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Baby Boomer Flies to SIBA Conversation

Shelf Awareness: Friday, March 28, 2008

Thursday, March 27. Albany (N.Y.) Airport, 6 a.m.

I'm heading to Atlanta--with a connection through Philadelphia--for the Spring Book Show. The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance will host educational seminars tomorrow, and they've invited me to join them for one of the sessions. Here's what the event listing says:

2:45–4 p.m.Deeper Understanding Conversation with Robert Gray at Spring Book Show!
What Do Baby Boomers Want (to Read)?
Call it a conversation starter for 2008.
1. What are your thoughts about long-term marketing to Baby Boomers?
2. By the year 2018, will boomers still be shopping in bricks-and-mortar bookstores or primarily online?

So, why this boomer redux?

As the new year began, I explored the boomer issue in detail (Shelf Awareness, January 10, 18, 25 and 31). The idea for the columns, and now this conversation, about boomers as future bookstore customers was generated by the same simple, yet dangerously complex, thought. I wondered if we as booksellers were overlooking the fact that boomers will become very different, much more tech-savvy 60, 70, and 80 year olds than their predecessors were.

They (we) will still be reading for pleasure, but their comfort level with the online world and tech adaptation is likely to evolve dramatically. Will traditional books and booksellers be able to "hold their ground" with this generation, which has made a habit of rewriting the rules at every stage of its collective lifespan?

Reader response showed it was worth writing about. Tomorrow I suspect it will be worth talking about, too. I love a conversation that doesn't end.

This morning, I have plenty of time to observe boomer reading habits because the security lines in Albany are extraordinarily long, due perhaps to yesterday's cancellation of all those American Airlines flights.

As the line slowly moves forward, a CNN broadcaster on an overhead TV greets us with news that Delta will be today's problem air child, canceling many flights at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to re-inspect some of their older jets.

Since I'm flying USAir, I hold my breath and settle in to boomer watching just to draw my attention away from the "departures" board.

They're everywhere, of course. Boomer business people make calls, send text messages and e-mail to cancel or confirm meetings; vacationing boomer couples, already dressed for warmer climes, are on their cells, as are the boomer parents and/or grandparents who herd flocks of children through the crowds.  

Few people are reading; fewer, it seems, every time I fly.

The guy about to board ahead of me is a two-fisted, middle-aged techie boomer who is consulting his Palm handheld (Palm reading?) while punching in a number on his cell phone.

Philadelphia International Airport, 9 a.m.

There's a promotional sign at the entrance to the CNBC News shop: "Read Return. Buy it, read it, return it, to receive a 50% refund. "

I do not, as advised, ask the sales associate for additional information.

In Airport World--that other dimension we inhabit after we pass through security and until we emerge at baggage claim--technology seems to have replaced print as the time-passing recreation of choice. It's not that you don't see people reading books in terminals or on planes, but the numbers are dwindling.

Terminal reading.

The majority of book readers I see on this trip are in the boomer age range. While most carry "airport reads"--mass market paperback mysteries or romance novels--today I notice that the prevailing title is a trade paperback: Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.

Buy, read, return.

Hilton Atlanta, 3 p.m.

Because of the tornado that swept through downtown Atlanta recently, the Spring Book Show had to be moved to this hotel from the damaged Georgia World Congress Center, which has just reopened to host the International Window Coverings Expo.

I'm here, preparing for tomorrow afternoon, when I'll have a BBBB conversation--Booksellers on the Business of Baby Boomers.  

Where will we start? In Generation Ageless, authors J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman contend that boomers believe in three things:

  1. Youthfulness: A belief in an ageless engagement with life that is active, spirited and exuberant.
  2. Impact: A desire to have an enduring influence in making a difference.
  3. Possibility: A sense of personal development built upon empowerment and continuous progression.
How can booksellers capitalize on those ideas? Tomorrow we'll talk about it here in Atlanta, and next week I'll tell you how, and where, the conversation went.

One thing is certain, however. Baby boomers won't go away quietly, even if they've now traded acid flashbacks for acid reflux.



Spring Break Proves It's Easy Being Green

Shelf Awareness: Friday, March 21, 2008

Symptom: As spring grudgingly hits the Green Mountain state this week, some things are all too familiar--frost heaves, unexpected snow storms, an impatience with the lingering chill and so much mud that, when driving, I need a thesaurus just to enhance my string of obscene adjectives with some noun variations: muck, mire, sludge, ooze . . .

Prescription: Remember it is spring, and take one dose of Robert Frost's poetry per day. Maybe "A Patch of Old Snow" to start:

There's a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I've forgotten--
If I ever read it.  

