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Friday
Sep072007

The Most Obvious and Important Question

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, September 6, 2007

The challenge was on the table. After answering several of my questions, Dick Harte, owner and developer of BookSite, had one of his own. He asked me to "reflect on why you didn't ask the most obvious and important question. I don't mean the superficial 'It just slipped my mind,' but one layer deeper on why it slipped your mind. The question: What is the single most important thing needed for a successful bookstore website?”

I like the question. I probably wouldn't have asked it because I'm not a fan of the "single thing" theory. Still, I was intrigued when he added, "The irony is, once that question is addressed, the indies will have the realistic solution you seem to be going after in your articles."

So I asked, but more on that later.

Harte has been thinking about independent bookstores and the Web for a long time. "I started on the 'World Wide Web' in 1994, a year before Amazon, by creating an online version of my bookstore [Rutherford's Book Shoppe] in Delaware, Ohio." BookSite evolved from that initial online retail foray into a company that now "provides a complete online bookstore solution."    

Harte offers strong opinions about what he believes works--or doesn't work--for independent bookstore websites. He has learned those lessons as he developed BookSite and studied industry leaders: "One of the dirty little secrets of the Internet is that it costs, per customer online, whether it be for a car or a book, roughly $100. Here is where I split ways with the Amazon approach. [Jeff] Bezos saw something I didn't, the most basic retail principle going is, 'It's the customer, stupid.' So while I was trying to grasp the logic of spending $100 in advertising to make a sale with a net margin of $1, Amazon was investing $2 billion in going after those sales thinking how inexpensive it was to attract a new customer for just $100, because over their lifetime that customer would generate many times that profit."
 
Are there competitive alternatives for independent bookstores, which often lack the deep debt pockets of Amazon or the chains? Harte says the answer is yes, and BookSite is one of those options, but he recommends that booksellers be keenly aware of both the opportunities and the hazards online. "Why have a store at all if you can't compete with Amazon or B&N? And if you do have a store, why not give yourself the best chance for success by building in Internet tools with your operations?"

Asked to cite common mistakes bookstores make while building their websites, he offers the following list, adding "I have dozens more if you want me to go on."

  1. Copying Amazon.
  2. Forgetting to outline specific benefits and results from their Internet investment.
  3. Segregating the website operations from store marketing.
  4. Ignoring the need to build customer e-mail lists.
  5. Not giving the customers what they want.
  6. Keeping doing old tasks, even after they become obsolete with the new web-based services.

On the other hand, he sees great potential for independent booksellers who know how to play to their strengths. "I actually think the future for those who 'get' the Internet is brighter than ever. The technology is evolving in our direction. The only real hurdle is the resistance toward change that seems to be in the DNA of some indies."

How can booksellers seize that opportunity? "Take care of the customer and keep it local. Small beats big, local beats national, personal beats mass in this new environment. Most of all remember store websites don't attract customers, they help stores economically take care of their customers. Take care of basics and make sure they back up the store e-newsletter campaign. The only time I have seen customers attracted to a store because of a website is someone finding a store by searching on Google for 'bookstore' and your city name (and in that case the website didn't attract, it simply provided directions)."

There's more, of course, and we'll explore some of Harte's specific strategies next week. For now, however, let's reconsider that "most important question":

What is the single most important thing needed for a successful bookstore website?
 
"It's the store," says Harte. "I have yet to have a customer who has a successful store who hasn't had a successful website. The Internet is about being small and personal. It's about being grassroots, and that plays into the independents' hands." Next week, Harte will offer some tips for making that happen.

 

Tuesday
Sep042007

Bookstore Blogging Is Not the Answer

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, August 29 

Okay, it's a trick question, and I haven't even asked it yet.

Is a bookstore blog the best solution for drawing more traffic to your website?

No. Bookstore blogs are an answer, not the answer, yet the question persists: Should your bookstore have a blog? In the right hands, bookseller blogs can be an effective asset, as Russ Marshalek of Wordsmiths Books, Decatur, Ga., showed us in last week's column and continues to prove with futureTense, an upcoming blog-themed event. Bookselling This Week recently offered an excellent blogging primer.

So, what should you do?

Consider a bit of (indirect) advice regarding the future of online bookselling from Douglas Adams, who once told us about two key words inscribed on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "in large friendly letters":

Don't panic.   

