To Build a Better Bookstore

Posted by on June 23, 2014

As I watch the hub-bub surrounding the Amazon-Hachette dispute, and I read tales of publisher priceclip_image002-fixing and retailers with missing “buy” buttons for certain books produced by certain publishers, I get a little queasy. I am reminded that selfishness exists in the world and the temptations that come with the all-out desire for power are very great indeed. Sorry, but there is a big “ick” factor to the whole stinkin’ thing.

Who is the real bad-guy and who is the victim? Hmmm. I’m really not crying for either side, but I do worry how any of these decisions could impact two of my favorite people groups: The reader and the writer. I know it seems terribly selfish of me to worry about these people since I am both, but I also know, they are the real underdogs here.

As reader and writer I want to see good books available at reasonable prices which will feed the need of the voracious reader (a.k.a. myself), but also support the efforts of those producing said books (a.k.a. also myself). This should not be a conundrum, here, since the manufacturing, storage and delivery of digital material is by far less expensive than its paper counterparts. Therefore, it stands to reason, that those who choose to invest in an e-reader (which makes buying the product easier, more efficient and even prolific for all involved) should reap a little reward for that investment.

The Ebook Revolution

The e-book revolution has turned the whole industry on its ear. How publishers and retailers will re-shape in the face of this upheaval has been interesting and most often disheartening. One, because some have used e-books as a means of reaping a greater profit margin without sharing this savings with the consumer or the author. Two, because others have continued to do business as they did before, refusing to move forward with the powerful, and potentially useful current, as if hoping to rely on brand loyalty alone.

Much has been written on the first group. I hope to address the second today. More specifically, I’d like to make suggestions for the Christian retailer who, it sometimes seems, has given up the fight to sell Christian books, focusing more on gift items. I have been floored by the way the book industry has practically ceded all power to “The Zon,” except for those who have chosen the recourse of whining, complaining and suing in order to win back market share. Why is it no one is asking two important questions: 1) Why does “The Zon” have such a big market share? and 2) Can their efforts be duplicated or even bested?

What Readers Want

Let’s look at what some readers are saying. I asked some social media friends and followers where they buy their books and why. By no means is this a significant sample group, but maybe someone with the funds can do better. Here is what people told me:

· About 78% said Amazon was one of their primary book retailers for a number of reasons: best deals; free shipping opportunities; they have a Kindle; convenience; widest selection that is most easily search-able; and they can buy other things at the same time.

· About 29% listed Barnes and Noble as their primary book seller and some of those said Amazon tied. Here are what they said were its plusses: Can buy online and return in store; convenience of e-books; and likes the store atmosphere.

· About 29% listed local or online Christian retailers of some kind, many in addition to Amazon. Reasons include: When they have good deals; when there is a coupon; when they have what the purchaser is looking for (notice all the “when” answers); likes the atmosphere when they have time to browse; but the biggest answer was to support the business.

· One respondent mentioned buying from a local independent book store because the owners knew him and could recommend books based on prior purchases.

All of these reasons I have considered in my own choice of bookstore. As a reader of mostly Christian literature, I too want to support Christian retailers. I like to know that the items I am perusing will not shift into an “alternate” worldview in the last five pages, or saturate me in things I have long since defined as offensive, and like the fact that there has been sifting of material before I get there, making the choices easier—in theory.

However, relying on consumers to support you, rather than buy from you because you provide a better experience, is a poor business model and no matter how many supporters you have currently, those numbers will quickly fade as loyal customers begin to feel more like they are serving the retailer rather than the other way around.

If you look at my numbers above (though not exactly scientific, but who argues the points?), you will see one retailer selling significantly more than the others, and no one mentioned the bevy of other booksellers available to the public online or otherwise. This gives one retailer a lot of power. Why have the others sat back as if to give up? And why do others tout their next big move while disappointing consumers in a myriad of little ways? It seems to me if you want to compete with the big dogs, you might use a few of their tricks—that is, unless you have better ones. (Please note I am not talking about predatory practices here, just good customer service).

Why am I writing this? I like competition. It is good for the buyer, and as an indie author, it will ultimately be better for the author as well—you know, the underdogs I mentioned earlier. So, my hope is that other booksellers will step up to the plate and show a little game.

How does one compete? By providing what the Big Dog does and more. If you are working within a Biblical framework this may seem tricky. After all, I doubt the Christian retailer wants to display all manner of erotica (at least I hope not) as do other online retailers. However, the Christian retailer can provide a number of services in addition to the widest selection of Christian material where the search is FREE of scantily clad heroes pawing curvaceous Barbie dolls and worldviews that are dishonoring to our Savior. The problem today is that they don’t provide the widest selection, and when they do, they make it downright difficult to find!!! Search-ability is the one characteristic the largest retailer has it all over everyone else. You’d think someone would work to duplicate it at the very least.

