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Thursday
Jan112007

New Island Community for Readers Like 'You'

Shelf Awareness -- January 10, 2007

First, let me offer my belated congratulations to You for being named Time magazine's Person of the Year. You deserve it. You outdid yourself online in 2006, turning remote islands like YouTube, MySpace and Wikipedia into virtual continents. You even went literal with the island metaphor by moving to Second Life and recreating Yourself in Your own image.

Second person singular is always in caps in YourWorld, and 2007 looks even brighter for You. One small question remains for us, however: Will the publishing industry survive the age of You? As booksellers, our (lower case) heads can't help but spin. Dare we "close the books" on 2006? Will anyone open them again?

Book communities continue to develop online in any number of interesting ways, but the odds of building a book-focused Web site that becomes a YouTube or MySpace are probably equivalent to those of buying a lottery ticket with your morning coffee and winning $20 million (disclaimer: all estimates calculated by former English major and thus subject to professional derision).

If we build it, will You come?

If we don't, will You even notice?

As I read the hype about Time magazine's Year of You, I was also having an extended e-mail conversation with Charlotte Cook, president of Komenar Publishing, a small house whose second title, My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin, garnered a Book Sense Pick last year from Keri Holmes of the Kaleidescope bookstore in Hampton, Iowa.

We discussed at length the online as well as offline world of books, and the word "community" kept surfacing in various contexts. I'll share some of her thoughts with you in the next two columns here, but we are also joining Charlotte for the soft launch this week of the Habitual Reader, a new online community.

"Our idealism strikes again!" Charlotte says. "Nick Ponticello, our manager of operations, has pointed out that the hottest Web sites are those that create community. We want the Habitual Reader Web site to give voice to those among us who spend $$$$ every month on books and then actually read those books. The centerpiece of the site will be Profiles of Habitual Readers with suggested reading lists; a Jeff Foxworthy-like contest about who is a Habitual Reader; Homegrown Reviews; Survivor: Book Island; a list of Once Was Enough titles; and even a 'nominate your favorite bookseller' option."

Charlotte came to publishing after working in a variety of fields, including "libraries, bookstores, large retail operations (worker bee to management) and high tech (small and large companies)." She can expound upon the wonders of literary fiction as well as the lures and pitfalls of technophilia: "When I was in high tech, I learned two things: 1) There's bleeding edge, leading edge and ridiculous. Ridiculous was being high on the technology but forgetting what your business was. We also called it 'rapture of the deep'; 2) Every technology takes several introductions to find its true value in the marketplace."

Her husband, Richard, owns Sunrise Bookshop & Metaphysical Center in Berkeley, Calif. "We started Sunrise more than 30 years ago," Charlotte says, "and have been part of the independent booksellers' world this whole time. We have supported all things for indies and are longtime members of NCIBA."

Sunrise does not have a Web site. According to Richard, "We have on several occasions begun a Web site for the bookstore, but it requires a good deal of work, ongoing attention and commitment, and so far little evidence that it would repay such effort. My thoughts are subject to change on this issue."

Despite her interest in online experimentation and community building, Charlotte concurs with her husband's resistance to online retailing. Komenar Publishing does not sell books on its Web site: "We staunchly believe in community bookstores. I buy on the Web only when I know exactly what I want and can't find it locally. What the Web does is provide us with a much cheaper venue for realizing marketing and publicity needs."  

The Habitual Reader goes live this week as a work in progress with limited content but unlimited hopes.

Will You join this particular book community? Anything is possible, but everything is worth a shot.

Check in next week for an update as well as some of Charlotte's thoughts about living the life of a small publisher in a world where the stakes are anything but virtual.

Tuesday
Jan092007

Perception Is Nine-Tenths of the Law Online

Shelf Awareness -- January 3, 2007

What are you optimistic about? Why?

This is the "Edge Annual Question--2007" (well, two questions, but who's counting?). If you visit the Edge World Question Center, you will find 160 responses from "a who's who of interesting and important world-class thinkers." Select Walter Isaacson and you will learn something about the gentle art of reverse psychology as he turns current paranoia regarding publishing's future into a mischievous fable.

"I am very optimistic about print as a technology," says Isaacson. "Words on paper are a wonderful information storage, retrieval, distribution, and consumer product. . . . Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 400 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures onto pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the Internet."

