Peter Osnos has written a piece at Medium in which he discusses bookstore marketing techniques. We are all delighted that numbers of independent bookstores are experiencing slight growth. But the problems of running a small, specialist business remain immense, with rents probably number one. Staffing must be a bit of an issue too. Long ago booksellers figured out that selling other stuff made sense: cards, stationery, book lights, what have you, and recently we’ve seen lots of bookstores taking the risk of spillage by setting up in-store coffee bars.

But bookstores are of course primarily involved in selling books. They put them on the shelf and hope to pique interest. But isn’t it crazy that bookstores don’t offer to sell you an ebook? Sure it’s easy enough to get ebooks from Amazon, but why not at least offer? And when offering to order a print book, why not suggest mailing it to the customer as a standard option? Sure Amazon’s probably giving most of them free postage, but a person wouldn’t be in your shop if they weren’t at least a little bit motivated to support their local businesses. The other day I phoned one of my favorite independent bookstores to check the availability of a book I wanted. The bookstore clerk’s answer to my question “Do you have a copy Book X* in stock?” was simply “Let me look it up . . . No. We don’t have that one.” And goodbye. Needless to say that conversation didn’t lead to a sale. Which is really dumb. Now not all bookstore employees are equally efficient or motivated, and I may have called on a bad day, but if you’ve got a live one on the line, you need to do whatever you can to land the fish.

In this context, Bookshop has gone live. Here’s a link to the store. This is not so much a tool for use in the bookstore as a sort of alternative to Amazon. Shelf Awareness notices the start-up in their issue of 31 January, the same issue that drew our attention the the Osnos piece. (I can also recommend the trailer you’ll find there introducing a Lego lifestyle book.) A piece at Wired emphasizes Bookshop‘s affiliate program, whereby organizations like Wired themselves can set up links so that their readers can click through to books and buy them from Bookshop. When this happens the affiliate earns a 10% commission. This whole initiative feels good to me: it could work, though it’ll take promotion by booksellers, who stand to share in profits at the end of the quarter. I do think we need to keep reminding ourselves that competing with Amazon doesn’t have to mean knocking them out. Just securing a share of the market is surely better than having no share (as long as your costs are under control).

Part of the difficulty in getting online, or ebook selling going is that the book industry isn’t a monolith. There’s no Head of Books who can instruct us all to do what they decide we should do. However good an idea it might be to offer to sell ebooks, it remains true that you tend to choose a career in book retailing because you love books — books as physical objects. So although it might be good for business to offer customers an ebook if you don’t have a book in stock, I fear that many booksellers would rather make less money than be forced into “working for the enemy”! No doubt a similar reluctance to online selling might be detected. I dare say there were traditionalists back then who felt the same about books with paper covers, or going further back, books with any covers at all. Eventually the ebook will be seen just as an alternative format, just as the paperback is. Until then bookstores who want to encourage the widest sale will find themselves having to rally staff on a weekly basis.


* The book in question, which I learned about from a review in The Economist, was Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith. The Economist review begins “Economists do not normally write cartoon books. But Bryan Caplan of George Mason University wanted to make a radical argument to the widest possible audience. So he teamed up with Zach Weinersmith, an illustrator with a bold and cheerful brush. The result is a brilliant distillation of the moral, economic and practical arguments for open borders.” I knew I needed help with my vague belief that closed borders were “a bad thing” and this book looked like it would sort me out. (It did.) It’s fascinating: an academic book written in comic book format. Not a graphic novel: a graphic monograph! It’s published by First Second, a graphic books company as a local teenager immediately pointed out, but I’d like to imagine university presses following in their footsteps. First Second is an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, division of the Holzbrinck group.