Can E-Books Save The Neighborhood Bookstore?

A startup called Zola Books has paired with the popular novelist Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, to try to save brick-and-mortar shops.

Can E-Books Save The Neighborhood Bookstore?
[Image: Flickr user Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier]

While no one in the publishing world wants to halt the march of digital distribution, many would like to ensure the neighborhood bookstore doesn’t go the way of the record store. That’s why there are a growing number of people in the industry who are looking to disrupt the disruptors and show Apple, Amazon, and Google how to do digital publishing right–by embracing the new while keeping the best of the old. One of those people is Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife–one of the most popular debut novels of the last decade. She’s recently become involved with, and invested in, a new digital publishing startup called Zola Books–an e-bookstore that, among other things, aims to help physical bookstores thrive in a digital age.


The New Dividing Line

The Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest trade show of its kind, ended its run this year on Sunday. Though, like always, the fair was dominated with deals being made for new novels, selling foreign rights for existing books, and a continuing discussion on e-books versus paper books, this year’s fair also saw a new level of wariness growing for the encroachment of the big three tech companies–Apple, Amazon, and Google–into a world many feel they care little about. As the fair’s director Juergen Boos told industry insiders and members of the press, “The dividing line is no longer between old and new, print and e-books, analog and digital. Instead it runs between those who have a passion for content and who want to provide access to it, and those who don’t really care what they’re selling.”

A Cycle Of Passion-Fueled Profit

Boos’s “passion for content” comment was a reference to not only the authors and publishers but, primarily, the traditional book reseller: the bookstore. In the past the bookstore was a tender distribution point curated by those that really cared about the written word. To open and run a bookstore, after all, took time and money–and it never made many people rich. Selling books was a work based on passion. And that passion, in turn, helped readers discover new writers, which helped new authors make a living, which allowed publishers to continue to commission more books by more authors. It was a cycle of passion-fueled profit.

It was also a profit that could be measured in more than dollar signs and extended way beyond the authors, publishers, and booksellers. That’s because the bookstore itself was often a focal point in the community where people could go to not only buy books but, through talks and events, meet other readers and authors and explore and exchange new ideas. Indeed, in many cities it was the neighborhood bookstore that acted as the rock that other businesses, such as cafes and coffee houses, sprang up around–giving the local community its “vibe.”

But as the tidal wave of digital publishing progresses many in the industry increasingly bemoan that all that is built around the traditional bookstore is slowly fading away. They say that Apple, Amazon, and Google are only interested in books as a means to sell more of their own hardware, caring little about the material nor the community of readers, writers, and neighborhood bookstores they are disrupting.

To the tech giants, many argue, a book is no different than an app like Plants vs. Zombies: It’s just more arbitrary data to push people to buy each company’s impersonal hardware. And as more bookstores close and Amazon’s grip on digital distribution tightens, the rhetoric of the “battle between print and digital” only grows more heated.


But need there be a battle at all?

The False Fight

“It’s a false dichotomy to put e-book and paper book against each other,” Ms. Niffenegger says when I meet her at her London flat and tell her that it surprises me that she, out of all people, is supporting and investing in a new e-bookstore initiative.

I think that not only because, until now, Ms. Niffenegger has avoided releasing The Time Traveler’s Wife as an e-book–despite the physical version selling 7 million copies worldwide–but also because I know she is a trained book conservator, is an expert in the art of paper bookmaking, and is also a teacher at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College in Chicago.

“I think it’s really important that people stop and don’t get all hostile about it,” she says when I mention some of the feelings in the book industry about traditional versus digital. “It’s ridiculous that there even are sides. There should be the book community looking at all the things available to it and making choices about what each person wants.”

Niffenegger says that, despite what some assumed, the reason she never released The Time Traveler’s Wife on Kindle or iBooks wasn’t in protest against the book industry’s transition to digital, it was simply out of patience.


“I’m always a late adopter of things, you know, I never have an early version of anything,” she explains. So instead of jumping in to e-books, Niffenegger and her agent, Joe Regal, thought thought they’d wait and see how the technology took shape. But what occurred in the years since 2003, when her first book was published, wasn’t something either of them liked. Instead of using e-books to build upon the communal aspects of reading and distribution, tech giants like Apple and Amazon appeared to be using them solely to move hardware–and their bottom line.

“There was a kind of bare knuckles capitalism going on and it was all about market share,” Niffenegger explains. “Then came the Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple and the publishers and the whole time Joe and I are just sitting there and going, ‘Whoa, look at that.’”

The Amazon Problem

The events that culminated in the DOJ’s e-book price fixing lawsuit against Apple were ultimately born from a publishing industry trying to find a way out of “the Amazon problem.” The Amazon Problem was the term the industry gave to Amazon’s loss-leading approach of selling e-books for $9.99. Although at that price Amazon was losing $3-4 on each e-book sold, it was more than making up for that loss by selling its own hardware–the Kindle.