That may be the news of the day on the ground, but online this is a week in which bookstores celebrate an odd but perfect confluence of signs of spring, with the vernal equinox sandwiched between St. Patrick's Day and Easter Sunday. There is probably great cosmic meaning in this convergence, but I'm an editor, not a prophet, so I'll confine myself to more earthbound, if admittedly virtual, matters.

A little spring web-cleaning, you might call it.

In response to last week's column, Bruce Harris of Urban Think! Bookstore, Orlando, Fla., e-mailed me to say that the piece inspired him to make a suggestion to the owners of Infusion Tea @ Urban Think!, an urban vegetarian teahouse that recently opened inside his bookshop. For next year's St. Patrick's Day, Harris has conceived an event featuring their "truly 'green'" local, sustainable and organic beer and wine.

He also has a great suggestion for a future column here: "How about doing a story on various holiday events indies around the country promote? The big ones are easy, but what are some of the unique events we can learn about from each other?"

Good question. We do spend a considerable amount of time at Shelf Awareness searching websites and e-mail newsletters for just such events and promotions. They often appear as "Cool Idea of the Day" segments. But I'm also sure we miss some excellent stuff.

So help us out with this one. We pass Bruce's question on to you. Please let us know what your bookstore does to tap into unusual--maybe even strictly regional--holidays, as well as unique promotional ideas for the usual suspects. And, as if I needed to add this, the stranger the better.

Now back to our spring break: How did some of you welcome the season this week?

Misty Valley Books, Chester, Vt., has a scenic spring/maple sugar-themed slide show on the home page of its website, with no mud in sight.

Opting for a "Savin' O' the Green" theme for St. Patrick's Day, The Blue Heron Bookstore, Peninsula, Ohio, features a BOGO (Buy One Get One) promotion on hardcover fiction. In addition, any title in the store that has green on the cover is discounted 10%, which would challenge at least one color-blind bookseller I know (that would be me) at POS.

In its March e-mail newsletter, Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., highlights a selection of Irish-themed books to begin the week, then really hits its holiday promotional stride with the appearance of Chet the Bunny: "Yes, our Spring Holiday mascot is back with his baskets. Buy $15 of anything in the store and get a basket, grass, plastic egg, a mylar bag and ribbon to tie it all up." Also recommended are their Last Supper After Dinner Mints at $2.29--"Perfect for choir presents!"

The Learned Owl Book Shop, Hudson, Ohio, showcases children's reading suggestions "for the Easter basket," including a couple of Passover-themed titles.

You have to love "The Hungry Duckling Campaign" launched by Orinda Books, Orinda, Calif., which combines a springtime display featuring "lots of children's books with a ducky theme" and a project "to help one local family raise money for a Burmese orphanage . . . duck by duck."

You can read the backstory at Orinda's website, but the basic deal is that for every book purchased from the display, the bookstore "will donate 10% toward the duckling fund. . . . So, if you are thinking about your Easter holiday baskets, forget the candy and pop in a book. . . . And if Easter is not part of your annual celebrations, it's a wonderful springtime gift for anyone."

Maybe books are the first sign of every season. Spring forward, but watch the mud.



One Bookseller's St. Patrick's Day Pilgrimage

Shelf Awareness: Friday, March 14

You want to be like everybody else, but you can't. You're a bookseller. You have a biblio-variation of the King Midas disease: everything you touch--or see or hear--turns to books.

On Wednesday, for example, you see the revival of Harold Pinter's play, The Homecoming, with Ian McShane and a flawless cast. McShane's name has been invoked here before, but that was in his guise as saloon owner/killer/philosopher Al Swearengen on HBO-TV's western series, Deadwood. One of his classic declarations has become your mission statement in the publishing industry: "Ain't the state of things cloudy enough? Don't we face enough (expletive) imponderables?"

Willfully pondering the imponderables, you find yourself accumulating oddly connected experiences and observations. As a list of ingredients, stirred vigorously, they sum up nicely how a column, this column at least, comes to be written:  

First, read an article about Shaun Clancy--owner of Foley's Pub and Restaurant in New York--who has banned the singing of a perennial St. Patty's Day staple, "Danny Boy," for the entire month of March. "It's overplayed," he says, "it's been ranked among the 25 most depressing songs of all time, and it's more appropriate for a funeral than for a St. Patrick's Day celebration."

Mischievously inspired, consider writing a column about St. Patrick's Day, exploring bookstore websites and e-mail newsletters to see what sort of Irish-themed events and promotions are happening next week. Check several websites. Find nothing. Reconsider idea, but don't abandon it.

Recall making shamrocks out of green construction paper in elementary school.

