Up to now, independent booksellers have been struggling to compete with online retailers by selling e-books through the American Booksellers Association’s partnership with Kobo. But given how much business big houses are doing with physical books online—last year 50% of Penguin Random House’s total revenue came from the combined online sales of physical and digital books—it could be time for independent booksellers to make a bigger push to sell physical books through their websites.
While moving a large chunk of their book sales online might not be a realistic goal for some independents, others have made the Web an important part of their business. Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va., for example, manages online sales of autographed books by authors. McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., has moved to 99¢ shipping for customers who order online, and Word in Brooklyn and Jersey City is selling books online as part of the ticket price for events with big-name authors.
“Omni-channel needs to be an aim, not a term of derision,” said Peter Makin, cofounder of Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Mich. “Frankly, the biggest hurdle to selling books online are the policies of the ABA board. They have conflated online shopping with Amazon, for which they have only blind hatred, which isn’t producing constructive results.”
Makin’s store, which is located in a summer resort community and brands itself as “Your long-distance local bookstore,” has seen Web sales increase 400% over the past two years. With a boost from the store’s email newsletter (which goes to 21,000 subscribers) and its Brilliant Books Monthly book program (which has 2,500 online subscribers), Brilliant now does 25% of its overall sales online. Online sales for the 3,000-sq.-ft. bookstore, Makin said, now exceed what the store was doing at its original location in Sutton’s Bay, which closed in 2013.
Fountain Bookstore has “a lot” of online sales, Justice said, declining to give an exact number. One indication of size is that the day she spoke with PW late last month, Justice was about to lease her first warehouse space. She has run out of room in her 1,000-sq.-ft. store to handle large quantities. Her advice to others who want to follow her model and provide unique autographed copies online is: “Redundancy is critical. We have the duties spread out among four booksellers, including myself.” She also reminds booksellers to remember that the point is to make things easier for both the author and the reader.
And to those booksellers who only consider customers as people who walk into their stores, Justice said: “We love our online customers. We have relationships with them just like in the bookstore.” To get to know her online customers better, she asks them to send a selfie when they receive their shipments. “You’re hanging out with people in their houses,” Justice said, adding, “We are not Amazon.”
Word also does large signed preorder campaigns for writers who are friends of the store, as well as online ticket sales that include the purchase of a book. It presold 1,400 copies of End of Watch for Stephen King’s upcoming June tour, 800 of the paperback edition of Gumption by actor and comedian Nick Offerman, who appeared in Jersey City last week. “These events have helped the online portion of our gross sales grow to over 14% YTD,” said owner and buyer Christine Onorati. As for preorders, she said, “Our campaigns with romance authors have shown us that even readers who might read mostly digitally will order a physical copy of a book to get it personalized from their favorite author. ”
Unlike Brilliant and Fountain, most of Word’s online sales not attached to events or preorders are for in-store pickup. “The number of customers randomly finding us and ordering books from us online is pretty low,” Onorati said. “I think the unfortunate reality is that when people think of buying books online, most don’t think to go to an indie bookstore. While we work hard to nurture and encourage transactions, we know that people who walk into our stores present a much stronger opportunity for book sales.”
McLean & Eakin has also been aggressive about growing online sales. For co-owner Matthew Norcross, one of the biggest changes was moving to a flat 99¢ shipping fee. “It was really night and day, like a switch was flipped,” he said. The weekly email newsletter that Jessilynn Norcross, his wife and store co-owner, began writing several years ago has also made a difference. “We went from virtually nothing,” Norcross said, “to 3% of annual sales in 2015.” More importantly, he’s found that his website doesn’t only generate online sales. “Every week, and in the summer daily, we hear folks saying, ‘I saw it on your website,’ ” Norcross said.
To maintain a personal connection with online customers, Norcross has his staff write notes and include gifts, such as a tote bag from a publisher, with orders. “Adding the human touch is something we can do that the big guys can’t,” Norcross said.
Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., got a boost for its online sales in 2013, when Neil Gaiman, then living nearby, asked it to presell signed copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which resulted in 5,000 orders. Since then Porter Square has partnered with other authors, including Amanda Palmer and Rick Riordan. In the past two years it also began accepting PayPal and changed some of the wording on its website from “Ships in 1–5 days” to “Available to order.” And it’s also worked on its customer service. “Our goal is to give our online customers as close to the same level of service as we can get to what our in-store customers receive,” said Josh Cook, bookseller and marketing director.
As a result, Porter Square has seen its online sales grow from half a percent of total sales in 2010 to 4.4% in 2015. For Cook, though, the biggest hurdle has been what he called “the mindshare gap.” He noted, “People still have this idea that indie bookstores are old-fashioned and quaint and that shopping with them is all about connecting to some nostalgic community.”
At San Francisco’s Green Apple, online sales are 2% of gross overall sales. “But they have gone up steadily over the years, and every percentage or two of growth matters,” said Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple. Part of the store’s online sales growth has come from switching to flat shipping charges at the urging of Norcross. Previously it offered free shipping on orders that are more than $35.
Mulvihill acknowledged that there’s still work to be done. “We could be doing better at telling our customers we have a functioning website,” he said. “And for all the strengths of IndieCommerce, our site can’t match Amazon’s ease of checkout and search tools.”
Some new bricks-and-mortar bookstores are also starting to gain traction online. Within 10 months of its opening, An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, Mass., owned by Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney, has begun generating 1% of its sales online, according to general manager Deb Sunderlin. While many are for signed copies of Kinney’s own books, Sunderlin regards this as a special service. Kinney doesn’t want to compete with Shamrock Music Shoppe, his brother’s music store in Purcellville, Va., which has had an online Wimpy Kid store with autographed books for years. Plus, An Unlikely Story faces the same problem as many independents, Sunderlin said. It’s not the first place that people go to online. Still, she plans to direct more attention to the online piece soon.