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Partnering Digital Sales with Indie Stores by Mark Lefebvre (Director of Kobo Writing Life & Author Relations)

I have been a bookseller since 1992. I joined Kobo in October 2011, after having worked in online bookselling, academic bookselling, big box retailer bookselling and small neighborhood stores. Over the past couple of decades I have had the privilege of doing something that booksellers do better than anyone else on this planet.
Hand-selling books.
Booksellers have been engaging in this activity for ages. The term, in fact, is derived from the Old English word “handselen” meaning “giving into hand.”
And that’s exactly what this process, for booksellers, is all about. Placing a book into a customer’s hand along with supportive discussion and context regarding why that book is the right thing for that particular customer at that particular time goes much further than a simple blanket recommendation.
It is an art. It is personal. And it is deep-reaching. Hands-selling is a carefully crafted art that is one of the most powerful ways that books are shared.
I have put hundreds of different books into thousands of customer hands over the years. But it wasn’t just a blind automatic recommendation of a great read. It was an insightful understanding, not just of what a customer of mine had already bought, but of their reaction to a particular author, or novel, or type of book that they read and that we discussed, often in detail. Those complex insights helped me help them discover their next great read.
And that’s something that no automated system has yet been able to properly pull off, because, as good as computerized systems have gotten, there are subtle human communication factors that occur between two people that are invisible to systems or online shopping carts but are not missed by adept bookish people.
The personal relationship and the curatorial nature of the local neighborhood bookseller is key. The bookseller doesn’t only know their customer needs, they understand that customer’s passions and have often engaged in conversation regarding that customer’s reaction to their previous reads.
Statistics continue to show that customers who buy books typically turn to trusted friends and sources. Booksellers often are at the height of those trusted sources due to the manner by which they can cultivate deep and meaningful relationships with the people who return to them for that unique experience.
That is one of the reasons why Kobo, a digital eBook company, has partnered with booksellers.
Kobo sells eBooks and focuses on delivering digital books to customers. Bookstores focus on delivering appropriate books to their local communities. Combine what the two do best and you have a collaboration made in heaven.
By working with bookstores, there is now a way for that local indie bookstore to be able to do what they do best and now offer customers a choice. They can sell the print book the way they always have; or, they can offer those same customers the option to get the digital book.
Since the customer and their Kobo purchases, can be tied to that local store, each transaction results in money going to the bookstore – and this is money that would, previously, not make it into the bookstore’s coffers at all.
This means that customers who are loyal to their favorite local independent bookstore CAN purchase eBooks without turning their backs on their local stores. And bookstores can offer digital books, have access to sell millions of digital titles – and virtually stock titles they would never be able to carry in their store due to matters of space and availability.
As a bookseller I had the opportunity to get to know many local authors who came into my store, and, with each relationship and conversation with those authors, been able to draw a personal connection to that author. I was able to use that connection in my interactions with customers, so that I wasn’t only putting a book into a customer’s hand, but I was helping that customer feel a personal connection to that author even before they turned the first pages of the book.
I would, of course, typically go that extra mile for authors who were personable, pleasant and treated me, my staff and my store with respect. And it doesn’t take much to make a positive impression. But authors who came in and had nothing but negative things to express consistently left the wrong impression. And I rarely ever felt motivated to do anything for them.
And, whenever given the opportunity, imagine which type of author I felt a desire to want to see succeed. That’s part of the karmic nature of interacting with people. Sure, when you’re dealing with a website and systematic algorithms you don’t need to be pleasant or polite. You push buttons and game systems and work the numbers in a cold and calculated fashion. But there’s another way of connecting and potentially expanding a dynamic and organic street team. And that is by forging relationships with real people making recommendations to real customers every single day.
That type of strategy could win you a powerful ongoing ally alongside you in your writing career, rather than just selling another copy of a single book.
The reality in the world we live in is that a book is a book is a book. And the most relevant parties to keep at the front of our minds here are readers and authors. It is about the connection that an author makes with a reader. But they need to be brought together. The booksellers bring value by assisting in the brokering of those relationships; they are the curators who help readers find the right authors and the right titles for them.
Kobo’s web catalog does consist of automatic recommendations based on patterns and trends in different territories; but it also follows a more curatorial experience involving. Kobo’s global merchandising team works at presenting relevant titles in each of the many countries Kobo is available in; propping up titles and interesting books in the same manner that bookstores might place books in the front window or in the main aisles of their stores.
Kobo’s partnership with booksellers allows for the same sort of curatorial experience, but personally crafted to suit the needs of the local store. And certainly a way that the store can demonstrate its own unique favorites, its own unique voice.