Take the train to New York, check in to your hotel and hustle over to the Cort Theatre. Sit, as you always seem to, in a row just ahead of three women discussing their book club selections. Listen as they talk about a novel involving Frank Lloyd Wright's personal life and his illicit love affair. They can't recall the title. It's fiction, one says, but it's fact, too.

You're a bookseller. At the shop, you would interrupt politely, say Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, find a copy and tell her you liked it, too. This is the theater, however; please turn off all cell phones and handselling.

Then Ian McShane pounds the back of a chair with his cane, and you're in a different book altogether.

After the play, walking back to your hotel, pass the Librairie de France at Rockefeller Center. Window shop a bit, notice a "Message to Our Customers":

After 74 years at this same location as the oldest tenant of Rockefeller Center from 1935, our lease ends in 2009. Because of overwhelming New York retail rents, especially on Fifth Avenue, it will be financially impossible for us to continue our retail business. We plan to close some time on or before September 30, 2009.  

You're almost numb to bookstore closings now, but this one does give you a pang of regret. Sometimes being an indie bookseller is like living in a literature-themed hospice.

Booksellers are, well, independent, and their occasional resemblance to penniless but proud European royalty is germane. Cries for help often come late. We've all heard customers say how good business must be when they see a bookstore filled with people on Saturday afternoons. They generally miss the painful echo of empty Tuesday mornings. Perception is everything.

At Librairie de France, the message also says:

Although many of our customers assume that we are a subsidized French government entity, ours has always been an independently-operated, third-generation family-owned bookstore with no outside financial support.

Although many of our customers assume . . .

Stop by St. Patrick's cathedral because maybe you'll still be able to salvage a St. Patty's Day theme. Say a prayer for indie booksellers everywhere.

As you return to the street, think about what it is that keeps booksellers going; about the good booksellers you've worked with over the years who left for greener (the Irish theme sneaking in again) pastures; about the adjustments you've had to make in your own professional life to spend any time on bookstore sales floors.

Ultimately, of course, you'll think about books; maybe Colum McCann's title story from his great collection, Fishing the Sloe-Black River. You'll recall his description of Irish women along a river bank "casting with ferocious hope."

Your thoughts will turn to all those booksellers who are still casting with ferocious hope. For no logical reason, you'll decide to wish them a Happy St. Patrick's Day.




Three-part Soliloquy: To POD or Not to POD . . .

Shelf Awareness: Friday, March 7, 2008

1. The initial book published by Northshire Bookstore's new Espresso Book Machine will be a long out-of-print local title--Manchester, Vermont: A Pleasant Land Among the Mountains, 1761-1961 by Edwin Bigelow and Nancy Otis.

You won't see it show up as a BookSense Pick, but there's something about this title I can tell you before the first copy pops out of the magic machine. My prognosis is based upon my experience as a lifelong Vermont tourist observer. I could write an Audubon guide chronicling the habits of that transient, acquisitive species.

The book will sell. This prediction is a stone cold lock, as my gambling friends used to say. To POD or not to POD may be a question worth pondering in many cases, but for books like this one it is an irresistible option, a mathematical equation:

Tourist + Vermont on the cover = Sale.  

Sometimes it's that easy.

2. Not always, of course. In response to last week's column, Jim Huang took exception to my use of the phrase "economy of scale" and Ken Arnold's mention of "deep discounts" for booksellers.

"I'm both a bookseller (The Mystery Company) and a publisher (Crum Creek Press) myself," Jim wrote, "and I've recently been part of a Sisters in Crime board committee that determined the eligibility of titles (POD and conventional) for SinC projects. I'm perhaps more sensitive than most to these issues.

"When reporting on POD (and maybe any other publisher too), I'd really like to see terms defined. The main problem with POD isn't the printing technology, it's the way it's changed how folks look at the terms at which books are sold. So, for example, POD is touted for economy of scale, without regard to the very high per-book production cost. Rex Stout's backlist at Bantam Books is priced at either $6.50 for a conventional mass market or $15 for a POD. Is this economy? If someone is telling us the POD titles are economical, let's see the retail prices. If you're telling us that books are sold at 'deep discounts,' let see the percentage. Otherwise, you're allowing us to draw our own conclusions--and based on the track record of POD-produced books, these conclusions are unlikely to be favorable."

While Ken Arnold's "deep discounts" are between him and his bookstore partners, my use of "economy of scale" referred to print runs rather than pricing. Still, Jim's point is worth considering. I asked if $15 for a POD trade paperback was out of line?

