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Wednesday
Mar142007

RainyDayBooks.com, Genesis and Evolution

Shelf Awareness -- March 14, 2007

Where do bookstore Web sites come from and where are they going? In last week's column, we explored a Rainy Day Books online innovation regarding staff e-mail addresses. This time we'll trace the roots of the Fairway, Kan., store's Web site, take a closer look at current online strategy and peek into the future.   

In the beginning, however, there was Rainy Day Books.com: the domain name.

According to Roger Doeren, "Geoffrey Jennings, Vivien's son, was the genius behind the genesis of the Rainy Day Books Web site. He was our original webmaster and his insight was responsible for initially registering the domain name back in 1994. He anticipated the demand to do business on the Internet and he got the jump on other booksellers in the marketplace by creating, building and maintaining RainyDayBooks.com early on."  

At BookExpo America 1996, Vivien and Roger met Dick Harte of BookSite and learned they could enhance their online presence with shopping cart and title search options. "Dick and I hit it off well," Roger says. "We stayed as loyal members of BookSite.com for eight years until we outgrew its capabilities. We parted on friendly terms."

In 2004, again at BookExpo, they took the next step when Len Vlahos, director of BookSense.com, offered a trial subscription to the service. "I leapt at the opportunity," Roger says, "and after fully testing and evaluating BookSense.com for two weeks, I opted to accept a full subscription." He was soon invited to join the BookSense.com Users Council, and hasn't stopped testing and evaluating since then.

The learning curve is sharp and never-ending, but Roger describes the Rainy Day Books Web site as a creative expression of the bookstore's spirit: "Building and maintaining RainyDayBooks.com is similar to a Lego building block process. Given the same building blocks, other people will build something else. RainyDayBooks.com is frequently empirically evaluated and the feedback is utilized to calibrate and target changes and improvements for the best. Change for the sake of change is stabbing in the dark; hit and miss, mostly miss. I like to turn on the lights and see what is in the dark as I build and maintain my surroundings." Although that word change has become a siren song for most of us online, Roger tries to balance awareness and adaptability with foresight.

For example, he has an online wish list for BookSense.com: "I communicate directly with Len Vlahos about needed improvements that all subscribers will enjoy. I would like to increase the HTML character limit per text field from 4,000 characters to about 10,000 characters. I would like to add a gift registry. I would like simpler and more direct click-through purchasing power. I would like to add more Bookstream Bookwrap author videos."

Currently on Roger's drawing board are several new features: "I have recently completed a hyperlink from RainyDayBooks.com Author Events Photo Albums to SONY ImageStation. Many attendees to our author events know that I take a lot of photos and have often asked to see my photos. Now they will have that opportunity, as I upload more of my photo albums over time."

He is also working on a plan to offer live streaming audio and video of author events. Given Rainy Day Books's ambitious events schedule, this could be both a coup and a logistical nightmare. Roger, however, sees it as an incentive, "the next best thing to being there, live and in person. It will drive more attendance to our events and online author-autographed book orders. Live radio, television and webcasts drive attendance to other entertainment events."

Even as we communicated for this series, Roger was conducting an experiment. He embedded a Windows Media hyperlink throughout the Web site wherever an upcoming Robert Crais event was listed.

Roger believes that what he calls the "one-two combination" of the bookstore's Web site and weekly e-mail newsletters delivers an effective punch. The site attracts approximately 60% local, 25% regional, 10% national and 5% international hits; online book sales are "constantly increasing. The cost of time and money to build and maintain RainyDayBooks.com delivers a great Return on Investment (ROI). It is our 24-hour-per-day, 365-days-per-year extension of our full service, friendly and knowledgeable community bookstore."

Next week, we'll conclude the Fairway, Kan., leg of our bookstore Web siteseeing tour with some thoughts from Vivien Jennings, who promises to weigh in "on the right brain side, as Roger (who actually is a genius on both sides) has addressed the technology."

Monday
Mar122007

RainyDayBooks.com--No Place Like Home (Page)

Shelf Awareness -- March 8, 2007

I just couldn't resist a Wizard of Oz headline, since our bookstore Web siteseeing bus will be parked for a couple of columns at RainyDayBooks.com, the online version of the Fairway, Kan., bookshop run by Vivien Jennings and Roger Doeren.

Next week, we'll explore the genesis and evolution of RainyDayBooks.com, but I want to begin this tour by highlighting an option that first attracted my attention to the site. A link on the home page--Staff Contact Information--takes you to a list of booksellers. Click on a name (Suan Wilson or Steve Shapiro, for example), and you can access that individual's e-mail address.

Bookseller/patron interactivity--what a concept.

