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'Ain't the State of Things Cloudy Enough?'

Shelf Awareness: Friday, October 19, 2007

On Monday afternoon, during my Amtrak trip north from Baltimore after NAIBA's Fall Conference, I found myself making--as I tend to do--a mildly absurd connection. Maybe it was the endless parade of telephone poles flicking past my window, but something caused me to equate the NAIBA Internet marketing panel I was part of last Sunday with a scene from the HBO-TV Western series Deadwood.

Al Swearengen, the irresistibly sleazy owner of the Gem Saloon, stands on the second-story porch of his establishment. Whiskey bottle in hand, he watches a group of men raise a telegraph pole on the outskirts of town.

"Messages from invisible sources," Al says scornfully, "or what some people think of as progress."  
One of his henchmen, the dim but lethal Dan Dority, suggests that the telegraph is just another form of communication, like smoke signals or letters. Al asks him when the last time was that he received a letter and Dan replies, "Bad news about Pa."

Al's case is made. Bad news, indeed. "So by all means, let's plant poles all across the country," he sneers. "Festoon the (expletive) with wires to hurry the sorry word and blinker our judgments of motive. Ain't the state of things cloudy enough? Don't we face enough (expletive) imponderables?"

Dan thinks about this for a moment, then replies, "Well, by god, Al, you give the word and them poles'll be kindling."

Kindling they did not become. In fact, almost 140 years later, telephone poles are still with us, flashing by my train window, carrying "messages from invisible sources."

Time was on my mind during the train ride Monday: the time that has passed since telegraph poles stretched out to the western frontier; the time that seems, in every age, to be shrinking even as we discover technological breakthroughs meant to make more efficent use of time.  

Our Internet marketing panel in Baltimore was led by Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, events coordinator at McNally Robinson NYC bookshop and author of the bookseller blog, The Written Nerd. It also included Felicia Sullivan, editor and publisher of the literary journal Small Spiral Notebook, senior online marketing manager at Collins and author of The Sky Isn't Visible from Here, which will be published by Algonquin in February 2008.

Jessica and I had been on a similar panel at NEIBA in Providence, R.I., which I wrote about in an earlier column. For our part, we again showcased several favorite bookstore websites, as well as bookstore blogs like Atomic Books, Kash's Book Corner and Brookline Blogsmith.

Felicia offered a guided tour of popular social networking sites that should be of interest to booksellers, like Gather, FaceBook and MySpace. She also provided a list of book-related sites (LitMinds and Gather Essentials, for example), as well as age- and subject-specific sites such as blogher.org (women), gaiaonline.com (teens) and eons.com (boomers).

During our conversation with the audience, the subject of time came up more than once, especially time management as the key impediment to engaging more creatively with Web 2.0 opportunities.

If everyone is already working at full tilt, how can they incorporate online marketing into the mix? Where in the course of their busy days will they find time to blog, to update website staff picks, to send out email newsletters, to check and fulfill online orders?

After the panel, one bookseller said that she already works a brutal schedule and cannot find good help to delegate any of these tasks to. She had no interest in establishing an online presence. Like Al Swearengen, she might have, but didn't, ask, "Ain't the state of things cloudy enough? Don't we face enough (expletive) imponderables?"

A hundred trade show panels won't answer these questions because there will never be enough time--nor a sufficient number of qualified, motivated staff members--to do everything that needs to be done.

But there never has been enough time. When booksellers were slipping index cards between the pages of books for inventory control, there wasn't enough time. What were you doing with all your extra time before you had to answer emails and cell phone calls all day? 

We find time where we've always found time, in its mysterious expandability.

Booksellers will not gain by resisting the Internet, any more than turning a handful of telegraph poles into kindling would have stopped the future from reaching Deadwood.

In 1866, Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, "I think the habit of writing by telegraph will have a happy effect on all writing by teaching condensation."

Perspective is everything in this discussion.



