sales for Michael Moore titles, for which McLean & Eakin was one of the designated booksellers offering signed books, the store’s Web sales in 2011 rose from less than 1% to nearly 4% of gross revenue.

But Norcross would like to see Google and ABA offer booksellers on IndieCommerce more bells and whistles for their e-books to compete with Amazon—and more digital products. “We need to increase our competitiveness. We need to sell e-books in advance of pub date and to have an easy delivery system. I don’t see why we can’t sell audio or rent DVDs. The key is to have more and more.”

E-book Programs for Indies

Following Unbridled’s 25 books for 25¢ promotion last June, which served as the “real” launch for Google eBooks by getting hundreds of customers to buy e-books from independent booksellers for the first time, other presses have followed suit. Many of the promotions have been just that, one-off discounts intended to promote a specific author or holiday. Now Algonquin Books and Sourcebooks are launching longer-range programs to help indies move the needle on e-book sales.

Last month at Winter Institute, Dominique Raccah, publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks, in Naperville, Ill., got the attention of longtime booksellers like Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla.; Michael Tucker of Books Inc. in San Francisco; and Becky Anderson of Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill., with her idea for an e-book program for local e-books. “This idea came from listening to people tell me that you can’t buy e-books locally. Last year, 28% of our sales were e-books. We know a lot about this space,” says Raccah. “Before you get purchase, you have to get awareness, which is why Sourcebooks created the hashtag #localebooks.” At press time the details of Read Local eBooks, which will run from June through August, were still being finalized. But Raccah did say that it will be fiction-heavy, with some memoirs, and will be designed to attract female readers. What differentiates it from other programs is that Sourcebooks will gather data from the participants and share it with booksellers.

Algonquin’s monthly Lucky 7 promotion launched earlier in February with seven backlist titles priced at $1.99 each chosen by seven Algonquin authors, including Robert Olmstead, Amy Stewart, and Hillary Jordan. Although it is open to all vendors, online and paperback marketing director Michael Taeckens says, “We really want to get across the message that when it comes to e-books, you can buy them at your favorite indie bookstore. You can go to Regulator, Northshire, or Three Lives, and get e-books. It’s also a way for us to showcase a lot of backlist titles, going all the way back, books from our archives so to speak.”

To make sure that the discounted e-books don’t interfere with print sales, Algonquin will not be selling bestsellers like Water for Elephants or A Reliable Wife at $1.99.

“We heard from a lot of very enthusiastic indies, many of whom wanted us to extend the e-book promo to two weeks. So that’s what we’re going to do,” says Taeckens. Starting next month, the tag line will read: “7 books, 14 days, $1.99 each.” The seven March selections will be themed around staff picks, while travel will be the April theme.