Saturday, January 17, 2009

Why are do online sales represent such a small portion of book sales?

I'm currently reading (actually, that's not exactly true; I'm currently devouring) Steve Weber's book, Plug Your Book: Online Book Marketing for Authors (more about that in a future post, I promise, because this is a book that no one who's tackling a book promotion campaign can afford to ignore, and I'd like to explain why in a post dedicated to the topic). Anyway, I'm reading Steve Weber's book, and he repeats a statistic I've heard before: 15% of book sales take place online.

That figure has always seemed low to me. I'm biased, because I do most of my impulse book buying online. Amazon, particularly, lures me to buy its wares with its well-targeted email pitches and creepily on-target, irresistible reading suggestions meant just for me every time I log onto the site. It's not only Amazon that triggers my book-buying behavior. It's also,,,, and any other .com that I stumble upon in my quest for truth, justice, information, entertainment, and the American Way. So I buy books online, and it's sometimes hard for me to fully appreciate the fact that most people don't, and that most book purchases take place inside bookstores. Isn't going to a bookstore less convenient than clicking a mouse a couple of times? Here in New England, during an Arctic cold snap, I'd say that it is. Of course, bookstores are more fun than an amusement park (to this book publicist, anyway), but I'm not always going to get to one. I will always have Internet access, and I will always be able to buy books online.

As for why most people don't buy their books online, I'm guessing that an article I just read on titled "Study: If you touch it, you will buy it" can, at least partially, explain why bookstores still boast more book sales than the Internet. The study in question, which was published in the August 2008 issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making, found that people who touched items were more likely to buy, or at least bid for (at an auction), those objects than people who only looked.

Maybe widgets such as Amazon's "Look Inside the Book" feature which allows browsers to "flip through the pages" of a book in a virtual sense helps level the playing field between vendors whose books can, and can't, be touched. But...well, bricks-and-mortar bookstores (at least according to all the statistics I keep reading, in Steve Weber's book and beyond) maintain a huge advantage over online bookstores. The prediction of this book publicist is that, as book buyers all get Broadband service and move into the 21st century for real, that will change. I know. Other things will have to change, too. Computer security will have to be enhanced so that people will no longer fear giving their credit card, or their banking account, information to an online vendor. Some of the tougher-to-navigate online booksellers will have to hunker down and streamline some of their functions (I, for one, don't enjoy having to click about 24 times to find a relative's "wish list" when it was time to shop for holiday gifts).

But, when the dust settles, I think (and trust) that online booksellers will learn from shoppers' documented behaviors and quirks and preferences, and they will transform the online book buying experience into something that, finally, resembles the Holy Grail: walking into a bookstore, browsing the shelves, admiring the bindings and covers, and touching, smelling, flipping through, and hefting the "real thing."

Book promotion efforts these days focus as much on bringing readers to Web sites, and online bookstores, as they do on compelling people to walk into bricks-and-mortar bookstores. But I think that reality is already beginning to change.

What about you? Where are you buying books these days? And where are you directing readers?