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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.--
We all receive anonymous pitch letters every day. Some of us also send them. We would like to communicate personally with every potential customer, but that just isn't possible. Even in the world of books--which still relies substantially upon passion for product and word-of-mouth sales--the indistinctive salutation is a standard business practice.
Generic salutations are a common ingredient in the letters sent with advance readers copies (or tipped in as first pages). It's conceivable that these letters are an effective sales tool somewhere, but they seem to me an invitation not to read further; a sign that whatever follows was written for an indistinguishable audience.
If a salutation is, as most dictionaries would have it, a gesture or phrase employed to greet, welcome or recognize someone, then how welcome or recognized can we feel when opening letters that begin Dear Booksellers, Dear Book Buyer, Dear Friend(s), Dear Friend of Books, Dear Reader, Dear Colleague, Dear Local Bookseller, Dear Independent Bookseller, Dear Suspense Lover, etc.?
And what can I possibly think of a letter I found just a few days ago in an ARC, with the salutation "Dear Editor/Producer"? Now, that's narrowing your focus to the point of no return (or at least no read) in a galley sent to a bookstore.
The mysterious, perhaps arcane, art of the salutation has attracted my attention lately because it is morphing into an online variation that seems to be a tiresome new version of an already tired old model.
My inbox is loaded daily with form letters from publicists asking whether I would like to have ARCs sent to me. This approach presumably saves on blind galley mailings, but even in this new strategy the anonymity remains.
There is one notable difference online from the traditional "Dear Bookseller," "Dear Reader" or "Dear Blogger" snail mail letters I receive. E-mail marketers tend to opt for cheery and informal salutations, as perhaps befits the medium:
Sometimes "Dear Bookseller" still shows up online; however, just as often there is no salutation at all. We skip the formalities and move directly to the pitch.
Do we need salutations anymore? Although it may seem I've been arguing against them, I don't think it's quite that simple. In fact, I suspect that a well-conceived and executed personal salutation is still very effective, online as well as off.
Consider the challenge. Let's pretend I'm a frontline bookseller (okay, we don't have to pretend). I have access at any given moment to dozens, even hundreds, of ARCs and they keep arriving daily. I can't stop them. A biblio-cyborg, I've been forever merged into the infinite and universal master database of publishing industry mailing lists.
There is no escape now.
The ARCs arrive with computer-generated form letters featuring generic salutations, synopses, blurbs and hype. The letters tell me how much the people who signed them love all those books and what great reads I have in store for me, if only I'll cooperate.
That's okay. I don't mind a template letter. I understand that a lot of galleys have to go out and individual letters can't be written for each bookseller. A marketing person at a respected publishing house once told me that there were times he almost didn't care where his ARCs went, so long as they left the office and reduced the ever-growing stacks. Most booksellers understand how the game is played. They don't even mind playing. They just don't like to be played.
And ARCs do need good homes. Most end up abandoned.
There is, however, a little trick to get them a second look, perhaps even a read.
Here's a confession and a tip: I've always had a weakness for handwritten salutations. It's a relatively small gesture, an added touch that tells me something about the person sending that particular galley. Booksellers have egos, too. When I receive an ARC with that subtle, ink-stained sign of professional and human recognition--Dear Robert--I pause for a moment. Then I take the next step. I open the book.
And that's how books are sold. Someone opens them.
The art of the salutation is a microcosm of the art of writing anything well. It is all about inviting your reader pay attention and having that reader accept the invitation. "Dear Bookseller" may be a salutation, but it is not an invitation.
While I realize that last week's column could easily generate a book's--even a Borgesian library's--worth of "red cover" anecdotes, I'll restrain myself to just a few more observations, culled from recent bookseller emails about "the game."
Valerie Kohler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., says that in recent months, she has been giving a lot of thought to online searching as it relates to the game: "One of the downsides to the search engine offered through BookSense.com is that it is not particularly forgiving. But maybe we could have a place on the front page to click if a customer has a book mystery. It would take you to our e-mail with instructions (i.e. Did you see it on TV? Possible title?). We are definitely putting this idea on the talk-about sheet at our next weekly marketing meeting."
Finding a way to merge technology with bookseller instinct is the challenge. Koehler has always trained her staff to field title requests from customers with a healthy dose of well-masked skepticism. "When searching, use unique keywords," she advises. "Ask leading questions."
Assume they are a little confused. She cited a recent example. The customer was reading a great book and wanted copies for two friends. She described it as "a memoir with 'I Remember' in the title, in which a retired man is dying and telling his life story and he was a historian and he studied war and he lived on an island." Using these clues, Koehler "gently" enlightened the customer that she was actually reading Rules for Old Men Waiting, a novel. Result: pleased customer and two books sold.
I could go on. I shouldn't. How can I resist?
Susan Fox and her husband, Naftali Rottenstreich, opened Red Fox Books in Glens Falls, N.Y., last October. According to Susan, "People showed up on our first day with lists in their hands. They'd been waiting for us to open, so we really hit the ground running . . . lots of 'I read about this book, about a man . . . ' "
Some of her early favorites were a request for a Christmas book that "has Santa in it" and the person who was searching for "that book by the man who's going to be our next president."