Alice Meyer, owner of Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, Iowa, almost panicked, but she recovered nicely and offers an honest look at her concerns about blogging and online marketing, which mirror those expressed by many booksellers I've communicated with:  

"Every time I see you have written something in Shelf Awareness, I panic, thinking: 'Oh god, he found my website and he's going to use us as an example of What Not to Wear.' I haven't seen anything I've been able to readily identify as ours yet, but it came pretty close to home when you wrote about getting rid of our Harry Potter party info. Guilty!

"Before I had a store (actually, 13 months ago), it really irked me when I would visit a website that was woefully out of date. What do these people do all day? I wondered. Well, I have been enlightened, as you would say in the Shelf. They probably own a 1,200-square-foot store which has one paid employee at a time working. Maybe the owner has a day job as well, and works for nothing at the store the rest of the time. This is what she does while she is there: buying, ordering, returns, payroll, setting up events, marketing (buying advertising, making signs, sending e-notices to the mailing list, getting on community calendars), bookkeeping, paying bills, going to the bank, speaking engagements, meeting with sales reps and vendors; all while the employees are selling books, talking with customers, receiving and shelving books, keeping the store clean (including the bathroom), leading discussion groups, setting up for book clubs, researching books for special orders . . . Well, you know the drill. The thing is, we love every single minute and every single duty. Except the bathroom one.

"And now we must have websites, MySpace pages, blogs and wikis. While I sometimes wonder how anyone got anything done before computers, it is sometimes hard to believe that they are the time-saving wonders we couldn't live without. Now I'm starting to sound like a geezer, but I'm not going to do an index card-based inventory system just to prove a point.

"So what is my point exactly? I'm not even sure anymore--just don't take away my POS, scanner, email, electronic ordering or anything else remotely digital! We're trying. We'll get there. And keep reminding us that our sites need refreshing, our blogs need updating and that Vicki-the-wiki is hungry. We know it's the way to do business. But if I have to make a choice between a possible virtual customer and one standing in front of me asking about the Redwall books, I gotta go with the live one. We really want to get to that place where we don't have to choose.

"I'm sure there are many other booksellers like me who feel like it's just one more thing in the ever-unending list of tasks we do. As a bookseller, I actually want to be selling books, but there is so much more to it than meets the eye, isn't there?"

And like any good bookseller, Meyer also did a little handselling: "While I'm at it, may I also comment on your column about [small press] authors? I think you hit the nail on the head with that one. I never realized how hard these fine folks had to work to promote their own books. Two of our favorite local handsells are Earthquake I.D. by John Domini (Red Hen Press, $20.95, 9781597090766/159709076X) and The Space Between by Kali VanBaale (River City Publishing, $23.95, 9781579660581/1579660584)."

Her email sign-off was a kind of mantra: "Keep up the good work . . . deep breath . . . send . . ." 

One more time, the answer is: Don't Panic.

 

Monday
Aug272007

New Bookstore, a Blog and a Community

Shelf Awareness: Tuesday, August  21, 2007

As more independent bookstores consider the blog option, they face certain questions. I tossed a few of these at Russ Marshalek, marketing/PR director (and resident blog-meister) for Wordsmiths Books, Decatur, Ga.

The original goals for the Wordsmiths blog were twofold and evolved from the early planning stages for the bookshop. "As Zach [Steele, the store's owner] and I were sorting our way through the process, basically with an idea, a dream, we thought, 'Why not write about it?' The book industry is, for some strange reason, clouded in a mysterious, foggy haze, and so the goal was to bring some light on exactly what goes into opening a bookstore. Also, we wanted to build ground floor, grass-roots attention to the store before there was a store. We wanted to build a community that would have both input and interest in what we were doing."

Marshalek offered two reasons for booksellers to consider a store blog:

"1) If someone who had never been to your store called you (or emailed you) and asked why they should shop your store rather than buying a book at Barnes & Noble or even Wal-Mart, what would you tell them? No, no, not the four-letter expletive, I mean what makes your store YOUR store? What makes you get up in the morning and do the often thankless job of bookselling? Okay, that answer? That's your blog. That's your direction. Every bookstore is unique, and all that uniqueness makes for an interesting read. Whether it's fascinating to you writing it or not is really secondary. The things we view as mundane can be, to others, the most interesting stuff in the world.

"2) The fun stuff of the industry really ends up going un-blogged. You won't want to, as a bookstore, hit 'publish' on those scathing book reviews, nor will you want to spill the beans about how mad you are at so-and-so bookshop owner or so-and-so author. Seriously, there's no hazard as long as you remember your audience."