In my first column for Shelf Awareness last June, I began with a simple statement that was deliberately provocative: "Most independent bookstore Web sites are a waste of time and money, and about as useful as a weathered motel on an abandoned highway." I didn't necessarily believe that, and said as much in the following paragraph. Now, however, I might add that I've found some of those weathered motels to be more effective than their neon-lit competitors.

In 2006, I visited and revisited most bookstore Web sites in the U.S., looking for tips, tactics and trouble. As 2007 begins, I'm less inclined to make overriding statements about the relative profitability or futility of indies online. Like Mr. Isaacson, I've found that perception matters; that any story about bookstores must include plot twists like individual expectations, resources and priorities.

So if I were asked "What are you optimistic about?" in terms of online indie bookselling for 2007, I would cite the range of online experimentation I've encountered rather than the quantity or quality of sites overall. I'm optimistic about the energy and thought that so many booksellers put into their sites. And I'm especially optimistic about the adaptability of booksellers who set sail online and, if their initial voyage isn't a success, try another route rather than abandoning ship.

In that regard, I was thinking this week about a particular bookshop that adapted by simplifying rather than giving up.  

Last summer, as I prepared to attend the MPIBA trade show in Denver, I communicated with Nicole Magistro of the Bookworm of Edwards in Edwards, Colo., who had recently confronted the maddening puzzle of what sufficient "online presence" should mean for her particular situation.

Bookworm had been a BookSense.com store, but Magistro opted for a simpler template with more modest goals: "We do not sell books through our current site, and it is much cheaper to run/maintain than a BookSense site. Right now we pay about $10 per month. I would love to find a way to sell more stock online, but of course that requires savvy staff to maintain it. If you are a bookseller with a small staff and a brick and mortar store, there is not much time to devote to it at all."  

Although Amazon was "far and away our biggest competitor," Magistro felt that when her customers did shop online, discount was the primary reason and that was an area where she could not compete. On the other hand, she was optimistic about the growth of traffic at her new site, due largely to increased e-mail marketing campaigns. I've heard from many booksellers that direct e-mail communication has proven to be a successful way to generate more Web site hits.

That makes sense. E-mails tell your customers stories about your bookstore, and we're in the business of selling stories for a living. If perception is nine-tenths of the law online, then maybe Walter Isaacson's print culture fable hints at a potent tool for online retail survival. Can we tell stories that sell stories?

In 2007, I'll look for stories about bookstore Internet marketing techniques. Some of these will be fresh tales you've never heard before, while others will be classics with a new twist.

I'll find happy endings where I can.  

What are you optimistic about in terms of online bookselling in 2007?

Saturday
Dec232006

Reading & the 'True Spirit' of the Holidays

Shelf Awareness -- December 21, 2006

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

I think the idea for this final column of 2006 occurred to me sometime last week at the bookstore, as I gift-wrapped yet another copy of the new CD by controversial singer/songwriter Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens). The ecumenical irony of this particular Christmas present was hard to ignore. Did it signify a coming together of disparate faiths and political ideologies in the true spirit of the season or was it simply consumer obliviousness? I'm still not sure, and I'm afraid to ask.

The search for the "true spirit" of the holiday season is not an easy task, and is perhaps made even more complicated because the reader in me tends to identify with the boy by the feeble fire, while the person whose livelihood depends upon selling books can't help feeling just a little sympathy for old Ebenezer counting out his coins.

As a longtime bookseller, I've grown accustomed to experiencing the holiday season as an ongoing drama of comparing daily sales figures to last year's numbers and obsessing over re-ordering strategies.

This is at once an exhilarating and intimidating time of the year. Some days "bah, humbug" doesn't seem like an overreaction to unpredictable weather, late deliveries or demanding customers. Wise and prescient ghosts of past, present and future seldom visit us with neat, plot twisting solutions to our multilayered dilemmas.

So how do we remember in such times that this mad world we've chosen to live and work in is still primarily about something as simple and complex as putting the right words together so that someone will read them?

When I was a kid, the words "true spirit of Christmas" were wrapped up beautifully in the stories I read and heard, stories from Dickens as well as the nuns at school. These tales reminded urchins like me that the holidays were about more than tinsel and toys, and I suspect I will always feel an emotional tug for young Scrooge reading by the feeble fire as well as Nativity scenes. I'm sure you have your own variations on that theme.

And if you are reading these words, chances are that you read as I read, to sift the world's cacophony into understandable (on good days, at least) measures.

