After years of asking mainstream publishers for e-books to be bundled with physical books, a small group of indie booksellers have gotten their wish. Late last year Capstone Young Readers launched a beta test of a bundling program that pairs kids books with interactive e-books that can be read on the CapReader app for iPads (available for free in the Apple iTunes store). The code for the digital download is printed inside the book, directing buyers to the CapReader website, where they can download the e-book and read it inside the free CapReader app.

Capstone deliberately singled out independents for its initial test. “It’s something the company feels passionate about, that independent booksellers can participate in an e-book ecosystem,” said chief content officer Ashley Andersen Zantop. The beta was deliberately small: 18 booksellers and 15 bundles (a combination of picture books, chapter books, and middle-grade readers) from the press’s 1,100 CapReader e-books. Andersen Zantop says that they wanted to make sure that the act of downloading the e-book is simple and that the overall experience is “top of the line” before rolling it out.

A little over halfway through the initial beta test, which is scheduled to end on June 30, the question of whether e-book bundling for children’s titles is effective does not have a clear answer. Many of the booksellers contacted by PW agreed with Ellen Richmond, owner of Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine, who described “middling success” to date. But she really wants to make it work.

Part of the problem for her and booksellers in larger stores is that the display created by Capstone relies on making an iPad available so that customers can demo the product. But booksellers worry that the iPad will disappear. Some have tried disguising it to make it less visible. Others keep it at the checkout and bring it to customers browsing Capstone titles. Both options require a degree of handselling that isn’t always possible, particularly in stores with only one bookseller. Weather also played a role in limiting consumer traffic, particularly in the Northeast, where bookstores have had to cope with multiple snowstorms and frigid temperatures.

To explain the value of the bundle, Richmond tells customers that it’s a way to reinforce literacy. She uses the iPad to demo how the app can read the book aloud and highlight key words. At her store, those who have purchased bundles—which have a suggested retail price that’s 30% off the combined list price of the book and e-book—have preferred picture books such as Michael Dahl’s Penguin Says “Please” or Jake Maddox’s Gymnastic Jitters.

“We’ve been selling the books, but the e-book doesn’t seem to be the selling point,” said Sally Brewster, owner of Park Road Books, in Charlotte, N.C. When she and her staff ask customers if they would like a demonstration, the response has often been, “No, that’s okay.” So far Brewster’s sales have been relatively small. The bundle that has worked best is Elizabeth Raum’s World War II: An Interactive History Adventure, followed by Fran Manushkin’s Big Sisters Are the Best.

University Book Store in Seattle has also done well with middle-grade nonfiction, such as Kate McMullen’s Have a Hot Time, Hades! Sales have been so strong that children’s book buyer Caitlin Baker asked Capstone to increase its nonfiction offerings and to make all the titles in the Myth O Mania series available as bundles. Overall, Baker is pleased to participate. “This is an exciting idea, and I’m thrilled that Capstone has taken the initiative,” she said.

Holland Saltsman, owner of the six-month-old Novel Neighbor bookstore and artist space in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Grove, agrees. “I think it’s a great idea,” she said. As the sole employee at her store, she would like a few changes to the display, including making it more self-explanatory. “We’ve moved it around a couple times,” she said. “With the iPad, you can’t have it out of the sight of the register.” To date, she’s sold very few bundles, but she’s been encouraged by the fact those who do buy come back for more.

“We like the idea of selling somebody a physical book, and they can get an e-book,” commented children’s book buyer Wally Johnston, at Rediscovered Books in Boise, Iowa. “It’s something we’ve wanted for a long time.” For her, the display has turned into a conversation starter with educators, since most customers don’t realize that the books are being sold with an interactive e-book. She’s done “pretty well” with picture books.

Capstone trade sales manager Paul Von Drasek has gotten a similarly positive response from participating booksellers. Yet he cautioned that “it’s premature to forecast what the results will be. We need more information.” One advantage of e-book bundling that he points out is that “it enables booksellers to offer something new without a lot of technological training.”

It may be in its early days, but Andersen Zantop is confident that the company will move forward with the program. Capstone is prepared to do more testing if needed, with more stores and more product, as well as adding some of its teen and YA titles, including more nonfiction.

“Part of the reason we embarked on this as a beta,” said Andersen Zantop, “is that we knew there were things that wouldn’t work. Finding the right experience in-store is why we have to have a beta, or a couple betas.”

Though all the data is not in yet, Andersen Zantop is encouraged that the downloads for the apps and for Capstone’s interactive e-books have increased, and bundled title orders have been increasing since the trial began. She’s already thinking about what’s next.

As for booksellers, Pam Cady, manager of general books at University Book Store noted, “[Bundling] gives us a chance to partner with our publisher on something that could be of value to both of us. We’re usually happy to try things that have a chance of impacting sales.”