As a result of The Amazon Problem, cheap e-book prices were cutting into the sales of more expensive hardback copies, hurting the physical book resellers’ bottom line. This led the publishers to worry that Amazon’s e-book prices could ultimately force physical bookstores to close up shop–leaving the publishers’ primary reseller only Amazon, which could further cheapen the value of a book by setting lower prices, all in an effort to sell more of its hardware.

That’s why when Apple came out with the iPad and its iBookstore the publishers were more than happy to enter into an agency model agreement with Apple, which saw higher-priced e-books across the board–first on the iBookstore and then, through renegotiations between the publishers and Amazon, on the Kindle store as well. While the agency model isn’t itself illegal (Apple uses it in its App Store, for example), a few clauses in the contract between Apple and the publishers caught the DOJ’s eye, which then sued Apple and the publishers for price fixing. While the publishers settled, Apple went to court and ultimately lost (they’re now planning to appeal).


The court battle was a result of a publishing industry in the throes of trying to adapt and survive in a digital world, while those that sell the hardware enabling that digital world clearly care more about the outcome of their device sales than books. But while many just shrugged their shoulders over the legal chaos between the two tech giants’ involvement in, and their effect on, the publishing industry, Joe Regal confided to Niffenegger that he and digital manager Michael Strong thought it would be a good idea to start an e-book platform that would do digital books in a way that was more community minded; a way that was not only about improving the experience that a reader might have with the e-book, but also about improving the relationship among the various parts of the community–including publishers, readers, and bookstores.

“There was this feeling that a reader was being asked to commit to a particular device and thereby only be able to buy books here, or only be able able to buy in there,” Niffenegger says of the lock-in problem buying books on the Kindle and iPad presented. “So Joe and Michael were just both thinking, ‘Let’s make good e-books that are available for all devices and then the readers don’t have to choose, it doesn’t matter what they’ve already bought. We’ll have good relationships with the publishers. We’ll be the Ben and Jerry’s of e-books. We’ll be ethical and we’ll play nice and we’ll be good. We’ll try to be a force for good.’”

And that’s how Zola Books was born.

Your Community E-bookstore

From outward appearances Zola Books looks like your standard e-book app and webstore. Users can create a free account and then buy e-books via Zola on the web or directly in the Zola app. However, that’s where the similarities to Amazon’s and Apple’s e-bookstores end.

That’s because Zola isn’t built around selling hardware–or even locking readers into one platform. If you buy a book from Zola, you can download a copy (actually, multiple copies) in any format you want: Kindle, Nook, or ePub for iPad and other e-readers. This gives readers the flexibility to take their books from one device to the next–something Amazon and Apple would never dream of letting you do.


Zola isn’t just about liberating the e-book from hardware lock-in, however. Through Zola’s native Kindle Fire, Nook, iPad, and HTML5 apps the company hopes to make e-books more social. Zola relies on the human touch, hosting curated lists from publishers, authors, critics, bookstores, and readers to help with discoverability–something Amazon and Apple solely rely on algorithms for. It also allows users to follow their friends, authors, and publishers to see what’s new in the publishing world. The site will even host Q&A’s with authors so readers can interact with them.

If all of the above–books free of hardware, author talks, sharing thoughts about what you’re reading–sound like a familiar feature set, that’s because you could find all of that in a traditional bookstore. And though Zola hopes to be a good alternative to the forces of Apple and Amazon in the book world, it doesn’t want to see physical bookstores go anywhere either.

“Early on when we were thinking about Zola we thought, “Okay, if we’re successful then does that mean we’re hurting bookshops?’” Niffenegger explains, “That’s something we very much did not want to do.”

So what Zola came up with is a way to allow bookstores to make money from e-book sales. Called the IndiePledge, a bookstore can create a virtual storefront on Zola’s website. Bookstore owners can then give their Zola storefront URL to in-store customers who say they’d like an e-book copy of a book they are shopping for. Readers can then choose to buy their e-books through that bookstore’s Zola portal, enabling that bookstore to get a cut of every e-book sold. Readers can also set up a pledge account, so even if they buy a book through Zola, but not their favorite bookstore’s Zola storefront, that bookstore will still get a cut of every Zola e-book that customer purchases.

For Christine Onorati, owner of WORD Bookstores in New York and New Jersey, Zola is a welcome solution from the tech world. “I like the fact that Zola is ahead of the curve,” she tells me. “What we’ve found is that most of our customers are reading in multiple ways: in print, on their phones or tablets, on dedicated devices. Very few customers tell us they are reading 100% exclusively digitally. The more options people have to find their next book and support an indie bookseller at the same time is a win-win for me.”


It’s a win-win for readers too.

If you’re a fan of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife be sure to check out the first e-book version of it on Zola. With it you’ll get a 25-page sneak peek at the sequel and find out what happened to Henry and Clare’s time-traveling daughter, Alba.