Jan’s Paperbacks, a relatively small bookstore just outside of Portland, Oregon, demonstrates the ability to present, curate and hand-sell eBooks right on the shelves of their store. The have a feature end-cap filled with a rotating list of recommended eBook reads, often spotlighting eBooks that are digital only and not available in any other format.
Figure 1 – Jan's Paperbacks Digital only eBook display.
Selling books that aren't even in the store!
They take advantage of such displays to include features with local authors.
The Portl
and area has an amazing group of local authors, and in November of 2013, a huge party was held at Jan’s involving local authors, the bookstore, and Kobo, all celebrating the greatness that can come out of all three collaborating together.  In a single evening, 19 local authors participated in a showcase of a local independent bookseller able to sell eBooks, with authors signing both print copies of their books as well as special postcards with links to their Kobo eBooks available via Jan’s website. The response from the local community (over 100 people came to check out the celebration, and most of them walked away with a stack of print book purchases as well as eBook cards that contained links to the listing for those books on Jan’s Paperbacks website. The conversion to eBook purchases was so high that 9 of the 19 authors ended up appearing on the Kobo Top 50 bestseller list in the days following the event.
Kobo has continued to work with local booksellers, engaged in similar events in Colorado, New York and Washington, with several forthcoming events.  Book launches, workshops, panel discussions, multi-author events are just some of the events that have already been planned, and we’re eager to continue to do more.
If you haven’t already forged a relationship with your local bookseller, you still can, even if you don’t have a print book available for them to sell.  You can find local indie booksellers in the US who are selling Kobo eBooks via a handy online form right here: http://www.indiebound.org/ebooks
But you need to be aware that, just like not every reader is going to be a fan of the type of book that you write, not every bookseller is going to be in tune to your books.
Creating relationships with booksellers is no different than creating friendships and relationships and networking with other writers or with readers. You create those relationships by being genuine, by finding common interests, and by looking for ways in which both of you can benefit.
There’s no quick fix, no instant “keyword” to enter, no quick buttons to push to make this happen.
It takes a lot of hard work, and a lot of patience, and a lot of time.
But when you can forge that relationship, when you can have one or a dozen booksellers out there who believe in your writing, believe in your books and are eager to recommend and hand-sell your books to the right customers, you have mined a valuable resource that you will find will be well-worth the investment.
Algorithms come and go, but booksellers and trusted personal recommendations about great books to read abide.
Figure 3 – Barry Lyga launches digital only book with
Christine Munroe, US Manager for Kobo Writing Life at WORD in Brooklyn, NY
One thing you can do, to help initiate a great relationship with a local bookstore, is ensure that, on your website, you don’t just link to the world’s largest online bookstore, but that you also include a link to your local bookstore online. And if you only have a digital book, you can still include a link to your books on that local bookstore’s website.
An example (and I’m typing this while at a writer’s workshop in Oregon, so I’m using a local bookstore’s website as an example)
The following link leads to GRASS ROOTS BOOKS & MUSIC (Corvallis, OR) website and to a listing of my Kobo eBooks listed there (which happens to be, in this case, a listing of both my indie published and my traditionally published titles – I have long been, well before the term was coined, a hybrid author). What you get is a quick and simple link. http://www.grassrootsbookstore.com/search/kobo/Mark%20Leslie
If customers follow the link and buy one of my eBooks there, that book store gets a cut of the sale, which benefits them.
Linking to a bookstore in your neighborhood helps them, even if they don’t have your print books in store, there’s still a relationship that can be forged when you remind readers that local bookstores are important to local community and culture.
If you have an idea for an event, and have a favorite local bookstore that you would love to try doing something with, the Kobo Writing Life team is eager to see what we can do to help broker those relationships.  We adore collaborating with writers, with publishers and with bookstores.  We would LOVE to hear from you.  Please email details about your idea, your favorite nearby bookstore and your books to [email protected].  If there is a way that we can work with you and the bookstore towards an event, a promotion or any opportunity to help all three of us sell more of your books, we would love to take advantage of that.


This Post Has 3 Comments
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  2. When the new buzzword is discoverability, it makes sense that you should develop a relationship with booksellers. Yet another item to add to my to-do list.
    I can personally testify that Kobo is wonderful at facilitating events. Jodi White drove over five hours to attend WritersFest in Cornwall, Ontario. Mark has an even longer commute to my book launches on March 22nd in Alexandria and Cornwall, Ontario, but he’s doing it, and has even agreed to jump out of a coffin and bring his skeleton for promotion. Can’t ask for more than that!

    1. Thanks, Melissa. We do make every effort to be involved as much as possible and whenever we can. It almost makes us look a bit like the eccentric used car salesmen who will do zany things just to sell some cars — but the truth is we get really excited whenever we can help sell more books and get an author a bit more attention with their target audience. And if there’s a way that we can help bring local authors and local booksellers together and discover, win/win/win/win situations (If you’re counting, that’s a win for the reader, the author, the bookseller and Kobo) we’re pretty satisfied. Collaboration is King! 🙂

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