Is There A Market For Selling E-books In Brick And Mortar Stores?

One of the beauties of buying content digitally is that you don’t have to schlep to the store to purchase it, right? Well, according to one startup that is pushing into digital books, what’s actually missing from the digital book-buying experience is more brick and mortar.

That theory might surprise a lot of people, particularly at a time when Borders is in bankruptcy and sales at Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) were up more than a third in the first quarter of this year. But a company called Enthrill has announced a plan to partner with bookstores to sell “physical” copies of e-books in brick-and-mortar bookstores.

“For decades, retailers and booksellers have become masters at merchandising products and books and driving consumer interest,” Enthrill announces in a video showcasing its technology. “Years of best practices in retail merchandising led to sales. It’s proven! Selling e-books through digital distribution alone is, in essence, trying to change an existing retail model that isn’t broken….We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Enthrill’s model will allow bookstore to sell physical cards with an image of the book’s cover on one side and a QR code (which provides access to extras like sample chapters and trailers) and download code on the other side. After consumers purchase the card, they go to Enthrill’s website and use their code to download the book as a PDF or EPUB file, which is readable on any device. If they then download other titles as well, those sales are credited back to the bookstore where the customer made his or her original purchase.

In Enthrill’s video, the company claims that its sales model “has never been done before.” In fact, Symtio, a program developed for HarperCollins’s religious imprint Zondervan in 2008, was very similar to Enthrill. LibreDigital bought Symtio’s e-commerce technology–including contacts and key staff–from HarperCollins in 2010, but did not buy its retail card program, which Zondervan was in negotiations to sell separately.

Kevin Franco, a co-founder of Enthrill, said that the company’s claim that this “has never been done before” was a reference only to the Canadian market, where the company is based. “Nowhere did we say that we invented it,” he added. He also said that the company has no connection with Symtio: “Symtio is not ours.”

Franco said that Enthrill already has some deals in place with both U.S. and Canadian publishers (he declined to offer their names) and said the company will initially roll out a test of the program in 125 to 150 mass retail and independent bookstores stores in Canada. The Enthrill video shows shots of popular titles like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and James Patterson’s Cross Fire, priced at $9.99. But a disclaimer notes that the titles are for illustrative purposes only. “Of course we’re going to use the best possible selling books in our illustration,” Franco says. “That does not reflect the selection that will be [in the store].”

Enthrill says one of its aims is to provide independent booksellers with a way sell ebooks. But Roxanne Coady, President of leading independent bookstore R.J. Julia, points out that the American Booksellers Association already allows member stores to sell Google (NSDQ: GOOG) eBooks from within their stores or on their websites.

Ultimately, Enthrill needs to convince consumers that buying an ebook in a physical book store actually makes their lives easier. Ebook sales don’t appear to need much help these days: This January, they were up 116 percent over 2010.