Christian Retailing

Surviving the e-books earthquake Print Email
Written by Tami Heim   
Friday, 21 January 2011 09:41 AM America/New_York

Heim_TamiThe digital revolution requires dramatic changes by publishers and retailers alike

Tami Heim, partner, 
The A Group branding agency


I  was the president of Borders Inc. when I felt the first tremors in the retail world. An annoying Internet startup called Amazon began stalking my stores, stuffing flyers in books on front tables and parking minivans wrapped with their brand logo in our parking lots. Even more irritating, this startup became the venerated poster child for the entire dot-com explosion, illustrative of the coming challenges for all retailers. 

The book industry is now in a period of complete reinvention. This time nobody is exempt. All industry players have been knocked off their game and must think differently in the search for steady ground. The days of lavish advances are evaporating; a project’s viability is now determined based on an author’s existing platforms, networks and ability to do some heavy lifting to market and promote the book.

Notably, no one in the publishing marketplace saw the extent of the revolution coming. With the rise of Amazon, industry reports predicted the emergence of a new type of consumer: channel-switchers who shop in store to buy online or peruse products online to buy in the store. 

Some retailers created a “convergent retail experience” to capture the sale wherever it occurred, but most lingered in a pit of denial. Retailers, saddled with the finite square footage of a physical store, began an endless struggle to match an infinite assortment of books available just one click away. 

Meanwhile, publishers seemed unaffected, enjoying new channels of distribution with no change in demand for the printed format. The industry dismissed the purported threat of e-readers and any imagined potential for electronic content, and even discounted the implosion of the music industry, classifying music as “passive consumption” and reading as an “active” activity. 

Ultimately, this subtle difference gave publishers a distorted sense of safety. 



Illustrative of this market-wide illusion, in 2000, while I was at Borders, I participated as the retail expert on a panel comprised of leading publishers and distributors where we debated the future impact of e-books. I predicted that as content, technology and format evolved, the way retailers do business would also adapt. I wholeheartedly believed that regardless of format, my retail/e-tail company would continue to be the one ringing the register. 

Publishers were particularly arrogant in their digital denial, continuing to disregard the future ramifications of digital content. 

The recent past may be an indicator of how the immediate future will play out. The number of books printed on demand has overtaken those printed conventionally. The 2008 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Report noted that 21% of book buyers said they became aware of a book through some sort of online promotion or advertisement. Census statistics from 2007 reported 61% of book and magazine purchases were made online. 

Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry is that the percentage of online sales will keep on growing. My opinion is that we will see a split of 80% electronic purchases versus 20% print sales sooner than most are willing or prepared to accept.



A whole new world of consumers is driving these changes. The largest generation in the history of the United States, estimated at 85 to 89 million strong, is beginning to hit the marketplace. As a result, greater changes in the way we do business are inevitable. And yes—this generation is wholly wired.

Social media brings another interesting dimension to the game. It’s the new marketing super highway for creating content, finding niches, developing brands and building community. One thing is certain—nothing will ever be the same and the potential impact of “message” has never been more powerful. 

Publishing, in its purest sense, is the art of preparing, broadcasting and creating awareness for a message. The voices and the messages that rise above the real and virtual noise are the ones that will effectively connect to the right audience. These are the messages that will endure. 

The publishing and retail book industry has a gap, and I find myself standing in the middle of it, along with my partners, The A Group. Across the market, we must build a bridge to pick up the slack for publishers who don’t have time to think beyond the project at hand. 

Authors need help navigating the new landscape. They need someone to champion their brand.  In particular, authors, ministries and companies need trusted counsel to determine the best path for their message.

Publishers must think differently about the content they steward. Assumptions about acquisition strategies and speed-to-market must change. Consumers are impatient, and attention spans are short. Waiting 12-18 months is entirely too long for an idea to make it to market. 

When people have a need or desire, they will press to feed their craving until it is satisfied. A traditional publisher’s ability to rapidly slice, dice and deliver is now a core competency for survival.


Retailers face extraordinary challenges as well. 

Increasing convenience, dropping price and enhancing product assortment are no longer game-changing strategies. While few seem to realize it, only two areas of distinction are left: service and customer experience.

Properly executed, both are strong enough to incent a customer to drive a distance, pay a premium and find satisfaction for their craving in the assortment a retailer has on hand. The Christian niche has the potential to most visibly amplify both service and experience, dominating the marketplace with its relation to real-life experiences and online communities. The combination of a willing servant’s heart, a passion for the truth and tools to help close the sale can bring new hope for the future of bookstores.

Retailers should focus on how pleasing it is to be in the store, how willing the staff is to go the distance to serve and how effectively teams are equipped to meet customer needs. 

Make customers feel better when they exit your store than when they arrived. Give staff the tools to be definitive, product-knowledge experts. Fight hard to ensure that everyone coming through your door leaves with a purchase in hand. Follow the examples of Apple, Starbucks and Whole Foods: focus on the right things and do them well. 

The most chaotic of times are, in fact, filled with phenomenal possibilities, not to mention an increasing number of customers with open hearts and a need for a life-changing message. People still yearn to be inspired—to find a place where they can go to find truth and light. At The A Group, we approach these possibilities by embracing a new paradigm of brand-centric publishing—putting the message first and developing a solid platform for an author’s ongoing success.

Be assured that the industry will continue to shift, and new realities will surface.  They always do. The question remains—who will see, lead and create the future model?