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POD and the Bookstore of the Future

Shelf Awareness: Friday, February 22, 2008

"It's a conspiracy, I know it! . . . I'm telling you something is going on here. . . . They're all pods, all of them!"--Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Sorry. I'm thinking about "pod." Those scifi movie pods were nurturing alien bodies, preparing to conquer the planet. Now, pods are everywhere among us. For example, this morning I can listen to a podcast on my iPod of Wednesday's public radio show, Vermont Edition, which featured a report on the new Espresso Book Machine at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vt.

POD--Print on Demand.

"I'm telling you something is going on here."

A few years ago, I stirred up the POD waters by writing a piece titled, "Are a Gazillion Books Too Many? Maybe Not." I had asked whether, as more and more books were digitized and POD technology improved, there would come a time when POD meant more than just a massive collection of self-published titles no bookstore wanted to stock. Reactions were emotional and opinionated. That was a good thing.

Since writing the article, I've discussed the issue with many people and had opportunities to observe the process from a closer perspective. In the fall of 2006, while working briefly for Susan Novotny's Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y., I had a firsthand look at the early days of Troy Book Makers, a POD company Susan co-owns with Eric Wilska of the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass.

This month, during my occasional bookselling shifts at the Northshire, I watched the Espresso Book Machine take shape and then spring into action.

POD evolution continues. Answers arrive. Questions remain. I asked Chris Morrow, Northshire's general manager, to get our conversation started:

What are your short and long term goals for Northshire's POD experiment?

My short term goals are to just learn a lot about POD and its implications and implementation. This year we will focus on self-publishing clients and public domain titles. Longer term, I would like to be able to print any book that has ever been published. There is no reason that I can't offer my customers virtually unlimited selection within a few years.

What kind of early feedback have you received from booksellers and publishers? 

Booksellers are intrigued but understandably wary. Publishers, especially small publishers, are surprisingly defensive. They see a threat. I try to shift the discussion to opportunity as this machine will allow me to have their entire backlist available to my customers. Think about how small a percentage of publishers' catalogs any given bookstore has in stock--all the rest of the titles are opportunities for sales . . . I do not see myself replacing small publishers at all--I see an expanding partnership."

Do you think POD in some form is destined to be an integral part of the bookstore business as the technology and resources continue to evolve? 

Absolutely. The potential downside of this is that bookstores can be bypassed altogether as this technology evolves. That is why I want to get in early to understand this business. For those that embrace this technology, I am confident that it will enhance the bookstore experience for customers and add revenue streams. This has the potential to be big.

Will the lines between author, publisher and bookseller begin to blur? What's good--and not so good--about that?

Well, authors will have more choices to self-publish, but I don't see the need for a good publisher diminishing. There will always be a need for editing, marketing, distribution, etc. We will be making a number of local interest books--which have been out of print--available, so in that realm we will be a publisher. But that is just adding value locally, not taking business from other publishers. It ain't about good or bad; it's about what is and what will be.

As you begin to deal with self-published authors in this new way, do you plan to stock their works in your bookstore? Is that a delicate line to walk? 

Ask me in six months and I'll probably have a different answer for you. Right now, we are planning on carrying their works in the store for a few months and online indefinitely.

What's your dream scenario for this experiment, if everything goes according to plan? 

Having limitless selection for my customers and taking Northshire public with the biggest bookstore IPO in the history of Vermont.

Ah, those dream scenarios. Now let me ask all of you a question: What is POD's role in your book world?



Valentine's Day: All You Need is Love . . . & Bookstores

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, February 14, 2008

By late afternoon on Valentine's Day, booksellers coast to coast will notice more desperate men lurking in the greeting card section than at any other time of year. Please do not be afraid. The panicky, last-minute card-buying behavior of the male of the species is just one sign that the holiday devoted to creating, recreating, enhancing, confirming or mending relationships is upon us. This is not a sexist comment; it's pure scientific observation, based upon years of research.

Another key sign of the season is the inevitable red-themed displays mingling tomes that would never be caught in one another's company at any other time of the year--a kind of singles night for books.

In addition to desperate men and scarlet books, a couple of recent news stories have inspired me to take a quick websiteseeing tour and find out how booksellers are celebrating Valentine's Day this year. My first bit of inspiration came from the Signal, which reported that Brave New World Comics, Newhall, Calif., held a Geek Singles Night last Friday. You have to like that.

