Midweek Tech Scan: can Google help save Seattle's indie bookstores?

A new app makes it possible for you to buy ebooks from your local independent book sellers. The owner of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop offers his thoughts.

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A display window at Seattle Mystery Bookshop urges support for local stores.

A new app makes it possible for you to buy ebooks from your local independent book sellers. The owner of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop offers his thoughts.

It’s a curious, almost ironic turn of events that Google, credited with being one of the major influences in the rise of ebooks and the steady erosion of printed books, may become a savior of the independent bookstore here in Seattle and around the country. 

Last week, the American Booksellers Association released the IndieBound Reader, an ebook reader app for Android phones and tablets, that allows book lovers to buy ebooks directly from independent booksellers.

The reader is based on Google’s own ereader technology, but allows readers to locate their favorite independent bookstore that sell Google ebooks, and buy from them directly through the app. 

It’s a little too early to tell its effect, however, according to J.B. Dickey, owner of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, one of a handful of independent book dealers still keeping their heads above water in the Puget Sound area, “Certainly, people wanting to support small book sellers is all to the good,” he noted in a phone interview, “but not enough people are paying attention to the smaller book sellers. 

“We’re not able to pay the rent on ebooks.  It has to be on top of selling print books.”

The app is available for the iPhone, but it won’t allow in-app buying.  I loaded the app onto my iPhone, but the app didn’t link to the account I set up using my Google account.  I’ve not yet found a way to read the book I bought with the IndieBound Reader for my Android phone on my iPhone.

I downloaded the free app to my phone from the Android Market, keyed in a downtown ZIP code (98104) and found a list of independent stores — not a huge list as one might expect.  First up was the Seattle Mystery Bookshop at 117 Cherry St.  I clicked on the store’s name, signed in with my Google account as easily as I sign in for any other Google function.

I was a little surprised not to find a series of recommendations from the store on the app — apparently I would need to look at the store’s web site first.  Still, being able to browse Google's online ebook stacks under virtually any category gave me a depth and breadth of any good bookstore, and the profits from my book purchase went to a local bookstore instead to one of the Big Two.

Although I have both Amazon and Barnes & Noble accounts, and support them liberally, having a strong third book seller choice and supporting a local merchant, even in a small manner, does the heart good.

Dickey noted that buying books from local merchants, to some degree, is a political act.  Seattle has a reputation for being a good town for independent book sellers: a place where writers often come on book tours.  If you buy from an independent seller, he added, “You’re saying, what kind of system do you want to support for your money?”

Across the country, he continued, small and medium-sized retail book sellers have been driven out of business, with only a Barnes & Noble store to service their needs, or no store at all.  “Amazon has made it easy to buy on line,” he commented.

One of Amazon’s latest moves, the start of a print publishing house under its own name with an initial list of 122 titles for sale, is not winning any friends at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop.  Dickey recently heard that the books can be sold by any bookstore willing to stock them but his store will not be one of them. 

“Why should I support a company that is trying to drive me out of business?” he commented.

The digital age, sadly, has turned the bookstore “looky-loo” into a fine art. According to a piece in the New York Times, people go into bookstores, hand-pick over a variety of books that look interesting, then copy that information onto a smartphone and buy the book from an online merchant.

A survey conducted last October by the Codex Group, a consulting company studying the book market, concluded that 24 percent of people who said they bought books on line said they first saw those titles in a retail bookstore.  Moreover, the survey noted that 39 percent of Amazon book buyers also said they saw those titles first in a bricks-and-mortar store.

There’s no telling if the new IndieBound app could help reduce the looky-loo phenomenon, but if book sellers encouraged the app’s use, knowing that visitors to their stores often will buy their books online, at least they could capture some of the revenue that is escaping to the big online book retailers.

Just a thought.


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