BookNet Canada’s Technology Forum held in Toronto on March 7 and 8 had lots of practical advice for publishers looking to not only survive the digital revolution but to use new technology to their advantage – from ways to combat showrooming to increasing e-book discoverability to pricing strategies.

Liz Ross, CEO of Geomentum, a Mediabrands company, gave the 235 attendees a view of what she called a “battle royale” for booksellers now facing the challenge of shoppers armed with apps like Amazon’s Price Check. The app allows people to scan a product with their phone, check Amazon’s price and buy it instantly. She quoted a Pew study in the U.S. in which 52% of adults said they had used their phone for a shopping related behavior during the holiday season. Of those people, 25% searched for a cheaper price, 35% still purchased the item at that store, but 65% didn’t.

“What does a traditional retailer do to combat showrooming?” she asked. “The solutions are really falling into three different buckets – bundling, loyalty and services.” Ross said retailers can bundle products in an intuitive way that is much harder to do online. In terms of building loyalty, she highlighted Safeway’s Foodflex program, which gives its customers the nutritional profile of their groceries, and a Starbuck’s app, which tells the user where the nearest location is. For bookstores, she suggested that giving customers opportunities to meet authors is still one of the best services they can offer.

“GPS is a killer app that is changing the face of everything. Embrace and create,” she challenged, mentioning Layar, an augmented reality browser, as an example of a new frontier. The city of Chicago built an architectural “layar” that allows people driving down Michigan Avenue to hold up their phones to buildings to get information about the architecture, she said. “What if you are in the location where [a] book is set, and you are able to drive around and see where those characters [were] and literally use your phone and augmented reality in order to plus up the story?” she suggested.

Evan Schnittman, managing director group sales and marketing, print and digital, for Bloomsbury Publishing, offered a perspective on the problem of e-book discoverability. Merchandising, as distinct from marketing, he said, doesn’t exist on e-readers. It is too limited by the physics of a small two-dimensional screen. (Although that point was hotly contested by Nathan Maharaj, director of merchandising for Kobo.) To make up for that lack, Schnittman says Bloomsbury uses what he called “the $1.99 solution” because the only successful means to marketing is to get the big e-book retailers to include the book as one of their daily advertised deals. “We give the retailers incentive at stupidly low prices. Of course we do that for short bursts. It’s important to remember this is not giving the book away….This is a momentary spark that we throw into the fumes of gasoline that we hope are sitting there in Amazon etc.” And according to the examples he offered, it is an effective solution, not just because of huge sales increases during the short-term promotion, but because there is a lingering boost for sales after the promotion. He offered examples of a bestseller, a new author, and deep backlist book that all increased their post-promotion unit sales by 233% to 644%.

Michael Tamblyn, executive vice president of content, sales and merchandising at Kobo, said these short-term promotions are a “rich area for experimentation,” but offered some more qualified observations. Such promotions tend to work better for midlist authors than for bestsellers, he said. “The promotion that I think we are approached with quite often and generally haven’t seen a lot of success in are promotions that are going to ‘energize the backlist. We’re going to take these two titles from this author’s body of work, fire them up at 99 cents and that’s going to create demand for the other works around it from the same time period.’ It just doesn’t seem to happen. The only place where it has worked is when we are looking at series fiction, where you can sometimes jump start a series and get that echo effect starting to work.” He also noted that promotions don’t have to be at 99 cents, publishers are sometimes going too low and could be getting the same sales for twice the price or more. Tamblyn also said that the “halo effect” of a promotion usually only affects sales for about a month before it tapers off.

Schnittman, however, pointed out that the larger problem is that there are so many books and so few daily deals. “We must find efficiencies between what we do in print and what we do in E. And to do that, we’ve got to figure out how to get beyond the bestsellers when it comes to E. And that’s in a world with fewer and fewer print retailers, so my mantra is print must thrive for publishing to survive.”

He presented an idea he called “enhanced hardcovers,” which would offer consumers an e-book with the purchase of a hardcover at a 25% premium. Schnittman argued that the idea is a win for consumers, who get to have both the convenience of an e-book and the object of the book to keep, and for authors, who would get higher royalties. Retailers would get a 25% increase in price without any additional use of shelf space, and he said, “linking the physical bookstore, the merchandising havens with E, [is a] tremendous, tremendous opportunity for retailers.” Publishers win, he said, because they have a higher priced product and there’s no added cost except what we are already doing to make e-books. Schnittman said some people have laughed at this idea, but Bloomsbury is taking it seriously and launching a pilot program to test it on various types of books such as bestsellers and serious non-fiction with Foyles in London in September.

The conference included many other speakers from organizations including Goodreads, Sesame Workshop, Firebrand Technologies, BookRiff, EDItEUR, Inkle, paidContent, Press Books, Simon Fraser University, the 49th Shelf, The Atavist, and Simon Fraser University. A video of the sessions will be available from BookNet Canada in the next month or so.