For many bricks-and-mortar bookstores, 2014 was a banner year, helped by the overall improvement in the sale of print books. Some independents, such as BookPeople in Austin, Tex., and Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass., reported that they had their best year ever. Barnes & Noble’s physical stores reversed a downward trend and posted some gains for the nine-week holiday season, which ended January 3, compared to the similar period the previous year. But when it comes to digital, the results have been mixed. Holiday sales of digital content dropped 25% at B&N, and device and accessory sales fell even further, down 68%. Indie e-book and device sales haven’t taken the same kind of hit, but indies have far less invested in the digital side.
Indies first dipped their toes in the digital waters in 2010 through an arrangement with Google. After that deal fell apart, the American Booksellers Association announced in August 2012 a three-year contract with Kobo and rolled out an e-book and device program to booksellers in time for the 2012 holiday season. “ABA remains committed to supporting those member stores that want to offer digital content,” said ABA CEO Oren Teicher. In addition to the partnership with Kobo, ABA is exploring alternatives. “While it’s too soon to talk in specifics,” he continued, “we believe that as the market matures, a key goal will be to help booksellers identify and implement from among a choice of options, should they decide to sell e-books. ABA has always understood that one size does not fit all in our market, and that there will be a wide range of solutions used by our members.”
Booksellers who want to offer their customers print and e-book options appreciate ABA’s support in the digital market, even though e-book sales have been far from vibrant. Hudson Group, which operates more than 65 bookstores at airports and train stations and sells books through several hundred newsstands, saw its e-book sales through IndieCommerce decline by 20% in 2014. But it has no plans to stop selling them. “It doesn’t cost us anything additional [to sell e-books],” said Sara Hinckley, v-p of book buying and promotions at Hudson. “And every sale helps. We do hope that the future will bring us better opportunities to become part of the e-book market.”
E-book sales were also down by double digits at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. “E-books are minimally profitable,” said co-owner Pete Mulvihill, whose digital content sales declined 18% in 2014. He’s scaling back his effort to sell digital content and devices, as the Kobo partnership, in his opinion, “loses steam.” But Mulvihill has no plans to give up e-books entirely. He views e-books, which represent less than 1% of store sales, as a service for customers who want to e-read and still support the bookstore. At present Green Apple is only selling the Kobo Glo, because it’s stocked by Ingram. “It was hard keeping up with each new device, and the ever-evolving discounts,” said Mulvihill. “We focus on what we do well—buying, displaying, marketing, and selling print books—and largely leave e-books to another segment of the bookselling universe.”
Enthusiasm for devices has cooled at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., despite 500 active e-book customers, according to events coordinator and eTeam leader Sam Kaas. “We continue to carry Kobo devices for the time being, although as return terms and support from Kobo have changed, we are reevaluating that,” he said. Last month the store sold 11 devices. On the other hand, e-book sales have remained steady. “E-books are profitable in terms of sales,” said Kaas, “especially since they do not take up space on our shelves or carry the risk of making us order and return multiple copies. However, if we need to provide instruction or service to customers, an hourly staffer’s time quickly becomes more expensive than the commission we make.”
Some stores have had an increase in sales, such as Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., where e-book sales rose 9% for the year, or Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., which had a slight increase in December, but the gain hasn’t made a financial difference. “Even in our best months, we’re lucky to earn several hundred dollars in e-book commissions. On the other hand, e-sales haven’t cost us much additional effort,” said P&P co-owner Bradley Graham.
Generating revenue has never been the only reason booksellers stock e-readers and make digital content available. “If a customer, for whatever reason, asks us to provide e-books, and it’s pretty straightforward for us to do, why wouldn’t we?” asked HBS owner Jeff Mayersohn, somewhat rhetorically. “The alternative is to tell the customer to go to the competition, which we’d rather not do.”
Matt Norcross, co-owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., saw both the sales volume and number of new e-book customers rise in 2014. His store added 71 new Kobo customers for a 23% increase in its customer base. That’s in part because the store integrates e-books into its weekly email blast, its radio promotion on NPR, and even at book talks. McLean & Eakin, which is in a tourist community, also runs “Tech Tuesdays” during its busy summer season and displays the latest Kobo devices.
As for print being up and e-books possibly waning, that’s not a problem for Norcross. “It’s not like there is a war between P and E in our store,” he said. “That’s the beauty of this partnership with ABA and Kobo. If the customer prefers an e-book, we can do that. If they want a physical book, we can do that, too. That said, a 23% increase in our customer base indicates there is still a customer to serve in the digital realm.”
And like many of his colleagues, Norcross’s goal is to serve the needs of as many customers as possible, and to keep them coming back.