It’s Sell or High Water

Whee-commerce! Can Indie Booksellers Ride the Wave?

A customer walks into Three Lives and Co., the West Village bookstore, and picks up a copy of ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’ At the counter, the clerk hesitates, seeing the Signet logo. Signet’s is the 1881 version; Henry James made considerable revisions to this text, and his revised version, issued 27 years later, is the one published by Bantam. Thanks to the cashier, the shopper ends up with the Bantam edition. But the customer would never have known of these essential nuances from a digital sale with Amazon; the only guidance the site offers is its customer reviews. So how did one Chicago consumer comment on the Signet copy? "The cover for the Signet version is best. The appearance, with the muted watercolor image, is just so much more classy than all the others. It really carries across that 'literary' feel that I think the author of the book is attempting. It looks great on my bookshelf! I look forward to someday reading it."

The American Booksellers Association estimates that only about 6 percent of books purchased in the U.S. last year were sold via the Internet. Nevertheless, e-commerce is steadily chiseling away at the traditional sales base, and independents-already battered by superstores-are hurting. To combat the superstore invasion, the ABA-a trade organization
representing independents-started Book Sense, a branding and marketing campaign. And springing from this attempt to build customer awareness is, an e-commerce site that aims to give independents a greater presence on the Web. BookSense will function as something of a cooperative, allowing its members to create customized sites on the server (or link their own domains), and also providing what can otherwise be prohibitively expensive back-end support. When a customer orders a book from the main BookSense site, the sale will be directed to the closest independent bookstore, determined by zip code. Bookstores will pay BookSense an initial setup fee of $500, plus monthly charges of $200 and 4.5 percent of sales. Few bookstores have the resources to put up a Web site, and, as one owner remarks, "to join collectively like this is really a fabulous alternative.", which will begin uploading stores' content by the end of this month, hopes to have a public launch a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, in time for the holiday season.

The ABA certainly knows how to pick a fight. On behalf of independent bookstores everywhere, it has at some point or another tried to force every major bookselling chain in the United States to its knees. In 1994, it sued several large publishers for rigging sneaky deals with superstores, and received $25 million in damages from Penguin. Last year, it sued Barnes & Noble, Borders, and their subsidiaries, alleging that the stores were using their clout to illegally get deals from publishers (the case is still pending). It insisted in July that stop using the line "If we don't have your book nobody does," and won. And now the ABA is striding or, depending on your point of view, tiptoeing into the ring to go up against the greatest challenge brick and mortar stores have ever faced: the Internet.

illustration: Charlene Potts

But while everyone agrees that independent stores can no longer ignore the Net, the ABA is getting a late start. Recent statistics by the Book Industry Study Group show that online sales aren't expanding the overall market for books, which is slowly moving out of a mid-'90s slump. The small and ferociously
competitive online book space is still dominated by, which analysts estimate holds anywhere between 70 and 80 percent of the market share.

Yet even Amazon has reduced its book business, adding sales of electronics, videos, e-cards, and toys. In fact, Amazon no longer reports its revenues by category, an ominous hint that book sales may have slowed. "Amazon is starting to look more like Wal-Mart online," observes one industry insider. Even, which has struggled to keep abreast of Amazon since day one, has arrayed its site with trimmings ranging from CDs to frequent-flyer miles and Starbucks coffee.

With such a grim outlook, how can expect to remain standing? One e-commerce analyst, Evie Black Dykema of Forrester Research, is blunt: " will be smashed like a bug on the windshield of Amazon just as Barnes & Noble has [been] so far." Still, director Len Vlahos thinks comparisons such as these are misguided. "We are such a different model from Amazon that necessarily we don't copy them," he says. "Marketing and everything else is based on grassroots. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are top-down."

But grassroots tends to mean word of mouth, and so far BookSense has concentrated on creating a recognizable name. While's mission is admirable, it may be throwing its energy in the wrong direction. Its marketing kits contend that stores will gain customers through national advertising, echoing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's strategy that "brand names are super important online." You don't get more corporate than that. It doesn't help matters that stores are already required to have a "featured title" on their sites, some of which, the publicity breezily mentions, "will be supported by publisher money."

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