May 20th, 2011 | by ASHLEY COLLMAN Arts & Books | Posted In: Books

The Killer Kindle

How the e-book revolution is affecting Portland's book industry

kindle
The day booksellers have been dreading is here. Amazon announced in a statement yesterday that it now sells more e-books than print books. For every 100 print books sold since April 1, Amazon has sold 105 Kindle e-books.

So if e-books are the way of the future, what does the news mean for Portland's booksellers?

In February this year, Powell's Books made national news when it laid off 31 workers, claiming it was "a move that is part of the Company’s response to the unprecedented, rapidly changing nature of the book industry."

"Consumer behavior—how, where, and what people read—has changed dramatically over the past several years," Powell's said in a statement (PDF). "It’s a story that’s hard to miss with daily articles about the book industry, the future of physical bookstores, and the rise of eBooks. As technology evolves, Powell’s expects consumer reading behavior to continue to change as new options and formats for reading develop and improve over time."

The local icon has actually been selling e-books in one form or the other since 1999, Powell’s Director of Strategic Projects Darin Sennett says. However, he admits that the store hasn’t been publicizing its e-book availability very widely.

“We are looking…at getting the word out," Sennett told WW. "We haven’t made a huge noise about the e-books. It’s amazing sometimes people don’t even know we have a website, let alone e-books. We will be promoting that fact.” 

Sennett says that the store has definitely been feeling the impact of the Kindle. Since the Kindle only works for purchases on Amazon, Powell’s can’t sell its e-books to Kindle owners. However, Sennett believes Kindle dependency will soon pass and more customers will be reading e-books on other devices, especially phones.

Powell’s main game plan to combat the e-book revolution is focusing more on phones. Currently the store has its own iPhone app, a program that can give you walking directions to any book in the store. It also has QR codes scattered around the store that link to multimedia available online. Sennett believes that adding these extra elements to the bookstore is “offering a new in-store experience. Shopping anywhere is becoming a four dimensional experience,” he says.

Smaller Portland booksellers are feeling the Kindle crunch, too, and many are now adding e-books to their digital shelves.

Sally McPherson, co-owner of Northeast's Broadway Books says, “We decided about a month ago [to sell e-books] and we decided [to do it] because our customers were asking us to sell e-books to them.”

But she insists that the change isn’t just about getting into the booming e-reader market. “It’s not all about e-books. It also allows us to have a storefront 24/7. Customers can buy a book from us from anywhere in the world,” McPherson says.

Broadway Books is still in the process of developing its e-book website, which it says should be up and running by the beginning of July.

Booksellers aren’t the only ones being impacted by the e-book explosion. Publishers are also having to adapt to the brave new world of digital literature.

For Portland publisher Tin House Books, e-books have been a boon for business. Since it began converting its books to e-books a few years ago, Editorial Director and Associate Publisher Lee Montgomery says that the company has seen an increase in sales. Though e-books account for less than 10 percent of Tin House's sales, Montgomery says e-books are selling better than its print books at Barnes & Noble.

Tin House publishes its books in both digital and print formats.

“Printing is very expensive," Montgomery says. "The way our business is set up is that the bookseller orders books and we print for the projection...sometimes you over print and they return them. It’s what makes it hard to be a small publisher.”

But, Montgomery admits, the changing world of publishing is bittersweet.

“I love old books, the smell of books, holding books," he says. "[Selling e-books] is different, but opens new avenues in publishing that are mind blowing.”

Regardless, the numbers released by Amazon yesterday may be misleading. McPherson at Broadway Books argues that some of the books Amazon sells as e-books might not even be available in print. And Montgomery points out that Amazon’s dominance as an e-book seller and being the creator of its dedicated device could skews the statistics.

“People tend to get all of their e-books on Amazon. I’m not sure [the number] is representative of what’s happening in the world at large.”
 
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