We read to live. We read to find our way in the world. We read this time of year to encounter, if we can, the true spirit of the holiday season. That spirit is not always apparent, nor where you'd think it might be. For example, I found it this week while reading in unexpected places. Why these small gems brought the holiday spirit to me I'm not sure, but somehow reading them mattered:

I read about the Iraqi soccer team (a 20-man squad that includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds) winning a Silver Medal at the Asian games in Qatar last weekend.

I read that Beliefnet, a comprehensive Web site exploring a multitude of faiths, named the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., as its Most Inspiring Person of 2006.

I read this in Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal for Christmas day, 1839: "All life is a compromise. We are haunted by an ambition of a celestial greatness and baulked of it by all manner of paltry impediments."  

I found some of the true spirit in this NASA photo of shuttle astronauts dangling precariously in the air high above the big blue marble, "haunted by an ambition of a celestial greatness."

My wish is that you find the true spirit this holiday season, too, wherever you happen to read it.

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

The capital letters and the exclamation point belong to that old rascal Mr. Dickens. Feel free to edit and paraphrase to suit your own needs and beliefs.

I wish you great reading in 2007

Tuesday
Dec122006

Searching for Virtual Holiday Spirit

Shelf Awareness -- December 12, 2006

I wanted to be in a proper seasonal mood, but since I hadn't attained pure retail bliss yet, I sought further inspiration with a little bookstore Web site window shopping.

My holiday quest was inspired by a few recent non-virtual experiences, including the sudden appearance of a 12-ft. high, fully illuminated inflatable snowman, tethered to the snowless front lawn of a house nearby. Vermont strives for, and occasionally attains, a Currier & Ives print effect this time of year, but we can fall decidedly short of that goal now and then. A Michelin Man Christmas doesn't help the cause.

Another bit of inspiration came during my recent trip to New York, where, in a single day, I visited the elegant Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, heard a concert by the Tallis Scholars (16th century polyphony) at St. Thomas Church on 53rd and Fifth Avenue, and then counterbalanced this with an evening stroll down to Rockefeller Center--dazzling lights, loud music, boisterous crowds as well as the addition, like excess spice to mulled cider, of seasonal offerings by street musicians like one musically challenged trumpeter, who wrenched Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas note by painful note out of his battered horn.

The weird and wonderful mood created by this assortment of ingredients dropped into the holiday blender made me wonder what might be happening online. So, like Santa on Christmas Eve, I decided to make a whirlwind Yuletide tour of bookstore Web sites.

I quickly discovered that far too many bookshops had chosen to Scrooge out of the season, but there was enough digital decorating going on to merit attention. Here's a sampling:

Independent bookstores are often located in beautiful buildings. Town House Books and the Book Vault took advantage of their visual advantage by altering home page photographs to reflect the season.  

Despite annual news reports about "the Christmas wars" and our increasing reliance upon "Happy Holidays" to cover all of the seasonal bases, Bookland's site found a simple and inclusive way to acknowledge diversity.

There are numerous book donation efforts going on this time of year, almost all of them for children, and an amazing number are called "book angel" programs. This is either a sign that angels have transcended the Christmas wars or that some images are just too strong to be ignored or diluted. In any case, book donations are always a good idea, and this year Anderson's Bookshop, Politics & Prose Bookstore, Russo's Books and Tattered Cover Book Store were among indies offering variations on the theme.  

Holiday catalogues are a bookstore staple. Few things warm a bookseller's heart more than hearing the words, "I saw this book in your catalogue," except perhaps when they are followed by, "I'd like 10 copies." Many bookstores posted their catalogues online, including Brookline Booksmith, Elliott Bay Book Company, McLean & Eakin Booksellers and R.J. Julia. An appropriately homicidal shopping guide was up for Murder By the Book (Can you say "slay ride," boys and girls?).

Special deals turned up here and there. The Regulator Bookshop gave customers a $5 gift card with online orders over $40; Powell's offered a 30% discount on its holiday catalogue titles; and Harvard Book Store's "Holiday Hundred" were discounted 20%. Baker Books offered staff picks as well as a link to the NEIBA catalogue. Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops had a nice charity/catalogue combo on its home page and the Northshire Bookstore used its e-mail newsletter to highlight book recommendations, Book Angel donations and a holiday message to the community.