And then I noticed in USA Today that Valentine's gifts are becoming more politically correct. You want a list? I'll give you a list:

  • Fair Trade flowers
  • Organic chocolates
  • Cruelty-free perfume
  • Selfless gifts
  • Paperless love

After reading about geek singles and paperless love, how could I resist the temptation to find out what bookstores are up to tonight?

The Boston Globe features an article on Valentine's Day Singles Night at Andover Bookstore, Andover, Mass. Book group coordinator Karen Harris says, "I'm happily married, but if I was single, I think I'd be pleased to learn how many thoughtful, interesting people there are in the area."

Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., tempts readers with the announcement that "Hot Lunch Returns with Two Rockin' Romance Authors for Valentine's Day! Meet Natale Stenzel & Jenny Gardiner! Hot Lunch!!!"

Mabel Iam, relationship expert and author of I Love You. Now What?, appears for a lunchtime event at Books and Books, Coral Gables, Fla., exploring "what happens after we've entered into a committed relationship."

Want to make your own book of love? McNally Robinson bookstore, New York, N.Y., hosts Esther Smith, author of How to Make Books: Fold, Cut & Stitch Your Way to a One-of-a-Kind Book. She will lead "a special Valentine's Day bookmaking class . . .  Join us for a great alternative Valentine's Day activity."

Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, N.C., features local writers/life coaches Joseph and Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, authors of Getting Back to Love: When the Pushing and Pulling Threaten to Tear You Apart, to "discuss ways to improve your relationship by gaining a deeper understanding of both yourself and your partner."

Maybe a little mood music will help. Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C., offers lute and Celtic harp duo Linn Barnes and Allison Hampton and invites customers to "come hear them perform on Valentine's Day."

The staff at Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, Colo., came up with a list of favorite romantic reads and a bit of advice: "Spend a cold February evening enjoying a little literary romance, or let us wrap one of these up for you as the perfect romantic gift for the one you love!"

But what if this whole Valentine's thing just wears you down? Some bookstores have that angle covered, too.

One may not be the loneliest number that you've ever heard after all. Cornerstone Books, Salem, Mass., says, "Celebrate YOU this Valentine's Day," and suggests that you "be your own best Valentine" tonight at a Goddess Party with Elizabeth Stahl: "From Girlhood to Motherhood to Wise Woman, the Goddess Party is a special invitation to honor a woman's life, friendships, and the many transitions she makes along her way."

An e-mail newsletter from Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., not only showcases many Valentine's Day gift items, but also thoughtfully highlights its "Better Single Than Sorry display," created "for those who think Valentine's Day is more a day to be endured than enjoyed . . . We've got everything you could possibly need to make it a day all about the fabulous, independent you!"

Finally, the remote possibility exists that on this one night, maybe our customers don't need any bookish help at all. Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass., opts for the laissez-faire approach, noting in its e-mail newsletter, "We leave the itinerary for Thursday the 14th up to all you lovebirds out there . . ."



Postcard from AWP NYC 2008

Shelf Awareness: Friday, February 8, 2008

Dear Book World,

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs Annual Conference & Bookfair was held last week in New York. I had a great time. Wish you'd been there.

During a panel discussion last Thursday, I heard author Susan Cheever say, "Catharsis is not what the writer is supposed to have. Catharsis is what the reader is supposed to have." She also said that the relationship between writers and their readers is "like an unrequited love affair." And she said, "Good writing is not self-expression; it's communication."

At the same moment, 15 other panels were taking place at the Hilton and Sheraton hotels in midtown Manhattan, all part of an ongoing, relatively moveable literary feast that had begun Wednesday and would continue through Saturday. Each day, dozens of these panels and readings occurred. In addition, three floors of the Hilton were devoted to the book fair.

In its brochure, AWP invited me to "join the national literary conversation," promising "nonstop literary commotion!"

I had been to AWP before; I'm a writer, I have an MFA and I teach a bit. The business of books, however, is also a big part of my life, so my perspective is skewed. I'm accustomed to book shows and conferences where the dominant species are publishers and booksellers. But all these writers in one place? What a concept. Weeks before the event, AWP had to suspend pre-registration due to hyper-demand. More than 8,000 people attended.

You want "commotion?" The conference brochure promised we could "choose from more than 300 literary readings, lectures and panel discussions on contemporary literature, the craft of writing, publishing and teaching. Browse through AWP's Bookfair, featuring 500 literary presses, journals, editors and publishers. Network with your peers at dozens of parties, dances and literary receptions."

John Irving gave the keynote address. Authors were everywhere, ranging from the famous--Joyce Carol Oates, Mark Strand, A.S. Byatt, Russell Banks, Martin Amis, Amy Hempel, Robert Pinsky--to the midlist (well, let's not name names) to the slightly published and unpublished.

