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Will Walmart’s eBook Gift Card Effort Succeed?

We’re pleased to announce that Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader will be joining our illustrious Team. Nate’s beat will be industry news with a focus on the digital marketplace. We know you’ll appreciate his unique perspective and astute analysis of the ever-changing digital publishing sphere. If you missed his inaugural post on Amazon’s attempt… [Read More]

Will Walmart's eBook Gift Card Effort Succeed? by Nate Hoffelder for BookWorks.com

We're pleased to announce that Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader will be joining our illustrious Team. Nate's beat will be industry news with a focus on the digital marketplace. We know you'll appreciate his unique perspective and astute analysis of the ever-changing digital publishing sphere. If you missed his inaugural post on Amazon's attempt to deal with the book-stuffing scammers on KDP, you can catch it HERE.  

Now let's read what he has to say about the prospects for eBook gift cards in this and the follow-up post...  


This post is first in a two-part series where we will look at the eBook gift card concept first from a retailer perspective and then from an indie author perspective.

Walmart officially launched its eBookstore on Wednesday. In around 1,000 of its stores, it has replaced two sections of its book aisle with a new display that features a Kobo Aura eReader, cases, Kobo gift cards, and one surprising addition: title-specific eBook gift cards.

Will Walmart's eBook Gift Card Effort Succeed? by Nate Hoffelder for BookWorks.com

By Arvind Grover CC BY-SA 2.0

These are a unique type of gift card that can be redeemed not for cash value but for a specific eBook title. Most include a small code that you can either scan or type into an app to have the book in question added to your account.

This idea has been bouncing around for over a decade, and so far it hasn't worked in any of the previous attempts. This raises the question: will Walmart's effort succeed where previous efforts failed?

I would say no, but why don't I discuss a few of the eBook gift card projects I have covered over the years, and let you decide for yourself.

A Brief History of the eBook Gift Card

Let's start with the clickbait: Amazon. This retailer tried their hand at an eBook gift card pilot in 2016. They put displays with cards for 20 Kindle titles in 61 drug stores in the Seattle area and then canceled the pilot about 6 months later.

Target had its own small eBook gift card pilot program in 2012. it was developed in partnership with eBook startup Livrada and lasted for just a few months before getting replaced by a display for Nook eReaders (B&N paid coop fees to pull that off). This partnership was Livrada's big break, and after it fell through the ebook startup eventually ran out of money and shut down.

There are also a host of smaller projects from startups, all of which are either dead or disappeared from the internet. This includes eBookCards, snapCards, and BookinCard, all of which vanished and left behind dead websites (or in the case of snapCards, no traces at all).

Walmart Canada Has Already Tested the eBook Gift Card Idea

And then there is Walmart (in Canada), which had the biggest eBook gift card effort of all. They had an eBookstore powered by a Canadian eBook startup, Enthrill where ebooks were sold online, and also sold as eBook gift cards in stores. That project launched in November 2014 but shut down less than a couple years later.

Will Walmart's eBook Gift Card Effort Succeed? by Nate Hoffelder for BookWorks.com

By Bull-Doser [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

That Canadian company, Enthrill, had gotten its cards into 3,000 stores in Canada, including Sears, Toys R Us, Safeway, Home Outfitters, Home Hardware, and Longos, but they shut down their eBook service and sold off their tech in early 2017 because the market had dried up.

And now Walmart expects to succeed where all these companies—even its own Canadian subsidiary—have thrown in the towel.

The Book-Buying Public Shops Mainly Online

While they might be right, I think they have misunderstood the book-buying public. The simple truth is that most books (both print and digital) are sold online (nowadays. It's not just that all eBooks are sold online, but also that a lot of the trade books carried in Walmart's book dept sell better online than in stores.Will Walmart's eBook Gift Card Effort Succeed? by Nate Hoffelder for BookWorks.com

Book sales at mass merchandisers like Walmart, may not account for the bulk of annual sales figures, but the retailer still sells some—mainly as gifts or impulse purchases (for example, a kid might be browsing this section while Mom shops, and finds a book they like).

eBook gift cards don't work well for either impulse buying or gift purchases. An impulse buyer who is also into eBooks is much more likely to pull out their smartphone and buy the eBook online then and there. And the gift buyer would consider the potential problems with activating the eBook gift card and get a print book instead (or maybe get a cash-value gift card).

And that is why I think Walmart's new display will soon be gathering dust.

What do you think?

(Stay tuned for Part Two of this series, where we look at the eBook gift card from an indie author perspective and explore how authors use them.)


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