Such messages of peace, good cheer, and customer appreciation are a holiday tradition. I found them posted at bookstores nationwide, including Cornerstone Books, Port in a Storm Bookstore, the Reader's Loft and Liberty Bay Books. And I loved the announcement of a children's event at Bound to Read and community events at Pass Christian Books.

My virtual sleigh ride made me aware of what Santa calls the "naughty and nice factor." Athough mine was a random and limited sampling, what struck me most was how many bookstore Web sites completely ignored the online marketing option during this most important season of their business year. (Should I mention the site that is still announcing its "new summer hours"?)

I think Emerson Lake, & Palmer addressed the subject best in the song, "I Believe in Father Christmas":

Hallelujah Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.

Tuesday
Nov282006

Black Friday 'Based on a True Story'

Shelf Awareness -- November 28, 2006

Take a deep breath. Black Friday weekend is over and now the plot thickens. You already know the story because it doesn't really change much from year to year: consumer mob scenes, absurd discounts on "limited quantities," stock shortages, crashing superstore Web sites and 24/7 coverage of this peculiar cross between the Oklahoma Land Rush and shark attacks.

For the 15th straight year, I worked the sales floor at Northshire Bookstore during this extremely busy (though seldom busiest, despite the media hype) shopping day.

On a national scale, Black Friday is always what it pretends to be, influencing consumer behavior the way The Da Vinci Code manipulates religious prejudice by suggesting that it's all "based on a true story." That this happens only a day after the annual debut of Santa Claus in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade should be a clue that we love to have our myths shaken and stirred.

Civilization in decline? Full contact consumerism in ascendance?

What's a poor bookseller to do?

Sell books.

What was it like at the last three feet for this bookseller on Black Friday? It was something like this:

  • Busy. Not at first, though gradually the crowds thickened. Had they attacked the malls first? They weren't saying. If you've never faced, from the business end of a cash register, onrushing waves of book/toy/CD/DVD/tchotchke-laden customers, I can say only that it is an amazing sight to behold.
  • Relatively civilized. Both customers and staff behaved themselves admirably under pressure. Even at its busiest, the bookstore retains its status as a peaceable refuge, especially when compared to the dozens of amateur films now posted on Google Video that document retail mayhem nationwide. In the press, my favorite headlines this year included "Attention, Early Holiday Shoppers: We Have a Fisticuffs Special in Aisle 2" (New York Times), "Teens Charged with Setting off acid bombs in Wal-Mart" (CNN.com) and "Crime-wise, 'Black Friday' was quieter than most" (Flint [Mich.] Journal).
  • Twice during the day I rang out customers who paid for their substantial purchases with "enemy" credit cards (one from Borders and one from Amazon). I don't know why I find this both amusing and worrisome, but I do.
  • The buzziest book of the day was the one that didn't get published (O.J. Simpson's If I Did It, heretofore known as If We'd Sold It). I had more conversations with customers about this non-starter than about any other title.  
  • A conservative estimate of cell phone use as part of gift buying strategy would now approach the 90th percentile. Patrons were on their cells relentlessly, contacting one another in town or in the store (it's a big bookstore). I've noticed that cells have revolutionized one classic challenge for booksellers. Many customers used to begin a conversation with me by asking a variation of the question, "My [insert relative's name here] sent me to get a book that was reviewed by [insert NPR, New York Times, etc. here], but I can't remember the title." Now a quick phone call home often pre-empts the thrill of the chase for frontline booksellers.  
  • One predictable aspect of Black Friday's litany that never changes at the bookstore is the number of times someone says, "I can't believe I'm shopping today." Black Friday is postmodern consumerism, in that the characters (customers) are not only aware of their role in the plot, but also conveniently provide exegesis.  
  • The art of handselling changes at this time of year. Conversations tend to edge away from "I'm looking for a great read" and move toward "I need a book for my father/mother/brother/uncle, etc." When people buy a book for themselves, they often feel guilty and confess at point of sale. Booksellers conveniently absolve them as part of good customer service.  
  • About gift wrapping, I will say only that books are easy and three-foot-high stuffed penguins are hard.  
  • Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this post-holiday retail holy day is that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore can be part of the action, too, and that books can be quietly handsold in the swarm of bodies and cacophony of voices. While none of this happens at Sony Playstation 3/Nintendo Wii/T.M.X. Elmo levels of hysteria, it is intense enough.
And now all we have to do as an industry is to hold our collective breaths while we wait for the season's happy ending. After all, it's fiction, right?--