The May 25 U.S. Book Show panel, “How to Sell More Books Online in 2021,” featured three speakers—Phil Davies, the ABA’s IndieCommerce program manager; Sarah High of Bookshop.org; and Mark Pearson, CEO and co-founder of Libro.fm—who looked at some options independent booksellers have to take advantage of the explosion in online book buying.
All three of the panelists are from organizations who supply platforms that allowed booksellers to quickly adapt to the surge in online sales caused by the pandemic. But, Davies cautioned, the bookstore’s own marketing efforts must remain “part of the equation. It’s definitely more of a complex situation than bookstores realize.”
High noted that booksellers should optimize Bookshop.org by customizing their pages and including lists of book recommendations. “That’s a way for the customer to connect with your store,” she said, noting that Bookstore.org’s sales last year were more frontlist than backlist, and“mostly anti-racism titles”—many of which were included on bookseller lists of recommended books.
High stressed that Bookshop.org is not designed to replace bricks-and-mortar bookstores, but rather, to pull away “socially conscious shoppers” from Amazon, including readers who lack access to a local indie. Davis said that online commerce programs like IndieCommerce and Bookshop.org can motivate consumers to visit bricks-and-mortar bookstores as restrictions ease.
Virtual Events and Influencers
The three panelists praised booksellers for scheduling virtual author appearance, though they agreed that it can be difficult to monetize such events, as attendees don’t always become customers. Davies recommended that booksellers focus on scheduling local authors for virtual events, so as to not compete with other booksellers. High described how Bookshop.org's U.K division organized virtual events that were not typical bookstore events to not compete with indies. Bookshop.org U.K. also requires attendees to purchase a copy of the book in order to access events. Pearson agreed with this strategy, recalling that a ticketed virtual event with Brandi Carlile hosted by Women & Children First in Chicago drew 1,000 customers.
When the discussion turned to social media and influencers, High said that Bookstore.org currently has 25,000 non-bookstore affiliates, who are paid a commission for every sale that they facilitate. Libro.fm has set up a program that allows booksellers to listen to audiobooks prior their release. Variations of the program have been extended to librarians, educators, and influencers, who are encouraged to listen to audiobooks and then to buzz about them, as well as about their local bookstores.
While drawing children into the digital realm raises safety and security concerns, PW's Ed Nawotka, who served as moderator, noted that the children’s book category for the past 25 years has been the fastest growing category in book publishing. Besides encouraging bookstores to include children’s lists in their recommendations, Bookshop.org has been partnering with indie booksellers to hold virtual book fairs that are “Scholastic-like, but much better,” High said, with a portion of the proceeds going to schools. Davies pointed out while IndieCommerce’s largest demographic is the 25-34 year-old age group, older demographics remain strong, and pointed out that grandparents are big children’s book buyers. In contrast, children’s audiobook sales run below print sales, Pearson explained, as customers are reluctant to spend the $14.99 for each Libro.fm selection “on an eight dollar book.”
As the panel wound down, High urged publishers to help booksellers succeed, saying “listen to what they need and how to help them.”