Finding the Book

Big Dog has a number of ways a reader can find a book. Much like the man who went to the bookstore where the owners knew him, the minute I land on the largest retailer web-page, I am assaulted with recommendations based on what I have viewed and what I have bought. I can browse based on like-criteria. Additionally, with each book searched, I can see more recommendations based on the same. This helps me find things when I’m not sure what I want, but know I want something.

Additionally, I can do a targeted search. Yes, many sites have these, but NONE to the specificity of The Zon. They not only categorize by genres, they further separate by sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. This is not to mention the vast array of keywords and descriptions a reader can input to find something that interests them. For instance, if I were to want a Christian Romance that had horses and dealt with PTSD I could enter into the search box “christian romance horses ptsd” and find one. If I wanted a fairy tale retelling with a disabled veteran as a character, I could enter “fairy tale retelling disabled veteran” and lo-and-behold, there’s a book for me. And if you don’t think that is amazing, I can find a Beauty and the Beast story that mentions hippotherapy by entering “beauty and the beast hippotherapy.” I just love this. I’ve even used Big Dog’s website as a form of Google. The search function is just that good!

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How do they do this? They allow the publisher/author to enter lots of identifiers when they upload the book. This is where the genius begins. I have searched around many book sites since I released At the Edge of a Dark Forest, and have been extremely disappointed by how hard it is to find on those sites (not so on The Zon). Assuming this was only a newbie-author problem, I tried a few other authors and books I’ve enjoyed—same thing. Some sites, unless you have already joined, you can’t even search it by title and author. The reader can only find it by ISBN numbers. So, why would I take the time to join that site when I can’t see what they offer? Other sites have you search by like authors only. I don’t buy books this way, so I’d never find anything there. There are bigger retailers that have searches that are close, but currently none match the detail and breadth of The Zon.

Imitate and Innovate

As we move further into the digital book age, there is even greater ability to compete. As my numbers show above, some choose their retailer based on the particular e-reader they possess. However, as more and more readers opt for tablets, the variety of apps available to them can only grow. Any retailer can plug into that source. I have a number on mine currently, which gives me a larger breadth of choice on one device. However, one app still shines above the other. Someone, feel free to build a better app.

Work with Various Breeds of Authors

In addition, the ease with which an indie author can upload a book to the site, and the retailer’s willingness to build an author platform there, is another reason it enjoys a greater breadth of material. One may assume this is no big deal if you are not predisposed to indie authors, but as more traditionally published authors wade into these new waters, the reader will find their selections increasingly limited, otherwise. Many legacy authors now self-publish in-between stories and some have crossed the line never to return. Does the Christian bookseller want to lose their readers? I would think a good business model would be to try and keep what you have and not find reasons to send them away. In fact, it seems like a good business model to increase your inventory in the most efficient way possible. Quality digital indie material is a perfect way to do this. After all, how much more does it cost than that of the physical books in a warehouse needing to be shipped (at even more cost) to the consumer. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, for low price, and you can bet the Big Dog is profiting from it. Yes, the Christian retailer may feel a need to make sure it meets minimum Biblical standards before selling it, but there are a number of ways this could be done with a little forethought, that would only add to the retailer’s breadth of product with little cost to the business. Some online retailers have ventured here through recommendations of regular customers, but since they currently do not work directly with the authors, as Big Dog does, they are forced to sell the books at higher prices, paper-only, without the benefit of a book description, cover art, genre/sub-genre information and keywords, making it even less likely to be purchased.

Can Brick and Mortar Succeed?

Okay, what about the brick and mortar? Are they cheap, convenient, provide a wide selection for your e-reader platform, know what you want to read and are able to find it? Well, they could be most of those things, and where they are not, they could provide something the online store cannot—the human connection. Brick and mortar cannot in today’s world be only that. Every store should have a website and a means of ordering from that website, whether it be physical or e-books. In fact, I wonder if the in-store experience can be combined with the online experience, where salespeople help the customer find what they are looking for, help them choose and download the appropriate e-reader app, and show them how to buy files from their site.

