On Twitter, someone asked “what do indies think about ebooks?” I didn’t have an answer at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it. My sense is many indies are a little terrified, but feel unable to say or do anything as the means of distribution is out of our hands. People are afraid of being bypassed, so are trying to ignore them. While I feel the fear, I’m also kind of intrigued and excited about the ease and speed of access they afford (and the anecdotal suggestion that you can read faster on an ereader than a traditionally formatted book) even though I prefer a physical copy for myself. However, I don’t yet know how to make them work for the traditional indie bookstore.
I think there are two distinct groups of readers as far as regards ebooks (forgive the gross generalizations), and I find it helpful to look at the technology from both points of view.
A lot of us grew up to revere print. A lot of this category don’t ‘get’ blogs, regard the web as one-way communication and don’t pay for ebooks. If they’re computer savvy, they may dip into the odd ebook (but an online excerpt will likely satisfy them), but only until they decide to finish the story and go buy the pbook to read.
On the other hand, those who ‘came of age’ post-print (i.e. after the time that print was the only option), write blogs, regard the Internet as conversation and buy ebooks. Some will buy a pbook for ‘the archive’ if they really enjoyed the story. That would be a nice trend if it continued. But, maybe those folks are on the cusp between two generations, and pbooks will eventually lose appeal as more people grow familiar with ebooks?
This is where the opportunity lies for booksellers:
Opportunity A: Low-price ebooks as marketing for pbooks.
Opportunity B: Use ebooks to bring readers to authors (publishers and authors need to commit to a mid/long-term relationship — my sense is that this isn’t the norm in publishing now, where I see authors switch houses a lot) — because the marketing needs to sell the author as much as the book of the moment). Emphasize the body of work: encourage multiple sales, use the “stamp of quality” to encourage purchase of physical copies.
The print-worshipers currently buy more books and run most bookstores. Do not alienate current book buyers (on either side of the cash wrap).
The post-print generation, however, will determine if anyone buys pbooks in the near future. Do not lose these to other entertainment sources or digital delivery.
We need to involve the post-print generation in bookstore culture, or else they’ll eventually bypass the stores completely. This is not simply a problem for the stores, as without book(store) culture, the most meaningful point of differentiation is price, and nobody wins when it’s a race to the bottom.
[Over at Vromans Bookstore blog Patrick has a good meditation on both the ebook reading experience -- he read Cory Doctorow's Content, BTW, a book I found fascinating -- and how ebooks are changing the book market.]