Talking Story

We’ve heard the death knell before. The printed page is dead! Bookstores are dead! Long live the eBook!

Death makes great copy, especially combined with the old saw that technology is sweeping out the old to ring in the new. But as the latest research shows, I think the sales relationship between paper books and virtual ones is more entwined than most realize. When brick and mortar bookstores close, total book sales decline. Not just book books. All books.

In case you missed previous blogs, you should know I’m an eBook junkie. I read too many too fast for me to justify the higher costs and shelf space required for reading mostly paper books. I love the instant gratification that comes from downloading a book in less than a minute at 2 am. I like that I can make the font big so I can read without my glasses, and if I fall asleep reading a 1200 page book, it doesn’t break my nose. A whole library fits in my purse. Like Clint Eastwood and his guns, you will get my eBooks when you can pry them out of my cold, dead hands.

But here’s the dirty secret about eBooks and me that most people don’t know. Most eBooks I buy get bought because I first handled that title in a store.

Shocking, but true. I know all about goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, book trailers, writers’ blogs, book reviews, and all the other ways authors and publishers promote their books, but when it comes to loosening the purse strings and freeing the credit card, holding the physical book trumps them all, especially if I haven’t read the author before. Not surprisingly, authors I like get an automatic eBook pass, as do books recommended by a handful of people, but if the author is new to me, unless the eBook’s purchase price is around the cost of a large Diet Coke, I’m not going to buy it without holding it first.

I’m not alone. I’m certain there are other mostly eBook buyers like me who stalk the book aisles of Costco, WalMart, Target, Barnes & Noble, and the local grocery store, manhandling the books and creating clandestine to read lists of titles that eventually get purchased and downloaded at two in the morning when I’m ready for the next book. Holding, smelling, reading the blurb, flipping through the pages—if I pick a printed book up, there’s a very good chance I’ll eventually buy the eBook version, no matter who wrote it. It’s the same principle restaurants use when they bring a dessert tray–if you see what you’re getting you’re far more likely to buy. No matter how sublime the waiter says the crème brûlée is, if you’ve never had crème brûlée before, sight unseen, you’re going to stick with the chocolate cake.

For an eBook seller, people like me inspired handsprings. But if you’re paying retail rent for me to browse and buy somewhere else, I seriously suck.

Now before you get all uppity and stand on a soapbox and tell me I’m the reason the bell tolls on bookstores, just remember I’m a traditionally published MG/YA author; I get it. I do. But like most people, I’m lazy, cheap, and self-absorbed, and lecturing me doesn’t change behavior. If it did, I’d be in marathon running shape and have a spotless house. As long as I can hold books in one place and buy them cheaper in another, you’re not going to convince me to only shop online or to buy all my books from a brick and mortar store. In my head, I’m buying the story and experience, not digital zeros and ones or thin slices of a once living tree graffiti’d in ink.

So if bookstores can’t compete with eBook cost savings, higher profit margins, and ease of distribution, but eBook distributors need books on shelves to sell more eBooks, then logically, it’s time to change the financial model into something more synergistic. Change equals opportunity if you can spot the trend in time.

What if like a library, a bookstore only stocked a single printed copy or two of each book—something that a buyer could hold. What if a buyer then bought a code from the store to download an eBook in a format that could be read on any electronic device? And the store’s code was discounted from the eBook’s full online price, incenting the buyer to buy it from the store? What if the code also kicked back a commission to the store, giving it another reason to display a title? Or what if you got free shipping and an extra discount if instead of walking out with a book, it was overnighted to your house? What if books were printed on demand at the bookstore in the time it took to drink a cup of coffee at the in-store café? What if bookstores and eBook distributors realized they needed each other, that they were both in the same reader supported lifeboat, and began working together to patch the leak?

What if?

What’re your thoughts?

6 Responses to Dirty Secrets of an eBook Buyer

  • You rock! Great post. My mid-seventy year old parents love their kindles. They claim to prefer them at noon on a cruise ship deck near the equator because the sun’s glare is less from glass than paper. It reminds me of the ski and snowboard debate a decade ago. The snowboard industry claimed they’d eclipse skiing. Eventually things stabilized around 50/50. For me proof snowboarding is now a mature sport came when teenagers started “skiing” to be different.

    • I hear you, Eric. I think reading a story is like getting out and enjoying the snowy mountains–fun no matter if you’re skiing or snowboarding. If the business of telling stories is going to thrive, we need to figure out how to entice readers and work synergistically regardless of format. The readers are going to settle on the format that works best for them.

  • I think you’re on to something… Although as a print loyalist, I will always buy the print edition, so traditional book stores are my mecca. I like to have my house overflowing with books and break my nose at 2am as often as possible 🙂

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