How to Get Indies in on the iPhone Game

Posted in eBooks, General, mobile, Publishing

Hello everyone, Ryan again from New York. I hope this entry’s not too U.S.-centric! I know little about the UK scene, so who knows if this applies on both sides of the Atlantic.

After reading Adam Hodgkin’s take on the Google/Amazon/Apple ebook shakeout (and Mike Shatzkin’s response), I thought about what’s lost here: Browse. The Kindle, the Amazon iPhone app, the Sony reader all work fine if you know what you want to read next. They fail when you just want to see what’s out there and snoop around.

Of course, this isn’t a new argument. Amazon’s webpages encourage plenty of recommendations via homophily, and brick-and-mortars will always excel at getting you to walk in looking for one book and leaving with three. (Much to my wallet’s chagrin.) If we must find a parallel in the music world, think about the number of new music you hear about through iTunes’ homepage vs. music blogs.

Where do the indies come in, you ask? Here’s my fantasy: what if an outfit like Indiebound, which links U.S. booksellers together, were to develop an iPhone app? They’d sync your favorite bookstores from your Indiebound profile, and import the weekly/monthly staff picks. You’d somewhat address the browse issue, sure, with one extra advantage: at the end of each staff review you would hit the “Reserve” button and instantly have a copy put on hold at that bookstore. The savvier indies like St. Mark’s Bookshop could tie it into their ecommerce and provide the option to ship. (The ultra-savvy indies in certain locations might even be able to deliver the copy to your door, though of course this isn’t scalable for most cases.)

So the indies connect their online and offline audiences without creating new content, customers can extend the bookstore experience beyond the brick-and-mortar, and everyone finds out about new books. 

What does everyone think? Too blue sky?

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  1. Posted on 24 March, 2009

    Pretty much exactly what Book Stores NEED to be doing right now. Creating their store presence online and doing what they do best, selling great titles nobody knows about. It can be done. I would bend over backwards to go to my favorite “Powell’s App Store” to browse their virtual shelves and buy the digital books if I couldn’t get to the store.

    I think that’s my concern with the industry. Damn how blue sky such ideas might be and do it. Make the changes necessary to be competitive and drive the new digital initiatives, instead of, as we have seen in SXSW, asking everyone else what should be done. Are you listening IndieBound?

  2. Posted on 24 March, 2009

    Well…As a matter of fact, we’re beta-testing an IndieBound iPhone app right now! It was sort-of-announced at our Winter Institute, but due to testing and the Apple approval process, we don’t have a release date. We’ve heard really good stuff from testers. The basic features at launch are about book browsing, searching for books, and finding indie stores. A next phase is also in the works.

    If you’d like to know when the app is released, be sure to sign up for email updates from (in the upper-right corner of the site).

  3. Posted on 25 March, 2009

    Yay IndieBound!

  4. Posted on 25 March, 2009

    Publishers are in an odd spot right now, and I think that although there is a growing consensus, the following hasn’t really been fully internalised yet: publishers’ competition right now isn’t really other publishers—it’s Amazon, Google, and Apple, as you’ve mentioned. Coincidentally, these are pretty much the same 800 lb. gorillas that threaten indie bookstores. Within that context, the alliance between publisher and indies is a no-brainer, in my opinion.

    As Spencer mentions above, indie bookstores and booksellers need to be creating online presences and selling books online. The independent bookseller is, in the final analysis, a tastemaker, unbiased advocate (in the sense that they don’t work for publishers, so there’s no publisher-specific sales agenda), and highly specialised, human recommendation engine, if you will. The more savvy booksellers are on blogs and on Twitter, literally hand-selling books over the internet. The problem then becomes fulfillment: if, for example, the bookseller that knows me best lives and works in a small bookstore on the other end of the continent, and that shop isn’t set up for cross-country orders, or I just want an ebook, or otherwise want the instant-ish gratification associated with online purchases (impulse-buying books is another topic for another time, actually. But I digress), how does the shop get compensated for his work, if the recommendation takes me to Amazon?

    Aside from the excellent concept of an Indiebound iPhone app, the answer may lie with the publishers’ direct-to-consumer sales model itself. As a publisher, why can’t I give independent booksellers a cut of our direct sales, through some sort of affiliate program, so that if they send a sale to a publisher’s site instead of to Amazon, they get a cut?

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