Dog Ears Books Takes a New Path

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, October 11, 2007

In response to last week's column about the NEIBA panel on bookselling in a digital world, Pamela Grath, owner of Dog Ears Books, Northport, Mich., emailed me ("taking a new path" was her subject line) to share her early experiences with a bookstore blog she started in September: "Not sure where the blog will take me, but it's fun so far. Unlike the more formal web page, the blog invites meandering. It is my intention to have them complement one another, both adding something different to and supporting the bookstore."  

Whenever the subject of bookstore blogs comes up, certain questions get asked every time. Why bother? Who will read it? Who has time? Will it sell books? There are many more, of course, so when a bookseller does commit to blogging, we can't resist asking a few of questions of our own.

Pamela Grath opened Dog Ears Books in 1993 as a used bookstore, though her inventory now includes about 20% new titles. Her blog, Books in Northport, is a mere pup by comparison.

Why bother?

According to Grath, "I started the blog because many of my best bookstore customers are from St. Louis, Chicago, Ann Arbor, etc. They get to Northport only once or, at best, a few times a year, but love my bookstore and Northport. The blog seemed like a space where we might continue our conversations even when friends were far away. Posting entries on a blog also seemed more sensible than writing different versions of the same e-mail to half a dozen people and still leaving out others who would have enjoyed the exchange."

She added that essay-style topics "are always simmering in my head, many related to books and bookselling, many others related to life Up North. I liked the idea of staying in touch with people and letting them know what's going on at Dog Ears Books, in Northport, in my life, and in my mind. Also, living in a beautiful place means no end of photographic subjects to share, along with all the new and old books that come to my attention every week of the year. Tying these threads together struck me as an interesting challenge."

Grath's readers thus far have been enthusiastic in their e-mail responses, though few register a password so they can leave comments. She promotes the blog where she can. "To attract new readers, I've included the blog address on bookmarks I give to store customers. There's a link from my bookstore website, too, and our local Chamber of Commerce put both links on their site, since I'm a dues-paying business member."

She wants to keep the Dog Ears Books website "clean and easily to navigate." It was designed to offer an introduction for customers who've never been to the region as well as "a point of reference for established customers, especially those interested in out-of-print books on particular subjects (e.g., Michigan and the Great Lakes )."

The blog, however, offers an alternative form of communication. "With the blog, my focus can be as wide as I choose. A little philosophical creativity can connect any two topics in the world. Just as conversations with customers in the store range far and wide, beginning from a simple point of reference, so can blog postings and comments. That aspect appeals to me greatly."

Grath views her blog postings as an "introduction to the conversational life of the bookstore and the town, beginning with my musings on various books and subjects. Both are ways to visit the bookstore from afar. There are places I love and visit via the Internet, and I know there are people who feel that way about Northport, Michigan, and Dog Ears Books. Northport is a seasonal economy (orchards and tourism), and finding ways to extend that season is important."

Although it is much too soon to predict what sort of impact the blog will have, Grath is excited about the experiment because "I have some very loyal customers, and I know that building loyalty and community are vital to the survival of bookstores."

Like most Internet tools currently available, bookstore blogs are only as good as the booksellers who create them. Ultimately, it still comes down to motivation and execution--a familiar, even old-fashioned combo platter in this industry.

And Grath's motivation is clear: "'You're living my dream!' people exclaim with envy. There are a lot of sacrifices involved, as you know. But this isn't a job; it's a calling. My bookstore is my world, my way of life."



Decision: 'If There's Me, There Must Be Others'

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, October 4, 2007

More than half a century ago, Thomas Merton wrote, "We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest."

I was thinking about Merton last weekend while at the New England Independent Booksellers Association Trade Show in Providence, R.I. I stayed at the Westin Hotel, which is connected on one side to the Rhode Island Convention Center and on the other to the Providence Place Mall, a multi-level, 170-store tribute to sensory overload that is described on its website as "the ideal venue for tour de force shopping excursions."