Although we know that great handselling begins with conversation, the potential for such interaction is lacking (or at least not apparent) at many bookstore Web sites. Staff Picks are often highlighted, but if customers hope to engage in online book discussions with booksellers of likeminded reading tastes, they have to take their chances with the generic info@, orders@ or books@ alternatives more commonly available.  

Maybe somebody will answer.

The RainyDayBooks.com approach blends technological sophistication with human interaction. Roger describes this as a way "to empower our customers with information, knowledge and the wisdom to make informed choices and decisions about books and their community. Our Web strategy utilizes Internet technology as a bridge to connect our customers to our e-marketing and e-commerce."

He describes himself as "webmaster, technology geek, information nerd, etc. My middle initial is D for Donald, but it might as well be D for 'Data'; that's what Vivien lovingly calls me when I am working in what she calls 'computerland.' " Roger adds that the bookshop's site is "freshened up" nearly every day: "I even update our Web site sometimes when needed from my Web-enabled cell phone."

Beneath the RainyDayBooks.com technology, however, beats a bookseller's heart. Consider those staff e-mail addresses.
 
According to Roger, "Our staff and our loyal customers are the best. They look out for each other. They treat each other with appreciation and with respect. Many loyal customers visit RainyDayBooks.com and call us up or e-mail us while they are making their selections. We welcome live interaction with customers. Providing direct contact information is appreciated and utilized. It can turn a shopping experience into a book buying experience."

If that's the case, why do so few bookstores offer this level of interaction? "I can only speak for myself. For us, handselling and building lifetime relationships is what we do best, whether it is in our bookstore or through our Web site. Providing our loyal customers with direct access to our knowledgeable staff through our Web site makes perfect sense."

Vulnerability is a challenge. "RainyDayBooks.com and our @RainyDayBooks.com e-mail addresses have been out there on the Internet since 1994," Roger says. "That's a long time for spammers to put us on the hit lists, and we are on plenty of them."
 
Two key strategies help counteract the threat. A first line of defense is the use of, for example, "roger at RainyDayBooks.com" instead of the more vulnerable roger@rainydaybooks.com hyperlink.

The second is Spam Arrest, a tool which, according to Roger, "filters out about 99% spam from each of our e-mail account inboxes; that is thousands of spam e-mails per day, per e-mail account. Hundreds of these spam phishing e-mails are fraudulently representing companies. We are lucky that so far RainyDayBooks.com is in the clear."

He believes that booksellers "need to make ourselves available to do competitive business on the Internet, but with calculated risks and safeguards. Over the years, I have expressed serious concern for safety and security on the Internet. Exploitation with phishing and pharming are rampant and people are being harmed in lost valuable time, productivity, privacy and money. I am vigilant in taking steps to protect our customers and our company. I constantly and thoroughly research technologies that will improve our business contact, communications and operations. Spam Arrest is a solution to an increasing problem with the Internet, and it works."

These safeguards also allow Rainy Day Books to offer direct, online conversations between staff and patrons.

I've wandered through more bookstore Web sites than any rational human being probably should to find a shop that provides online access to its frontline handsellers. I've heard plenty of reasons for not offering such contact, but at RainyDayBooks.com, unfeasibility has been trumped by the potential for at once virtual and real conversation.

Next time, we'll examine the genesis of the Rainy Day Books Web site and its ongoing evolution.

Friday
Mar022007

On a New Bookstore and an Older, Mischievous Cat

Shelf Awareness -- March 2, 2007

Today Red Fox Books and the Hyde Collection will co-sponsor The Cat in the Hat's 50th birthday party. Why is this news? Because it reminds us that the book business is as much about pleasure and beginnings as it is about the daily grind of independent retailing.

Compared to the mischievous old rhyming feline, Red Fox Books is a newborn. Susan Fox and Naftali Rottenstreich opened their shop last October in Glens Falls, N.Y. According to the ABA, it is one of nearly 100 independent bookstores that made its debut in 2006.

This begs an inescapable question from anyone who has seen so many good indies fade to black (or red to be more precise) in recent years: Why would anyone open a bookstore in these perilous times?

The simple answer is that Susan and Naftali were living in New York City, working in academia, had been booksellers when they were younger and wanted to become bookstore owners.

As is often the case, their quest began with what might be called the Bookstore Cat effect: "We were looking for that little used bookstore with the cat, etc.," Susan admits, citing an idyllic fantasy we've all nurtured.  

Fortunately their romantic vision of bookstore life was backed by solid investigation before they chose downtown Glens Falls, a city of 14,000 with a commitment to revitalization and a clear need. "When we started doing our research, we found that people really wanted a bookstore here," Susan says. "We weren't sure what to expect in a city that hasn't had a bookstore in 40 years, but our customers read a little bit of everything. I think it's the rugged individualism of Adirondack life that creates this sort of independence of mind and spirit."

