Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Talking about e-readers with smart booksellers

Sometimes these days I feel a little like I did at my high school and college graduations, watching my best buddies up on stage or leading the procession: man, my friends are some smart people. (True, I did get to hold the NYU banner for a moment to relieve the brutally hungover valedictorian, one of my best friends, but I was only a Magna, not a Summa, myself.)

I feel that way this week listening to the conversation about e-readers and ARCreaders, let by my bookselling colleagues/buddies Stephanie Anderson (WORD, Brooklyn) and Jenn Northington (King's English, Salt Lake City). Both are fellow Emerging Leaders types, and they're leading the charge in embracing the possibilities and pushing the boundaries and fostering the conversation.

That conversation has been going on for a while on Twitter. Jenn made a modest proposal on her blog a couple of weeks ago. And Stephanie brought it together with today's column in Shelf Awareness. The question is, generally: would it make sense for booksellers to read ARCs on e-readers? And who's gonna get them for us?

I haven't jumped in before now because 1) I've been preoccupied and 2) I wanted to get the lay of the land. I still have a bit of catching up to do on this conversation (I just signed up for netGalley, finally, today), but I'm ready to venture a tentative opinion or two. I want to talk a little about ebooks and e-readers in general, and why it makes sense for booksellers to start reading ebooks. The question of how and from whom we'll get those expensive ereaders is one that will have to be hashed out at length in many forums, so I'm not going there quite yet.

To me, one of the most important things for booksellers (and readers and publishers) to realize now is that e-reader DOES NOT EQUAL Kindle. A bit that stuck out for me in Stephanie's column: "A side benefit to such a program could be to increase interest on the part of customers in e-readers that aren't the Kindle--booksellers have already noticed some of their best customers are switching some reading to the Kindle because it's the reader that's most familiar to them right now."

I think for a lot of booksellers right now, the idea of an e-reader provokes growls of hostility because it's associated with the Kindle, which is a proprietary platform sold and administered by Amazon, our primary competitor. We indies can't sell ebooks for the Kindle, so if readers buy a Kindle in means, on some level, lost sales for us. But the Kindle is not the only e-reader, nor even necessarily the best! The Sony Reader, the iPhone, the Google phone, and other electronic devices can also be used to read ebooks -- and those platforms are wide open for ebook sales from indie bookstores, provided our ecommerce technology is up to par.

Just as we have to educate our customers (and ourselves) that Amazon is not the only option for buying online, we'll have to make some efforts to make sure those who want to read ebooks know that they have options besides the Kindle, and that they can still "read indie while reading e" (feel free to steal that tagline). And ebook-reading booksellers are the perfect group to start spreading that word, to make sure that we can make ebooks a part of our business model rather than just more competition.

Here's the next most important issue: E-readers make sense for people who read in massive quantities. Many of our sales reps are already reading on Sony readers, and it makes sense for booksellers too. We'll all most likely still be reading plenty of pbooks (that's print, or "real" books), but since it's in our job description to read widely and quickly, carrying around many on one device makes sense.

Our best customers probably buy books from us, from other indies, from chain stores, online, and borrow from the library too. We hope to have them buy the majority from us, but we know the biggest readers are getting books from many different places. Chances are, some of them are going to start reading ebooks as a part of their book addiction. This pretty obviously doesn't mean they're going to stop buying print books. But it does mean we have a chance to sell them something additional. If we start familiarizing ourselves with the products, the formats, etc., we'll be better handsellers of ebooks. And isn't that what we do?

One thing that also seems clear to me, and that will be important as this conversation goes on: we need a standard format for ebooks. At this point there are a number of different file types for ebooks floating around, and they don't all work on all devices. If publishers can agree on a standard file format (like .mp3s for music), that will go a long way toward making ebooks more accessible, and toward enabling indies, among other channels, to sell them effectively. The Association of American Publishers supports the .epub format, and it would be great if this could get codified pretty soon.

Personally, I'd love to have a publisher (or the ABA, funded by a group of publishers, or whoever) buy me an iPhone. (This gets a bold because buying me stuff is important. I'd also love it if someone could send me to the Digital Book 2009 conference, which costs about as much as an ereader....)

Okay, in all seriousness, I've seen some of the various platforms for ereaders on the iPhone, and it's pretty exciting -- I'd love to spend more time with it. Along with some of my other smart buddies, I can see the iPhone (and other multi-use devices) becoming the primary method of reading ebooks in future. It kind of reminds me of the "orison" in the central chapter of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas -- a communicator, a recorder and player of print and visual information, a mapping device, etc. -- technology so advanced it feels like magic. It doesn't feel anti-literature; it feels like a very literary vision of the future.

As you can probably tell, I'm still pretty new to this conversation, and I've got a lot to learn. I get a lot of mynews and opinions on ebook stuff on the Teleread blog, which I recommend. And you can follow the conversation of those smart kids on Twitter by searching #ereader, #digiARCs, or #ARCreader. I'm delighted to get to hobnob with these smarties, and excited about where the conversation will go.

Update: I must also mention (and link) the other smart booksellers whose ebook musings I've been reading lately: Rich Rennicks (Malaprops), Arsen Kashkashian (Boulder Bookstore), and Patrick (Vroman's), among others.