“Wowed” by the Yanks, UK Indie Booksellers Motivated to Start Selling E-books

In English Language by Roger Tagholm

By Roger Tagholm

LONDON: A select group of UK independent booksellers has just returned from the American Bookseller’s Association Winter Institute in Washington DC, where they have had their heads turned around by the strides being made by US independents on the selling of e-books.

aba winter institute 2011

US indie booksellers, in partnership with Google, are starting to sell e-books, a model that might also work in the UK.

The party comprised Jane Streeter, President of the Bookseller’s Association (BA) and owner of the Bookcase in Nottingham; BA Council members Patrick Neale of Jaffe & Neale in Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds, and Ron Johns of the Falmouth Bookseller in Cornwall; and the BA’s Head of Membership Services Meryl Halls.

Before the trip each bookseller had feelings more negative than positive with regard to e-books. Now, largely thanks to moves being made by Google in the US, in conjunction with the ABA, these booksellers have shifted from seeing e-books as a problem to an opportunity.

“It was fascinating and encouraging to see how US independents are enjoying selling e-books,” said Streeter. “We need to learn from that. Independents can be booksellers, whatever the format. Selling e-books is not something we should be afraid of. I came back feeling very positive –- we can see a way forward.”

In the UK, Streeter feels that wholesalers have an important role to play, performing the back office download function and helping independents improve their websites and make them transactional. At the moment, there is a huge difference in the standard of websites among UK independents, with many of them being out-of-date or non-transactional. “After that, the next step is Google e-books,” she added. “And when that launches in the UK we want to put on a presentation for independents. At the Bookseller’s Association we have been having lots of conversations with Google and those conversations will continue. It is all about marketing this properly.

“I have never been asked for an e-book in the shop myself, but I do know customers who have Kindles. I think booksellers need to tell these customers that that is a locked-in system –- that’s a conversation they need to have.”

Neale, who is a former Waterstone’s manager like so many UK independents, said he had been “wowed” by what the ABA has done with Google and will now be lobbying the BA for it to do the same. “Thanks to the agency model, price is less significant -– so why shouldn’t you buy an e-book from your local indie? It’s opened the door for us and we’re very excited. I’ve now banned anyone who works in the shop from saying “I prefer print. It’s more a case of there being a good time for each format.”

Ron Johns admitted that up until now, “if someone mentioned e-books, I went into a coma.” But following his trip to Washington, he has been converted. “I can see independents selling e-books now. The agency model helps us. It makes our competitive advantage, service. Where is the best place to buy books? In a bookshop, of course, where you have vibrant booksellers giving you advice.

“Google is scared of having the finger pointed at them and being labeled ‘nasty mega corporation’. So they are keen to engage locally.”

Google eBooks

Johns and the others were all impressed by Google’s “shop local” search function which comes up with addresses of independent bookshops that could sell the e-book, or print book, in question.

However, the Bookseller’s Association may face a challenge converting some UK indies. Jonathan Main, who runs The Bookseller Crow, an independent in Crystal Palace, in South London, said: “In all honesty I’ve done nothing about e-books because it seems to me that I don’t know what we can do. Who is going to buy an e-book from us? It’s like asking who is going to download a track from their local record store. Just as iTunes has a monopoly there, Amazon is in the same position. At the moment, e-books just don’t impinge on our business.”

“I’ve now banned anyone who works in the shop from saying ‘I prefer print.’ It’s more a case of there being a good time for each format,” says one UK bookseller.

Harry Wainwright of the Oldfield Park Bookshop in Bath is also standing back at present. “There are more questions than answers. What is the role of Google, Sony, Apple in our industry? Are Amazon to be believed with their Kindle figures? I do think there is an interesting divergence among publishers on the subject. I think the corporates believe e-books are marvelous –- no print costs, no storage, no annoying booksellers to deal with over returns etc etc. But independent publishers see it as another format in addition to print. My instincts are that 20% of the market will be electronic and that 10% of that will be growth overall.

“I’m watching Google. They seem to be the only ship in port at the moment. Our customers have Kindles and iPads. Waterstone’s used to be our competition, but a lot of their customers have migrated to Amazon, who are now our main competitor. As an indie we’re standing aside and watching at the moment. We’re so small. We’re building our website at the moment, making it look professional.”

Around three years ago, the wholesaler Gardners launched its e warehouse and it now has around 120,000 titles on its servers. Commercial Director Bob Jackson said: “At the moment e-book sales through independents are very small, virtually non-existent. However, among some of them do have the desire to get involved. We’re working with retailers to help them with their websites, so that the indie can make the sale and we’ll provide the download.”

Change is coming to the UK, aided by the agency model which indies hope holds. Many note that this model is effectively an e-book NBA (the UK agreement, abolished in 1995, that banned discounting) and that it is this which is providing them with the opportunity. Streeter noted: “I’m struck by the fact that it is a development in the digital world that is refocusing us all on such an old principle.”

Many of them also find it ironic that some of the same publishers who were happy to see the agreement collapse for print books should now have acted to establish it for e-books. It’s going to be an interesting year . . .

DISCUSS: Is the Agency Pricing model for E-books a Net Book Agreement in Disguise?

UPDATE: The article was updated to correct the name of Jonathan Miles’ bookstore to The Bookseller Crow.

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).