The day-to-day reality is a juggling act, though one Susan considers invigorating: "I find I get bored easily at work, which is why I like owning a bookstore. There's never a dull moment, and I have to be events planner, marketing expert, ad designer, human resources director, bookkeeper, customer service rep, cashier, all at once. Oh, and bookseller, which is the best part."

Dr. Seuss certainly understood multitasking.   

"Have no fear!" said the cat
"I will not let you fall.
I will hold you up high
As I stand on the ball.
With a book on one hand!
And a cup on my hat.
But that is not ALL I can do!"
Said the cat . . .


Since this is a bookstore Web siteseeing tour, I asked Susan about the store's Web site and how, as a newcomer, she perceived the online book world. Using Booksense.com ("That was just one step we wouldn't have to do ourselves."), they recently added a MySpace page. "You know what's amazing. It really works. Luckily, one of our employees, Brigit Culligan, is enthusiastic about the Web and handles the updates."

Susan believes that the store's immediate goal online is to attract local attention. The Adirondack region offers ample opportunity to develop a larger customer base. E-mail marketing has already played a key role ("The best thing we've been doing from day one is e-mail, using Constant Contact.") and the bookstore is actively involved with North Country Public Radio's Readers and Writers on the Air.

What is on Susan's wish list for future online marketing? "I think I would like a more interactive Web site that would allow customers to access their store accounts to see a list of their previous purchases, the placement and status of special orders, their frequent buyer balances and even to engage in book discussion forums. It would save our staff time in making phone calls and following up with special orders and would encourage customers to return to the Web site frequently. I would also like to have our inventory online (and, ideally, in real time) so that they could search our database. I would also like to start putting our shelf talkers online because they work so well in the store."

The current priority for Red Fox Books, however, is to pay tribute this weekend to The Cat in the Hat, who even in middle age continues to make significant contributions to the hearts, minds and bottom lines of bookstores everywhere.

According to Naftali, "Running an independent bookstore is analogous to The Cat in the Hat in at least one critical sense. While we may all have the desire to dispel a day's boredom through some reckless fun, we must always bear in mind that mother will be home soon."--

 

Friday
Feb232007

Virtual Square Books Q&A Duet

Shelf Awareness -- February 21, 2007

Two feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures in Vermont were sufficient reasons to take our bookstore Web siteseeing tour south this week to Square Books in Oxford, Miss.

Mary Warner, events coordinator/marketing director, and Lyn Roberts, store manager, graciously teamed up to answer a few questions about the bookshop's online strategy. To preserve the letter and spirit of their responses, they will temporarily assume the not-so-secret identity of SB.

Robert Gray: What is the history of your site?

Square Books: Our Web site is celebrating its 10th anniversary. In 2001, we started using BookSense.com to handle online sales. Before that transition, the site was for information only. Our primary business is done at our store's location, but the Web site serves as a nice marketing/publicity tool.

RG
: Do you have an in-store Web team?

SB: With the exception of the hosting, most of the Web site is managed in-store. We can change the content of the Web site easily by logging into an administrator side of the site. Our calendar page requires the most updating.

RG: What doesn't your site do now that you wish it could?

SB
: We would like to have a way for customers to search our inventory online for books without revealing the quantities we have on-hand. We understand that BookSense.com has a tool that can help facilitate this, but sometimes a book might be on hold for another customer and it would be misleading to show that we have it "in-stock."

RG: Do you sell a substantial number of books online?

SB: We don't sell a substantial number. However, online sales have increased over the years. When we first started selling books on the Web site, we received one order per month. Now it is at least one order per day.

RG: Tell us about Dear Reader and Speed Reader.

SB: Dear Reader is our store newsletter that, with the exception of printing, is produced entirely in-house. Mary is the managing editor and designer of the newsletter. She works with Lyn and buyer Cody Morrison to decide on the content of each issue. Staffers submit their recommendations. We produce five issues, plus a full-color catalogue, each year. Although we have a customer database of 10,000 people, our newsletter is mailed to 5,500-6,000 households. It is also viewable online through our Web site.

Speed Reader is a weekly listing of events and book recommendations that is e-mailed every Monday to subscribers. Speed Reader is a text-only e-mail with "Buy Now" http links. We find that sending an e-mail more than once a week or embedding images results in subscribers unsubscribing to the e-mail.

RG: Do you have considerable staff interest and participation in Web site content?

SB: Feedback on Web content has been limited to only those who seem to understand Web sites. Austin Keeling, a staffer who manages IT and network problems, has added many features to our Web site to make it easier to use on the administrative side. He has also created a staff-only bulletin board on which staffers can post store/book-related messages online. It is underutilized, but lately there has been renewed interest in using it in addition to IBID interoffice messaging.