Fox says her greatest success as a book detective thus far has been locating "a short story in a travel collection from a very cryptic description of 'I heard this guy on NPR.' But then again, I was stumped when someone else came in looking for 'the light blue book.' "
Marilyn Dahl, my colleague here at Shelf Awareness, recalls playing the game "usually with gusto" for many years. She contributes a variation on the theme, called "I know it's in paperback." This is a frequent customer demand for books that are at least 10 months shy of paperback status. Initial requests are delivered courteously enough, but when faced with--well, let's just call it what it is--reality, the customers' absolute certainty is quickly backed by evidence like "my mother has a copy" or "I saw it at Barnes & Noble" or "I saw it at Heathrow on my way back from Paris."
Dahl remembers the New Yorker cartoon in which a bookseller is shown tearing boards from a hardcover while saying to his customer, "You're right. It does come in paperback."
So, how can these labyrinthian debates, conversations, explorations, contradictions and ultimate solutions possibly occur online?
Valerie Kohler directed my attention to a recent article in Internet Retailer, which showcased a study of Web searches by online shoppers. According to the article, Inter-Engine researchers discovered that the "retail Web sites of major retail chains showed up in only 5% of holiday season 2006 Internet searches across 10 product categories, including digital cameras, iPods, plasma TVs and baby strollers . . . The study analyzed more than 2,000 results from searches conducted on the three leading search engines, Google, Yahoo and MSN. It found that the results directed online shoppers to online-only or independent multi-channel retailers six times more often than to major retail chains."
It sounds a lot like chaos, but could that also be opportunity I hear knocking?
I'll pose a question, even at the risk of sounding like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, staring at a mound of mashed potatoes and muttering, "This means something."
If search engines don't play the game as well as booksellers do, can booksellers find a way to bring their best game online?
You must be able to play "the game" to work in a bookshop, and here's the first rule: When a customer has a specific title request, assume (but never let the customer know you assume) that the information provided is flawed. In any three-word title, at least one word will be incorrect; sometimes two; sometimes all three. I've heard titles that were close (Snow on Shingles for Snow Falling on Cedars) and not so close (Peggy Sue and the House of Hair for Patty Jane's House of Curl).
Decoding misinformation is not, however, a problem for a frontline bookseller; it's one of the pleasures. I was reminded of this once more last weekend, when a customer asked me to help find a book her daughter needed for school. She showed me a slip of paper, on which the "title" was written: Robert Fagles. The solution, reached with relative ease after a few questions, turned out to be the Fagles translation of The Iliad.
That's one way the game is played, though she probably could have found the answer eventually using an online bookstore search option.
But what happens when the request defies intellectual and digital gravity? Shortly before Christmas, I fielded a question from a man frantically scanning his scribbled list of gift suggestions for relatives.
"Do you have any books about Osama Barick," he asked.
I knew, even if he didn't yet, that he must be looking for Barack Obama's bestseller The Audacity of Hope. It was an easy leap of logic for me, but would that answer have come as simply online? A lot of time and money is invested in some very powerful search engines, but even high tech logic often meets its match when confronted with the low tech intangibles of consumer bewilderment and impatience.
What if the gentleman had looked for an answer to his relatively simple, if opaque, request at bookstore Web sites? I conducted a quick experiment to find out.
"Osama Barick" yielded no results at Amazon, Borders, Politics & Prose Bookstore, Powell's Books or Tattered Cover's BookSense.com site. Books about Osama Bin Laden came up as hits at Barnes & Noble and the Northshire Bookstore. Even almighty Google was puzzled by this request.
Perhaps the game, an integral part of bricks-and-mortar bookstore customer interaction, has no equivalent online.
There's a wonderful description of the game in Sheridan Hay's The Secret of Lost Things, which will be published in March. In the bookstore where much of the novel's action occurs, the staff is adept at a game called "Who Knows," loudly pooling their varied and idiosyncratic skills to answer unfathomable requests, such as a customer whose "hands might move apart, as if to say 'it's about this thick.' " Hay writes that "the only reliable source of reference was the staff and their collective memory."
Memory coupled with well-honed instincts. Often, niceties like author or title won't even be part of a demand. Booksellers must decode clues like "a book I heard about on NPR last month" or "a book that was on display last week over there" or "a book with a red cover my friend bought here."
The "red cover" is a classic. George Orwell wrote about it in his 1936 essay, Bookshop Memories: "For example, the dear old lady who 'wants a book for an invalid' (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover."
What booksellers really do, on our own or with colleagues, is play tag-team mnemonics. Customers enter the store with raw materials, garnered from conversations, misremembered ads and half-heard radio interviews. They deliver the clues and want rapid, even magical, revelation of the title. They scatter beads across the counter and ask us to hand them back a necklace . . . immediately.
Do they have the same expectations online? I suspect they give up more quickly there.
If the game is being played well virtually, I'd love to know where and how. I've seen little evidence of it in my bookstore Web siteseeing travels. E-mail, listservs and search engines are useful tools, but they are not really the game.
Imagine a bookstore Web site where the game could be played with the ease and frequency of the sales floor version.