In a way, writers have a home at the AWP conference. They are among friends, give or take. They work; they play. In The Shining, Jack Nicholson's character wrote, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" over and over. If only he'd gone to AWP instead of the Overlook Hotel, he could have had the best of both worlds. The conference is as much a social as an educational event, but--and this is where my business side takes over--it is also a fascinating showcase for publishers.

At the AWP Bookfair, independent and university presses dominated. For those of us who attend BookExpo, this is a nice change. Small presses weren't tucked away in dark corners or at the end of unexplored aisles. Even literary journals got to shine. Although some of the big publishing houses were represented, including Random House, HarperCollins and Penguin, their booths were suitably modest.

Gradually, as I roamed the book fair, exhibitors' names began to seem like a found poem: Five Fingers Review, Red Hen Press, Ugly Duckling Press, Toadlily Press, Wordfarm, Tinfish Press, Cave Wall, So to Speak, Bound Off, Slack Buddha Press, New Sins Press, Chicory Blue Press, Bat City Review, Tarpaulin Sky, Sheep Meadow Press, Opium Den, Skidrow Penthouse, Pavement Saw Press, Small Beer Press . . .

The exhibition halls were crowded and noisy; it's hard to define the particular sound of those synchronous conversations.


That seems appropriate because the din emanated from passion--a curious, irresistible blend of ambition and devotion. Words mattered in that place. And I loved the fact that I saw more young faces than old. I could, if I weren't a fatalist by nature and nurture, have almost felt optimistic.

Controversy exists about the increasing number of writers and decreasing number of readers in our world. MFA in Writing degrees get their share of abuse, and MFAs weren't in short supply among this crowd. Undoubtedly, writers were "on the make" at AWP, looking for connections, for a way in. But reading mattered there, too; maybe just as much, or close enough in these perilous days.

"Catharsis is what the reader is supposed to have," said Susan Cheever. I like the sound of that, and its potential for reverberation. Actually, when Susan mentioned readers and love and communication, I thought quite suddenly that she would have made one hell of a bookseller.



Bookstores Offer What Boomers Want

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, January 31

This series of columns evolved from a not-so-simple question I asked myself sometime around New Year's Day: What do boomers want (to read)? Much of what I've learned since has come from your e-mails and telephone calls. Conversations have sprung up wherever I have gone.

For example, one night at the Publishers Association of the South's Winter Conclave in Nashville, Tenn., we talked over dinner about the narrowing of the generational technology gap--many young people entering the work force now may have less computer experience than boomers who began incorporating PCs or Macs into their social and professional lives more than two decades ago.

What does that mean?

All we can say with some degree of certainty is that boomer numbers will continue to matter 'til death do us part. According to Generation Ageless by J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman, in 2004 the Census Bureau projected that the number of people 55 and over would grow more than 45% between 2005 and 2020, while those 25-44 would grow only 5.6%.

Smith is also president of Yankelovich, Inc., which has been tracking U.S. lifestyles and values for more than 35 years. The marketing potential for boomers at every stage of their aging process has been of special interest. Recently, he shared his observations about where bookselling fits into the boomer equation.

For booksellers, Smith suggested the place to begin is "to sort out what's unique about boomers and what's not. There is a widespread trend toward authenticity, connections, community, social impact and empowerment. Boomers are part of this broader trend, but it is not exclusive to them, nor to any generation. We are all caught up in these things together. So delivering these things is just good for business. The difference with boomers is how they approach these broader trends."

He noted three aspects worth considering:

"First, boomers are unwilling to give up individuality in their quest to find connection and fellow-feeling with others. So even as you create an inviting atmosphere that offers communal engagement, you must allow boomers to do so in a style that is unique to the individual. Starbucks does this with its infinitely variable products and its differentiated store designs. Wi-fi (sometimes free) makes it possible to share with others while doing your own thing. Perhaps bookstores for boomers will be less places to find books than places to create an individual bookstyle. Maybe they all read the same authors but they do so in their own self-invented ways. Such an environment would simply echo the long-standing boomer style of joining the crowd to find one's own individual bliss. Note that the connective behavior of younger people is much more about the network and the networking than the individual and the avoidance of communalism.