Although Marshalek and Steele are the primary bloggers at Wordsmiths, "our operations manager, Dea Anne, blogs, as does our webmaster, Mike, and Zach's wife, Alice. Alice's blogs are actually some of the best stuff on there. We have an awesome staff. Everyone's so unique and lively. I think the 'fights' over books that go on on the sales floor are some of the most fun things possible, and they do need to be taken blog-side. It's honestly just been a matter of having the time to create log-ins and show everyone around the blog's interface."

Finding time to blog is bound to be a challenge for booksellers, but Marshalek says "it's part of my job to make sure the blog stays in shape. It's a huge part of what's helped define us. Event photos, book reviews, all this stuff goes up, and it all brings attention to what we do. It's also helped to create a community of book lovers here in the south that just keeps growing by the day. I always enjoy it, though, when I hear from a publisher outside of the region that they've read the blog--the southeast in general, and Georgia in particular, is neglected by a lot of publishers as 'not being literary,' but it really is--and the more connected those book lovers in the region are to one another, the more of a unified voice is presented, and the more attention's drawn."

The final bit of advice from Marshalek can be summed up quite simply: The only thing we have to fear from technology is fear of technology itself. "I come from a music journalism/marketing background, and music's an industry that has been forced to evolve or die. I tend not to be at all sympathetic to what I perceive as the book industry's fear of technology. I hear stories of bookshop owners who have thrown massive fits at the suggestion of possibly using the Internet to conduct business and I cringe. Having a strong web presence is an easy way to both spread out your customer base and narrow down your marketing to specific targets.
 
"If I told you there was a way that you could reach an unlimited number of book buyers who've never even been in your store, from all around the world, for basically no money, you'd jump at the idea. Do it. But do it properly."

Sunday
Aug192007

From Staff Picks to Blogging--The Art of the Segue

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, August 16, 2007

If you sell books for a living, you've learned how to segue--to move your customer from conversation mode to buying mode so seamlessly that they believe the acquisition was as much their idea as yours. And since you already know all that, I won't try to disguise my segue in this piece. You'd probably just see through it anyway.

In response to last week's column about small press staff picks, Mary Alice Gorman, co-owner of Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pa., wrote that she recommends Cancer Vixen (Knopf, $22, 9780307263575/0307263576) on her website and is "already getting congrats on what one caller said was a most unusual pick for a mystery bookstore. However, it did remind her to schedule that mammogram!"

Then Russ Marshalek, marketing and public relations director at Wordsmiths Books, Decatur, Ga., checked in to ask and answer his own question: "What is there to say about Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee (Melville House, $14.95, 9781933633251/1933633255) that could sufficiently convey exactly what the book is?"

Wrestling with the eternal bookseller's dilemma of how to "summarize the book in two sentences to fit on a shelf-talker that would encourage those totally unfamiliar with Lin's work at his achingly self-aware blog, reader of depressing books, to pick the book up and fall into the weird sort of love that only it could encourage," he opted for the following:

"Tao Lin's first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, if listed by plot points, would include: Elijah Wood, dolphins, pizza delivery, sadness, more pizza delivery. At times painfully mundane, at times razor-sharp with emotional truth, Linn's novel is the sound of ennui on an iPod being listened to on the morning train to somewhere. Is this the result of the 20-something overeducated hipster putting pen to paper? Yes. Does his voice sound like anyone else's ever could, or would? No."

Marshalek added that independent publishers like Akashic and Soft Skull "have been well represented in our staff picks as well, with Jillan Weise's The Amputee's Guide to Sex (Soft Skull, $14.95, 9781933368528/1933368527) and pretty much everything Joe Meno has ever written making their way through our choices."

Pay attention, now, because here comes segue.

As often happens, something about Marshalek's enthusiasm inspired me to follow a virtual trail to the Wordsmiths Books website, where I found the same energy, wit and passion for reading on display at the bookstore's blog.

I stayed there for a while. I read. I thought about bookstore blogs. Then I contacted Marshalek and we had a conversation, which I will share with you this week and next.

Segue completed.

According to Marshalek, "The blog has always been a vital part of what Wordsmiths Books is." As entertaining evidence, I recommend that you spend some time reading the blog entries dating back to last winter, when the bookstore was still a dream in the making. As you follow the narrative in post after post through the June grand opening, you get caught up in the story.

So this is what birthing a bookstore looks like in real time.

"The Wordsmiths Books blog has actually been around since the very inception of the idea of the store--so since January of '07," said Marshalek. "It wasn't really so much of a debate to invest time and effort into a blog and it's proven to be an invaluable tool."

He had initially introduced Wordsmiths Books owner Zach Steele to the concept of blogging last year, "both as a form of self-expression and as a marketing tool. I come from a new media background and I keep a handful of personal blogs, so I've seen the way this form of communication can be effective, both for the writer and the audience."