"It's true that $15 is 'reasonable' given the competition in trade pb," he responded. "But it's a strange world when books that until very recently were priced at $6 are now priced at $15 and no one blinks. Is the medium (trade vs. mass market) the message, or is text what matters here? I think that the industry pretty clearly believes the former, but I'm not convinced that readers are there yet. Mostly what I see and hear among my customers is confusion, and that's not good. Confused customers aren't necessarily the most receptive to the message that I really want them to hear: why I'm recommending what I'm putting in front of them."

Please, as always, feel free to draw your own conclusions.

3. Finally, Sheila Ruth of Imaginator Press agreed "niche is where POD really shows its worth, in allowing publishers to fill a need when the audience isn’t large enough to make offset printing economical. One such audience is people with disabilities, and a new company, ReadHowYouWant, is using POD combined with proprietary technology to make books available for people who have visual or reading impairments.

"ReadHowYouWant has already published hundreds of classic, out-of-copyright books in a variety of large print formats, and is currently working with publishers to make available newer books as well. One of our titles, award-winning middle-grade fantasy The Dark Dreamweaver, will be one of their first offerings, and we hope to work with them on other titles as well."

ReadHowYouWant's Tricia Roth, director of global marketing for the Australian company, addressed the pricing question: "While POD does drive up the cost of printing titles, our production process is extremely efficient because of our proprietary technology. This allows us to price titles relatively close to regular print editions. In our super large formats the page expansion often requires that we create multiple volumes of one title, which will require that we price titles higher to cover the increased print costs."

To POD or not to POD? Shakespeare, I believe, is public domain.



Philosophy 101: If a New POD Title Drops in the Forest...

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, February 28, 2008

Anyone who has ever taught knows this feeling: You ask a question and wait . . . and wait . . . and wait for someone in the classroom to answer. One of the many pleasures I have in writing this column is the feedback I usually get from readers, but last week's POD column generated what can only be described as a nearly silent classroom.

That was a little surprising. We know POD has great potential, the Espresso Book Machine being just the most recent and highly publicized example. We also know POD is being used in a variety of ways now, from maintaining backlist inventory to niche publishing to, inevitably, vanity publishing. Regarding the latter, booksellers can't help but wince at the memory of past conversations with earnest authors who felt they had been published when they had only been printed. But it's just too easy to pigeonhole the technology due to past offenses. 

One of the readers I did hear from is currently using digital and POD technology to establish a new publishing venture, KenArnoldBooks, in Portland, Ore. So I came up with another question:

What does Ken Arnold think?

A veteran of four decades in the publishing business, Arnold says his new venture "prints on demand and distributes primarily through Amazon, although we are setting up partnerships with stores willing to work with us. Our books are not subsidized by authors; I select what we want to publish, issue royalty contracts, edit, market, and all that. I see POD as simply an economical way to manufacture books without tying up limited capital in inventory. Some review media and bookstores seem to think it's a problem: the NYTBR categorically refuses to consider POD books; one local store has special policies for dealing with POD (as I assume others do). The real problem is that I will not accept returns, not POD."

Arnold knows what he is up against using this approach. "I suspect you are right about the low-bar syndrome as a precondition for bookseller and reviewer suspicion of POD publishers. And the market has been flooded with self-published and subsidized merchandise. An easy response to the sheer quantity is to reject an entire category that has proved to be too often full of defective goods."

On the other hand, he notes that university presses and other publishers already take advantage of POD's economy of scale to keep titles in print, "and that seems to be a real solution to a problem that's been around a long time. Hittite grammar is not a popular subject, but a few people need it. Entire areas of scholarly research are moribund because there are no publishers who can afford to carry the results of academic research."

For his company, Arnold believes "niche is the story for us. I have a background and contacts in the Episcopal Church, for example, and we are publishing some well-known Episcopal authors. We are also going to publish some Portland writers we can promote locally. We need a few authors who have a track record commercially--Malcolm Boyd, one of our first authors is an example and we are reading another manuscript by someone who's published dozens of books in a field in which he's a star."

He adds that "each book we publish is selected with the author's network capabilities in mind; in addition to asking if a book is good, we also ask if the author can help promote it through his/her networks, speaking engagements, website, readings, etc. We emphasize to authors that publishing is a partnership, even with commercial publishers (most authors just don't know that)."

Arnold admits that he doesn't "expect to make money in the first or even the second year. We'll do 10 books a year for the first two and also see if we can pick up some reprints to pump up the volume. But I can't tell you it will work."

And he continues to explore indie bookstore options: "We are talking to bookstores about local authors they might want to stock or host readings. On our website, we call them bookstore partners. We offer a deep discount with no returns but are also willing to send books to a reading and take back what isn't sold at the event. For each new author, we'll find a store or two in the author's neighborhood to work with, on that one book if no other."

Okay, no more questions. Answers, however, are still welcome.