"Second, boomers believe in information. They are data hounds. They retain a core belief that if they can just dig deep enough they will find the truth. I joke about this and say that boomers are the Watergate generation--they learned that the more you find out, the more you know about what went on. Boomers, more than any generation today, believe in the written word. Tapping into that sensibility is key for booksellers. They must leverage it in every way. And most importantly, they must not fight boomers when they seek to add new information sources. Find ways to integrate your offerings with the Internet. Make one supplement the other or enhance the other. Don't fight it. Just don't make yourself irrelevant to the continuing boomer quest to learn more. Boomers revere information. This is not true of other generations, and thus creates a built-in gap that must be addressed in other ways.

"Finally, boomers want to matter. They are not willing to hand over the reins of power to younger generations. Boomers are convinced they are smarter, savvier and more perceptive. Books matter, of course, and books are the source of all the ideas and insights that matter. So, just remind boomers that what they need to know in order to matter is ready and waiting for them at bookstores. Booksellers should be the first people boomers look to when they want to weigh in on some topic or issue."

Smith believes that bookstores "have an enormous opportunity with boomers. These stores offer what boomers want, and if they do so in ways that fit broad cultural currents while tapping directly into what boomers want in particular, they will thrive."



Baby Boomers Won't Stop Shopping

Shelf Awareness: Friday, January 25

Cue the theme music from Jaws. Baby boomers are in the retail waters and they're not leaving soon. Will they still be reading in 2018 or 2028 or 2038? Yes. Will they still be buying books in bricks-and-mortar bookstores?


That's the challenge for booksellers. As I mentioned in the first column of this series, BBs can be irritating and fickle. We always have been. A BB backlash already exists. Think Chris Buckley's novel, Boomsday, where a boomer suicide proposal (with financial incentives, of course) falls under the euthanasia euphemism, "Voluntary Transitioning." Think the Baby Boomer Death Counter. Tip of the iceberg.

Cue the shark music again.

Yet somewhere, in the middle of all this controversy and opportunity, the book world will have to find a way to surf boomer-infested waters. One of the questions I initially asked readers was whether tech-savvy BBs will be transferring their book reading and buying habits to an online environment by the year 2018.

Susan Fox, co-owner of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., describes herself as a non-boomer who is also part of the last generation to have grown up without computers. She believes that paper books and bricks-and-mortar stores are safe for now: "I don't see boomers (or my generation, for that matter) reading novels on the computer in the way that younger generations who know nothing but computers will."

Fox added that something "no one mentioned in their comments (denial, perhaps?) is large print. I just sold a copy of The Alchemist large print edition to an aging boomer. Just as we're seeing spa cuisine make its way into retirement homes, we're going to start seeing interesting, diverse titles make their way to large print. Maybe even debut authors!" 

Missie Olm of the Reader's Loft, Green Bay, Wis., feels that while some boomers may gravitate to an online reading life, "bricks-and-mortar stores have less likelihood of losing them to the ether than we do the younger generations. They want to talk about what they know about--in person. They want the interaction that the cozy independent bookstore can offer. I think this is the generation that may be doing their research online, but we'll still get the pleasure of their company. Until mobility becomes an issue. Then you start delivering, for those favorite customers that you've worked with for the last 10, 20, 30 years."

"Your 2018 question is harder to answer," admits Pamela Grath of Dog Ears Books, Northport, Mich. "Yes, there are those of us who have gotten over our technophobia, but whether online or bricks-and-mortar sales will be a larger growth area a decade from now is anyone's guess. I've been a bookseller for 15 years, and all I can say for sure about the future is that it will be different. When online skyrocketed, I jumped, and for a couple of years what I was doing worked, but then everything changed, and I had to change again, too. Boomers in general may re-invent themselves over and over out of excitement or new enthusiasms; indie booksellers must re-invent themselves continuously to stay alive. The world is dynamic, and bookselling is a challenging way of life."

Carol White of RLI Press is closely tied to the recreational vehicle industry: "In our travels, representing 'Go RVing' to the boomer market, we talk to hundreds of boomers about their 'retirement' years. As you say, they are fiercely independent and believe their demographic is just themselves.

"I think bookstores will continue to attract boomers, as long as the bookstores continue to change to meet what boomers want. The ones that are most attractive to me are ones that are a combination of a living room and a library. Most boomers, although tech-savvy, would rather actually talk to each other than to text or IM each other. Make it convenient and fun to do that and the bookstores will continue to have their place on our radar."

For added perspective, Susan Fox recommends "an interesting section in Paco Underhill's Why We Buy about the aging population and the need for stores to try to meet their needs. Things like bigger signs, better lighting, books that deal with aging and retirement (and yoga). I agree with him that this is something we'll need to consider since the boomers aren't (thankfully) going to stop shopping."

No need to get out of the water yet. Baby boomer sharks don't bite; they buy.