November 16, 2011

Indies & ebooks: It’s now or never, baby


One Brooklyn bookstore we admire because they ain't afraid of no stinkin' ebook world

One of our main concerns at Melville House the last couple of years has been: What can we do to get more indie booksellers involved in the digital economy? We’ve come up with a couple of inventions/innovations, such as our Digital Direct program, which was aimed at helping indies — in that situation where customers use their books as a display item for purchase of the ebook at Amazon via their iPhone — to keep the sale in the store, although admittedly it got hard for all of us to pull that off when Google walked away from their vaunted Google Ebookstore (can anyone out there explain to me why no one else has had the decency, let alone the nerve, to report on that?). Then there’s our ongoing, and more successful HybridBook program, whereby we gave away free supplemental ebooks to people who purchased our print books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

But we admit, there are times when we feel we’re swimming upstream: getting indie booksellers to work together has been a lot like getting indie publishers to work together, which is to say it’s like herding cats. It can be particularly dispiriting when you see so many indie booksellers acting like chain bookstores, that is operating on the bestseller model, and focusing primarily on the books of conglomerate booksellers.

So we were heartened to see a particularly smart commentary on the situation from the website The Late Age of Print: Beyond the Book. There, University of Indiana prof Ted Striphas raises a concern similar to our own:

… the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The observation emerges from a question Striphas asked his class “Cultures of Books and Reading,” which was to defend or oppose the following: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.” He notes that about fifty percent of his class agreed with the statement.

But Striphas thinks he sees a way for indies to pull it out of the fire, and he’s worth quoting at length:

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

I don’t know about you, but I’m signing up for his next class. Meanwhile, can I just say: Rock on, Ted Striphas.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.