However, if one plans to make a go of a brick and mortar location, they will need a reason for customers to show up. As in the answers to my questions above, Barnes and Noble is still a primary buying spot for some because of the reading experience for the whole family. A parent can take his or her children for a nice snack at the coffee bar and afterwards peruse the section of books most appealing to each. Very nice for some, though not for me since their Christian Fiction section is about three shelves full with books I’ve either read or am not interested in. I’d love to go to a Christian bookstore that catered to an in-store experience. However, many around me still do not sell enough fiction to suit my taste. I keep going, really because I want to support these businesses, but the selection has become increasingly limited as opposed to the other way around. I’ve seen bare shelves which could have been housing material that would have caught my eye.

Again … The Authors!

Another type of in-store experience where brick and mortars could take advantage is the opportunity for author signings. Again, wanting to help the Christian stores, not to mention local authors, I personally visited a number in my area to let them know about traditionally published authors who lived nearby. None were interested, and some said they were moving away from books altogether. Did I just see a white flag waving? It’s too bad because there are opportunities to be had here.

A Gathering Place

clip_image002[7]Christian retailers could be a gathering place, not only for local author signings, but for book groups and Bible Studies. Add a little coffee machine and snacks—all the better. Get them in. Provide plenty of opportunities for them to see your stock displayed on every imaginable surface. Get to know them and teach them how to buy your stuff online, so that if they need another read at midnight when they can’t sleep (like my avid-reader mom), they click your link, download your product, and are good to go. Your store can not only be the place to buy the physical material, but also a marketing tool for the online material. However, if you plan to sell to those wanting physical books, you need to make sure you have the physical books available when they are wanted. There should be no bare shelves in your shop. The last time I entered a Christian bookstore, I wanted to get a paper version of Mere Christianity. The only thing I found from author C.S. Lewis was a newly released biography about him. They lost the “need the paper book now” buyer of a classic Christian book, because they thought an empty shelf was more appealing than one filled with merchandise.

But Don’t Forget the Price

Lastly, I want to mention price. How does one compete with the Big Dog who lurks the web, then prices lower than everyone else? Um, let’s get a little creative here. First, you need to provide more e-books online!!! I can’t say this enough. Even if they buy it while in the physical store. The ROI, considering the inventory takes up less space, has got to be better. Second, advertise regular bulk discounts. I know when I go into Kohl’s clothing store that though most of their “regular” prices are ridiculously overpriced, I’m going to shop the boatload of sales and come home with an entire wardrobe of clothing for very little output. Be the bookseller who does the same. Let Big Dog match your regular price, but beat them in the bulk e-delivery. Set up buying clubs that focus advertising and generate deals for the regular consumer.

Now, Go to It!!!

There has got to be a way to compete. Use some chutzpah. Find a shiny stone or something and sling that rock at the Giant.

Please let me say, I in no way mean to offend any Christian booksellers here. I mean to inspire you! I want you to succeed, both for ministry reasons as well as my own selfish ones. If you are called to this ministry, know the Lord is with you and then work as though you actually BELIEVE it. Do not give up. Move forward.

And God Bless.

I would love to hear from book consumers about what you are looking for in a book retailer. Tell me your good experiences with stores that do it right, and what frustrates you about those that get it wrong.

3 Responses to To Build a Better Bookstore

  1. Heather Day Gilbert

    I agree and I think competitive pricing is key. Just went into a Barnes and Noble, which I loved, but realized the book I really wanted could be bought used or cheaper on Amazon. So yes, the ‘Zon has its place, and you’re so right, Christian publishers would do well to imitate some of its strategies–bringing a wider variety of books directly to readers at reasonable prices. Great post, Connie!

  2. Connie Almony

    Nicole, I hear this a lot, but when I ask why publishers/booksellers focus on a limited scope I hear the other stuff doesn’t sell as well. I can’t help but wonder if that is because they’ve already lost that reader!!! How to get them back? Again, the answer may be to go to a variety of quality digital material that can be made available and search-able with little expense comparatively.

  3. Nicole Petrino-Salter

    As an author and as an avid reader, here is what I’d prefer from Christian booksellers in particular. V A R I E T Y in fiction. I’ve quit going to the local CBA stores because of the glut of Amish and historical novels, neither of which I read. The last time I went to Family Christian Bookstore, they didn’t have Steven James’ new release. Steven James! Nor much of anything else besides the authors who’ve lined their shelves for years.

    Secondly, competitive prices. Why should I shop at the local store(s) when their prices with tax are higher than books purchased online including shipping.

    It would be nice to have more books and less frou-frou – or to at least have a somewhat divided store. There are now less books (and fiction in particular) than there are overpriced artwork/paintings/plaques, etc.

    At least the possibility for small press and indie authors’ books on the shelves.

    My .02 worth. ;)