RG: What does Thacker Mountain Radio do for your store?

SB: TMR has strong ties to the community, but also introduces people to Off Square Books (where it is broadcast) and Square Books. Because of its inherent operation as a media outlet, TMR has also been a way to generate publicity for authors who come to Square Books. Currently TMR is working on live streaming and podcasts. For now, a streamed version can be heard on Mississippi Public Broadcasting on Saturdays at 7 p.m. This is a rebroadcast, but it is still definitely worth listening to.

RG: You have several Friends of Thacker Mountain Radio listed, with links to their sites. Does this generate funds to pay for the broadcast and the talent?

SB: Their sponsorship is not an affiliate agreement, but as sponsors we do receive funding from them. Their support does help pay for everything from the broadcast to the talent.

RG: What is on your Web site wish list for the immediate future?

SB: The Web site is in need of a face-lift. We would like to redesign it to be more aesthetically pleasing and easier to navigate. Web sites are best utilized when things are simple, so tweaking the Web site with that in mind might help increase traffic.

We now return Mary and Lyn to their individual identities

Friday
Feb232007

The Search for Adaptation

Shelf Awareness -- February 15, 2007

The incident occurred last weekend. A variation of it happens every time I work at the bookstore. I guess I mentioned that recently (Shelf Awareness, January 26 and January 31). Perhaps I'm obsessed. Or maybe I'm just a bookseller.

That I am still contemplating bookstore search and response strategies also has something to do with an exchange I had recently with Hank Jones of TitleSmart, the online service that provides bookstores with search capabilities for current information on major media book reviews and publicity.

It's all about those pesky questions.

Last Saturday, my customer was a tourist who had heard about a book on her local AM radio station--historical novel, set in the Middle Ages, with the words mistress, dark, and mystery in the title.

As usual, I employed every tool at my disposal and assumed one or two of her keywords were incorrect. Still, I couldn't come up with the answer, though I've already given you a clue that would have helped immensely in this search if my own memory had kicked in.

Eventually, desperately, I led my customer to the hardcover fiction section and we scanned the shelves together. I began with A, she with Z. We hoped we'd get lucky.

We did.

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin.

There's a hard way and there's an easy way to find a book for a customer. We don't always have time for luck. More often, we really need the proper tools.

My conversation with Hank Jones made me think about search tools and adaptation. Jones, former owner of Putnam Book Center in Carmel, N.Y., has been working on the evolution of a particular search device, TitleSmart, for a long time. Thinking incessantly about search options might be considered his job description.

"I was a bookseller for 14 years," says Jones. "Countless times people would come to me and my staff asking about something recently reviewed or on TV or the radio."

Like most booksellers, he routinely received information updates from sales reps about reviews and publicity, but "we could never make these gobs of info easily accessible to the salespeople behind the counter. Though we certainly had a staff favorites area, I felt it was our job to provide customers with a more comprehensive selection of recommendations, especially when it came to categories like business, armchair cooking, and other categories where we didn't have an 'expert.' "

During the 1990s, Jones unveiled the original TitleSmart, a sales floor kiosk designed for customer interaction: "I thought that by creating a deeper keyword database per title, but one that applied only to recent titles getting major media attention, I would get a more manageable list and a better chance of a correct match."

According to Jones, the original concept "was to provide a reference tool for customers and a marketing tool for publishers. This was before the days of DSL and other high speed connections, so all new material was downloaded by phone lines overnight. It turned out to be a train wreck . . . not only because the technology and hardware was unreliable, but also because it compromised the person-to-person interaction that many small stores prided themselves on."

I worked with one of those kiosks and can vouch for his assessment. Undaunted, Jones continued to adapt TitleSmart as technological options improved. Now the service is an online database used primarily for behind-the-counter bookstore or library searches. "Unlike other industry tools, my program concentrates its book info specifically on what is getting great reviews and major publicity attention," Jones says. "It is not designed to be a comprehensive Books-in-Print--stores already have that--but is meant to supplement a current system."

Next step?

Jones would like TitleSmart "to be able to interface with store inventory systems or books in print . . . TitleSmart already has built-in capacity to link to the major distributors, but I have not yet come to terms with any of them. I also see expansion of the database to regional and second tier specialty magazines, newspapers, and media sites."

Adaptation.

Search.

All, ultimately, working in concert with the at once erratic if persistent human mind.

Witness the clue I missed that would have solved the mistress book quest. In the January 31 edition of Shelf Awareness, Costco book buyer Pennie Clark Ianniciello's pick was in a piece just above my column. I read, but didn't retain, the title.

Paying attention and adaptation are key bookseller tools. Improved retention on my part wouldn't hurt, either.--