Indie Bookseller On E-Books: ‘I Don’t Think We’ll Ever Make Money On Them’

Independent bookstore are unlikely to ever make money from e-books, in the opinion of Praveen Madar of San Francisco independent bookstore Kepler’s 2020. But he says stores like his have to embrace technology – even if it means giving away Kindles.

At an O’Reilly Tools of Change panel this week, Madar told moderator Thad McIlroy that independent bookstores like Kepler’s 2020 have to diversify their revenue models and move away from relying solely on selling print books – but they also can’t depend on e-book sales to pick up the slack.

Madar says Kepler’s is the only independent bookstore in the country with a bifurcated legal structure – consisting of a nonprofit arts-and-lectures program and a profitable bookstore. Community partnerships are a “money-losing activity” but “about six people on Kepler’s staff [work on them] full-time” – creating, in effect, “a nonprofit organization stuck inside a for-profit company.” So the store split the two and the store is looking for new ways to bring money in – including running as a community-owned and operated store. Mader cited other community-owned companies, like REI and the Green Bay Packers, as an example of how bookstores can operate. “It’s about deeper, more engaged contact with your shareholders and knowing what they’re looking for,” he said.

Other new revenue models at Kepler’s include memberships, corporate sponsorships and some monetized events like classes and “author events with big-name authors.”

Kepler’s started a “Literary Circle” membership program four years ago, and it now has 5,000 members paying anywhere from $50 per year for a basic membership to $2,500 per year for a “platinum” membership. The program is “a very important source of revenue,” Madar said, and the store plans to expand it in coming months. That might include giving away e-readers. “I want to be the first store in the country to sell or bundle the Kindle as part of our membership program,” Madar said. “If you give us $500, I can afford to give you a free Kindle.” The goal, he said, is a relationship where customers “don’t feel judged for what format they read in or device they read on.”