Without fail, every society for whom Dan Doody and I have consulted would like to sell its books, journals, and other published products to nonmembers as well as members. In addition to the ever-popular (but elusive) “interested lay reader,” societies hope they can sell their products to professional libraries, whether these are freestanding institutions or simply a shelf in a department office.

Societies very much want to make these sales through their own websites, and why wouldn’t they? They know exactly who is buying what (presumably facilitating future marketing opportunities), they control the pricing, and aside from modest credit card fees they don’t lose any money to middlemen such as Amazon. Unfortunately, Dan and I have yet to encounter an association that generates a lot of revenue though sales to non-members.

A few words about Amazon, since I can muster only a few words about Amazon before profanity sets in: Yes, the organization is as publisher-hostile as you think it is. Among other outrages, Amazon sets the terms, they won’t tell you how they rank books when they display search results, they won’t tell you how they set (and incessantly vary) prices to customers, their sales accounting is fuzzy, you can’t reach a human being by phone, you don’t always reach the same human being by email, and their inventory policies are sometimes perverse.

But it sure is customer-friendly, which takes us back to the problems with society websites. Now, a lot of the blame for low sales has to do with discoverability, a topic I hope to take up in a future post. A society is very lucky if a Web search for “books on Discipline X” shows the society website on the first page of results. (If you don’t believe me, try it for your own discipline.)

But even if a customers do find their way to your website, what do they find?

  1. The online bookstore is invariably difficult to use. Often, titles are listed in no apparent order, or in an unhelpful order. (Say your platform allows you to display in alphabetical order of book title: “Introduction to…” titles always come before “Principles of …” titles. Is that going to help a user? Be honest, now.)
  2. Searching on anything except the literal words in the title and author names is rarely effective. If you search for “lung disease” when your bookstore offers a book on “respiratory disease,” you’ll find nothing.
  3. And then we come to the biggest issue Dan and I typically see: User-unfriendly e-commerce. Our clients almost always tell us that all customer information needs to be stored in its association management system or individual member information system (AMS or iMIS, as most of you know). So before a visitor to a society website can buy a book, generally she needs to “establish an account,” which will include not just the information that’s need to ship a book – name, address, and credit card number – but typically a bunch of demographic data as well. Our clients know this is a problem, but publishing is typically a low-priority use of systems designed to collect dues and provide member credentials.

If it’s too hard to find or buy a book on your site, what do most people do? They go to Amazon. Convenient for them, frustrating and expensive for you.

But give Amazon credit: For many societies, it rapidly becomes the single largest channel for book sales, and on balance societies sell considerably more units than they would without Amazon. So, in most cases, even though you’re earning less revenue (and therefore a lot less margin) on each copy sold through Amazon, the smaller payoffs generally add up to a larger pool of non-member margin.

One of these days, maybe an enterprising AMS vendor will offer a bookstore module that works as smoothly for customers as Amazon, and conceivably this will change the calculus of Amazon vs. AMS. But for now, for most association book publishers, Amazon is an indispensable partner.