Perhaps it was only to be expected, given the growing importance of e-books to many publishers' bottom lines and the ongoing DoJ case on e-book pricing, that yesterday afternoon's keynote on "Shaping the Future of the Book—Insight from Leaders Who Are Transforming How We Read," moderated by John R. Ingram, CEO and chairman of Ingram Content, drifted into a discussion of digital books. That's despite how little e-books contribute to the bottom line of many independent bookstores. As panelist Steve Bercu, incoming president of the American Booksellers Association and co-owner of BookPeople in Austin, Tex., pointed out, at his store, which last year had its third consecutive record-breaking year, e-books make up 1/100th of 1% of sales.
"I think this is an amazing time for independents. We've come full circle," said panelist Jane Friedman, CEO and cofounder of Open Road Integrated Media, who termed herself a "futuristic publisher" who does e-books and short-run print through Ingram. She told Bercu, "I'm going to get your percentage up to 15%." In her view, e-books can help promote print. "This is the additional sale. If there is reluctance on the part of independents to sell all books in all formats, [customers] are going to go somewhere else."
To some extent, Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch shares that view. He noted that part of the promotion for the repackaging of Evelyn Waugh's backlist will include some low-cost Waugh e-books for $1.99. Of course, not all print titles work in digital, as panelist Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books, pointed out, particularly some illustrated titles.
In a question from the audience, Ed Conklin, buyer at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, Calif., said, "I'm not real interested in e-books." That's because there's no way for a customer to buy an e-book in his store. In a follow-up question, Emily Pullen, manager of Word Books in Brooklyn, N.Y., pointed out how little money booksellers make on e-book sales. "If I sold an e-book to every customer who came in my store, I'd be out of business in a week." To which Friedman responded that e-book pricing is going to level out at higher than $2.99.
But a number of booksellers aren't convinced. As Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia in Madison, Conn., said, "The panel was assuming the e-book is an add-on and the consumer is device-neutral"—neither of which, she believes, is the case. For Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., "It's understandable that the panel became focused on the e-book given how we're all struggling to understand what the impact is going to be. There was a missed opportunity to discuss what the future will be in other areas."