For many bricks-and-mortar bookstores, 2014 was a banner year, helped by the overall improvement in the sale of print books. Some independents, such as BookPeople in Austin, Tex., and Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass., reported that they had their best year ever. Barnes & Noble’s physical stores reversed a downward trend and posted some gains for the nine-week holiday season, which ended January 3, compared to the similar period the previous year. But when it comes to digital, the results have been mixed. Holiday sales of digital content dropped 25% at B&N, and device and accessory sales fell even further, down 68%.
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Indies first dipped their toes in the digital waters in 2010 through an arrangement with Google. After that deal fell apart, the American Booksellers Association announced in August 2012 a three-year contract with Kobo and rolled out an e-book and device program to booksellers in time for the 2012 holiday season.
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Booksellers who want to offer their customers print and e-book options appreciate ABA’s support in the digital market, even though e-book sales have been far from vibrant. Hudson Group, which operates more than 65 bookstores at airports and train stations and sells books through several hundred newsstands, saw its e-book sales through IndieCommerce decline by 20% in 2014. But it has no plans to stop selling them. “It doesn’t cost us anything additional [to sell e-books],” said Sara Hinckley, v-p of book buying and promotions at Hudson. “And every sale helps. We do hope that the future will bring us better opportunities to become part of the e-book market.”
E-book sales were also down by double digits at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. “E-books are minimally profitable,” said co-owner Pete Mulvihill, whose digital content sales declined 18% in 2014. He’s scaling back his effort to sell digital content and devices, as the Kobo partnership, in his opinion, “loses steam.” But Mulvihill has no plans to give up e-books entirely. He views e-books, which represent less than 1% of store sales, as a service for customers who want to e-read and still support the bookstore.
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Enthusiasm for devices has cooled at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., despite 500 active e-book customers, according to events coordinator and eTeam leader Sam Kaas. “We continue to carry Kobo devices for the time being, although as return terms and support from Kobo have changed, we are reevaluating that,” he said. Last month the store sold 11 devices. On the other hand, e-book sales have remained steady. “E-books are profitable in terms of sales,” said Kaas, “especially since they do not take up space on our shelves or carry the risk of making us order and return multiple copies. However, if we need to provide instruction or service to customers, an hourly staffer’s time quickly becomes more expensive than the commission we make.”