“It’s going to be one of the biggest screw-ups in the history of book retail”—An interview with Michael Norris about SIMBA Information’s new Trends in Trade Book Retailing report

Brian Howard, Editor-in-Chief, Book Business Magazine

SIMBA Information’s Michael Norris on bookstores and showrooming

SIMBA Information’s new Trends in Trade Book Retailing report posits that the decrease in the number of bookstores that we saw in 2011 did not lead to a corresponding growth in ebook sales. This suggests that the showroom effect—where customers discover books at a bricks-and-mortar store and then buy them online—is real, and etailers have a vested interest in the success of physical bookstores.

The study results come from a proprietary consumer survey that attempts to reveal granular data about how people buy books, as well as where they hear about them and discover them. SIMBA polls this same audience several times a year and has been tracking how consumer habits have changed.

We caught up with Michael Norris, senior analyst of SIMBA Information’s Trade Books Group, to tell us more.

Book Business: How does this report square with news we’ve been hearing that ebook sales are indeed growing?

Michael Norris: I’d say that ebooks aren’t growing, rather they’re reallocating consumers and dollars from the print side. It’s not happening at an equal replacement rate. The growth in digital hasn’t been making up for losses in print sales. Ebooks haven’t really, by themselves, created new readers. They’ve altered the DNA of the consumers the industry already has.

Book Business: It seems clear that customers are discovering books in stores, even if they end up buying them somewhere else. In your report you imagine a future where stores get something like commission for sales they spur. What can bookstores do right now to better prove their worth and their role in the industry as a whole?

Norris: One of the solutions that can apply to chain and non-chain stores is to really focus on the user experience. The thing that I worry about with Barnes & Noble is that they have a tremendous asset in their stores, and their stores are exactly why the NOOK has done so well up to this point. They need to figure out ways to make the two divisions work more closely together, as opposed to working on an odd solution to separate the NOOK business from everything else. It seems like a bit of a 1998 concept to me. (Norris is referring to when B&N infamously split barnesandnoble.com off as a separate entity.) … Also, retailers need to know what their value is, and not partner with companies that want to exploit that, like with [UK retailer] Waterstones’ deal with Amazon. Waterstones is going to be selling Kindles in the fall, and I’ve really got to hand it to companies like Amazon, they know how to kill a competitor and make it look like suicide. The thing people need to understand here is Waterstones thinks they can outsource their ebook sales to Amazon the way Borders thought they could outsource their e-commerce to Amazon.

Related story: SIMBA Report: Loss of Bookstores Does Not Translate to Increased Ebook Sales

Related Content
  • ThadMcIlroy

    Re "I’d say that ebooks aren’t growing, rather they’re reallocating consumers and dollars from the print side." For the larger publishers with the more expensive ebooks, what you write makes sense.

    When ebooks are sold at $0.99-$2.99 many people who would never pay $20 will buy on spec, often not even reading what they purchase. This is an augmentation of the market, although its value to conventional publishers is questionable. Ereaders and tablets have brought new purchasers into the book market and increased the number of titles bought by traditional book readers and purchasers. But as you also note, the substitution value in total dollars spent may not favor the publisher.

  • 30 year publisher guy

    This is in response to the Michael Norris article. During 2011 our ebook sales in dollars grew over 300%. That is not flat ebook sales. Consumer surveys like this survey and similar Bowker surveys seem to be missing a huge percentages of ebook readers. I would agree that the revenue from ebooks did not replace the loss of revenue from print sales in 2011 but there wer huge amounts of remainder books on the market from the Border’s bankruptcy. That by itself accounted for a drop in our print sales. Now that the flood of remainder inventory has largely sold through, our print and ebook sales have been solid and we are growing our sales in both print and ebooks this year 2012. In my opinion there are more overall readers of books since the dawn of the Kindle as there are a lot of free and self published books being read that don’t get reported very well.

    As a print book buyer for decades and now an ebook esclusive buyer for two years, I discover books in a similar way. I get recommendations from friends, I hear author interviews on radio and television, I read reviews online and in book rags like BookPage. I also do a lot of browseing on line. I’ve not bought a book from browsing in a bookstore first – so far.

    Do we need print bookstores to survive? Absolutely. Most people still want to read and handle a printed book. For many people the ebook is just another format. They move back and forth between a hardcover book, a paper back book and ebook and a mass market book. The reader is going to use whatever format fits their individual situation at the time and bookstore need to provide every format to their customers – print or ebook. About 20% of my ebooks have been purchased by a local store with a web site that sells ebooks. I plan to increase that percentage this year. Retailers shun ebooks at their own peril. There are over 1,000 independent book retailers (counting religious stores and ABA stores) that are capable of selling ebooks on their store web sites. Let’s support them buy buying both print and ebooks from these stores.

  • scottabel

    As an Ebook reader who is dazzled by books (in print and in digital) I am buying more than I ever did and experiencing more new types of content than I ever did in the print-only world. I think proclamations by book publishing industry gurus often lack an understanding of the possibilities eBooks provide publishers to assist users in discovering new content. As such, most eBooks today suck — they are little more than digital photocopies. But the ones that take advantage of functionality of devices and provide additional value do indeed engender loyalty and make readers want more of the same.

    Let’s see what Norris has to say in three years. Then, it might actually mean something.