How can small booksellers get ahead with eBooks?


opinion When you’re a tech junkie like me, when you delve into the Blio project, you will find yourself going “OMG, Ray Kurzweil!”. It’s a similar situation if you’re a bookseller and have been up to speed with recent events in eBooks. You may find yourself going “OMG, Baker & Taylor!”

Now, in my writing in Delimiter and now in Oz-E-Books, I am discovering new and weird things in the realm of Australian publishing. One thing is that Australian small booksellers really hate the Australian distribution system, which is owned by the Australian publishing houses.

The Australian system is focused on the big stores and chains to the detriment of the specialist shops and small book retailers. This is a gap that companies like B&T are taking advantage of, with a series of seminars and presentations via (or organised by) the Australian Booksellers Association.

Now, they are not the only US distributor in the eBook game, with Overdrive offering a turnkey marketplace for web retailers (as used by Read Without Paper). However, the B&T play is interesting, because it is attempting to get the local booksellers into the game, rather than create competitors.

Now, as my bookshop-owning friend Tim at Infinitas points out, good small book retailers can do something that large booksellers can not do: create communities. As someone that has been going to Infinitas book reader meetings since the early 1990’s, and have helped or attended author signings, book readings, games days and a lot of other events, having a bookshop as a focus of your book lifestyle creates strong loyalty to the shop, and if the staff know you well, the human powered book referral system is by far more powerful than Amazon’s data mining.

Now, if the stars align on this, if B&T can tap into this community spirit and build the small retailers into the business model for eBooks, something special can be created. Imagine walking into your local store (or even logging onto the bookshop forum, as not all communities are geographically based), and the staff tells you that there is a new book out that you would be interested in.

Given that there is a level of trust between you and the bookshop that companies like Borders or Dymocks could never compete with, you say “Sure, I will give it a try”. They sell you a voucher on the spot for the eBook, and if they offer free Wi-Fi, you could even instantly download the book.

Compare this to, um, every other eBook seller, where unless the bookseller has an affiliate relationship with the supplier, they will look at every eBook app and device as another competitor that will steal sales from them.

Now, if B&T and Blio can work out a format and DRM regime that won’t annoy the long-suffering consumers already overburdened with DRM, incompatible devices and numerous apps required to read a book, having friendly local sellers onside may be the secret ingredient in winning the format wars!

Darryl Adams is a government worker and internet tragic. A former IT worker, he still pines for the days of IBM keyboards that go CRUNCH and the glow of green screens. He can be found on on Twitter or on Facebook. Check out his site for more articles about e-book readers, retailers, formats and news (or will have when Darryl can be drawn away from reading Delimiter).

The views expressed here do not reflect the views of his employer, the ATO.

Image credit: Amazon


  1. It would be great if they could do this, Darryl. One of my greatest regrets about the switch to ebooks is the loss of the small bookshop. I used to look forward so much to trips to Adelaide, where my husband, daughter and I would raid our favourite bookshops (ah, the O. G. Bookshop, the Glenelg bookshop, the little backstreet SF bookshop in the city, and the gleeful discovery of unraided bookshops). I have heard this regret from other keen readers, as well. We miss our bookshops. The big chains are OK if you know what you’re seeking and they happen to have it (“if it’s not on the shelf, we don’t have it”), but small bookshops can offer much more than that.

    I did keep in touch with some smaller bookshops when I was still buying hard-copy books by post, but since I’ve had to switch to ebooks entirely (due to increasing disability), I’ve missed that connection. Also, we really need an intermediary in accessing ebooks. Despite the enormous advantage of Internet access and indexing, the ebook situation has been made messy and obstructive for customers. You only need to look at fora like Mobileread to see how much readers need a place where they can ask for help, get information and discuss their interests. (Ooh, there’s a great offer from Michael A. Stackpole on the front page today… whoops, back to the topic.)

    As you said in a previous article, how many people have given up on a retailer, or given up entirely on ebooks, because they’ve been unable to cross the deliberately-constructed barriers? Do booksellers realize that prolific readers are wasting a great deal of time in trying to deal with these barriers, where they could be spending that time on buying books, reading them, then buying more books? Since the geolimitations curtain came down some time last year and complicated things enormously, I’ve bought very few ebooks. In the two years prior to that, I bought over 1200.

    I believe there is a definite opportunity here for small bookshops to build relationships with current or prospective ebook readers. We need the help, the information, the personalization and the contact with authors and service-providers. Large retailers could fill that niche (as Fictionwise did to some extent before geolimitations) but they aren’t doing so. Hopefully Borders will build on its good start (and for example, respond to my aging support request on whether I need to create a separate login for their forum or use the login). However, what we really need, and what has worked for us so well in the past, is Australian bookshops with personal contact (and now, online presence).

    I thought that would happen when Dymocks went online. I looked forward to chatting about books, personal contact and lots of possibilities. None of this happened. Is a group of Australian smaller bookshops, possibly in concert with sites like Delimiter, BookBee and Oz-E-Books, willing to setup and support a shared access site in Australia? Would B&T support that? “My Local Bookshop” could keep us in touch with special offers, book-signings and bookclubs, connect us with our bookshops (including info on location and contact) and promote communication, both on-site and in the physical shops. It could contain Blio and an interface for sale, download, wishlists etc. Solicit suggestions on what readers want in this community. Chatty e-newsletters featuring our favourite bookshop would keep us up to date. I hereby volunteer to be a founding member!

    Overseas retailers have dropped the ball here. Before geolimitations, we didn’t need information specifically for Australians. We could participate in communities like Fictionwise or Amazon. Now, we’re shut off from most of the ebook range, confused by the changes and looking for local options. This is an opportunity for local retailers (like Borders) to gain our custom, and for smaller bookshops to band together and create a local experience for us both online and offline. Don’t be a chain, be a network.

  2. Thanks, Darryl. I particularly appreciate the way your articles have disinterred the issue of ebooks in Australia, and helped inform us. I know I’m not the only keen Australian reader to comment “Thank God, someone is actually talking about this stuff!” You also give us a place to monitor the situation, and a virtual forum in which we can vent some frustration. ;)

    While I’m here, I’d like to tip my hat to Borders’ customer service, despite the languishing support request mentioned above. They recently advertized a 20% off online sale, so I grabbed quite a few ebooks at that enticing price. Unfortunately, the 20% discount did not appear to work in the checkout process, not on the receipt etc. So I queried it, and they responded promptly, refunding me the discount. may have bugs, but they are swatting some of them. I wonder if they will get their act together before the smaller bookshops fill the gap?

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