Marshalek does not consider himself a writer, but said Steele is and "I didn't see how he could be a writer aspiring to be published and not keep a blog. Then, as Wordsmiths Books came into being, there wasn't even a question of integrating a blog into what our store plan was. When we opened, it was in an online sales and author events capacity, so an online presence was vital."

According to Marshalek, a blog "allows your store to handsell your new, quirky, favorite, beloved book of the moment to a much wider audience, all as though they were each getting one-on-one time."

Next week, he offers a closer look at Wordsmiths's blogging strategy, and why the essence of a great bookstore blog is the delicate art of mixing business with pleasure.

 

Sunday
Aug192007

Indie Staff Picks Speak for Themselves

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, August 9, 2007 

"The web was a neighborhood more efficiently lonely than the one it replaced. Its solitude was bigger and faster. When relentless intelligence finally completed its program, when the terminal box brought the last barefoot, abused child on line and everyone could at last say anything instantly to everyone else in existence, it seemed to me we'd still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways to say it."--Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

Maybe.

Or perhaps booksellers do have something to say online; something like, "I read a book and liked it. You might like it, too." As the bookstore websiteseeing tour bus cruised last week, we visited a few small press recommendations posted by booksellers who had something significant to say to their patrons about independent and university press books and were using one of the best tools at their disposal to say it.

When my column appeared early Wednesday morning, Kathy L. Patrick, owner of Beauty and the Book, Jefferson, Tex., responded quickly with her own indie pick: "I would like to recommend to you Rain Village by Carolyn Turgeon (Unbridled Books, $24.95, 9781932961249/1932961240). Her story is of a small town Kansas girl who runs away from her abusive father and family to be rescued by a librarian who used to be a trapeze artist. The librarian teaches the young girl everything she knows and the girl eventually runs away with the circus. Magical and I can hardly wait for her next release, Godmother, which promises to be an even better read. This is a writer to watch and Unbridled Books to me is discovering authors of extreme merit. I just could not wait to tell you about this small press book!"

And because the universe operates on a system at once beautiful and unfathomable, the next e-mail to arrive came from Unbridled Books publisher Fred Ramey, who wrote, "Thanks for that column, Robert. It raises the kind of awareness the industry really needs: That there are worthy titles and powerful reading experiences outside of those designated in the mediastream and that the independent booksellers are always in a position to deliver so much more to their customers than the chains acknowledge exists." Ramey also mentioned that he liked the mildly optimistic tone of the column "when abstracted fellows like me so often sound either like Eeyore or like Jonathan Edwards."

What else could I do but climb back aboard the bus and keep the tour going?

Joan at the Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, Mass., writes that The Light Within the Light: Portraits of Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin & Stanley Kunitz by Jeanne Braham (David R. Godine, $24.95, 9781567923162/156792316X) "is a wonderful book about four of New England's most senior and most eminent poets. Jeanne Braham's stellar skills of interviewer and writer shine throughout this volume. She blends together the lives of the poets, their influences, their landscapes and their poetry in such a skillful manner that one immediately goes searching for the poetry, essays and other works of these four writers. Barry Moser's full page engravings of each poet add artistic beauty to this gem of a book."

Phil, of Small World Books, Venice, Calif., offers a concise verdict for Your Body Is Changing by Jack Pendarvis (MacAdam/Cage, $13, 9781596921917/1596921919): "Pretty hilarious stuff. Bizarre, contemptible and pitiful characters barely functioning in the jerkwater south."

At The Kaleidoscope: Our Focus Is You, Hampton, Iowa, Keri suggests My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin (Komenar, $24.95, 9780977208111/0977208117), calling it her favorite new book. "Li Hui, a modern young Chinese woman of marriageable age who has recently graduated from Xiamen University . . . struggles with finding love and acting with honor. . . . This original and insightful work is in the best traditions of classic novels that explore people caught in the crucible of change in complex cultures."

Katherine, a bookseller at Politics and Prose bookstore, Washington, D.C., offers her customers a peek into the future, recommending Earthquake (Turtle Point Press, $10, 9781933527116/1933527110), which will be published in September. "In this slim volume, Susan Barnes applies wonderfully lyrical prose to bring together seemingly disjointed childhood memories. Barnes' exploration of the relationships between nature and freedom, and between movement and restriction, is straightforward, beautifully written, and never sentimental."

Nothing to say to each other?

The reading tastes and handselling eloquence of booksellers like these help to keep the small press conversation alive online.