The NEIBA trade show, by contrast, seemed an utterly civilized alternate universe. People were having quiet conversations about books. There was "product" on display, but it would have been a stretch to call what was happening there a calculated plan to "excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension." It was downright bookish. Words mattered.

At the Friday author breakfast, novelist Tom Perrotta said, "I like to work in microcosm." And legendary Knopf editor Judith Jones shared her at once simple and complex decision-making process decades ago when she acquired Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking: "If there's me, there must be others. And that is the hunch editors go on anyway."

It is the hunch we all go on. Bookstore owners, buyers, events coordinators and frontline booksellers also work in microcosm, taking the deluge of information coming their way and fashioning from it the tighter personal narratives of business plans, orders, events schedules, handsells. At the NEIBA show, these professional readers studied the titles on display, searching for the books that might cause them to think, "If there's me, there must be others."

On Friday afternoon, I was on a panel, "Doing Digital Right," moderated by Len Vlahos, ABA's director of education and director of Booksense.com. Joining us were Heather Gain, Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, McNally Robinson NYC, New York, N.Y.

We discussed bookstore blogs and email newsletters, MySpace and Facebook, Shelfari and LibraryThing and much more. We talked about investing precious time in Web marketing, about trusting staff and about the act of faith involved in working with online strategies that might not pay obvious, immediate benefits. We spoke, as we all often speak, of using the Web to enhance a bookstore's inherent strengths.

Jessica, whose personal blog about bookselling, The Written Nerd, has been thriving for years, shared her thoughts on in-store and out-of-store blogging. "It's just another way of doing the things we do well," she said.  

Heather explained how Myspace and Facebook are playing an increasingly important role in opening lines of communication between bookstores and patrons, particularly younger readers, and how Harvard Book Store's MySpace site encourages connection with the large student population in the Cambridge area.

Ultimately, what we talked about was giving bookstores an online voice.

When Judith Jones said, "If there's me, there must be others," a little lightbulb shined for a moment over my head. If you were at the author breakfast, you may have noticed it.

I thought about how I choose the next book I'm going to read, a ceremony that has a lot to do with "voice." In the first few pages of a book, I consider two important questions: Is this is a special place? Do I want to stay here for awhile.

If there's me . . .

During our panel, Len Vlahos discussed the concept of Web 2.0, and the participatory nature of online life now, the ongoing conversations with unlimited potential. "I think people are looking for a blend of professional and amateur information," he said.

There are so many ways to accomplish this, and most of them do look like conversations. When I highlighted some bookstore websites during the panel--destinations like breathe books, Beauty and the Book and Wordsmiths--I was trying to show that the conversation already works well for some bookshops.

Doing digital right is not necessarily doing digital expensively or complexly. Doing digital right is showcasing your bookstore's voice online, and trusting that if there is you, there must be others.



Linda Urban 'Breaks On Through' With Novel

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, September 27, 2007

Are all booksellers writers? Not quite, though it often feels like most of my colleagues are "working on a book." So, when a bookseller finally does "break on through to the other side," it's a noteworthy event.

Linda Urban, former marketing director at Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., is the author of A Crooked Kind of Perfect (Harcourt, $16, 9780152060077/0152060073), a middle-reader novel about 11-year-old Zoe Elias, who dreams of playing piano at Carnegie Hall (see Shelf Awareness review, August 2, 2007).

How do you get to Carnegie Hall (or even to writing a novel about wanting to get to Carnegie Hall)?

Read, write and rewrite.

According to Michigan-born Urban, it all began when she read Little Women at nine and decided to become Jo March. "Jo, you may remember, wrote in her freezing cold attic, so I dragged a card table and a folding chair into the unfinished room above our garage. There I wrote long stories in which nothing much ever happened."
Becoming a writer was not an option for her then. "I loved writing when I was a kid, but never really considered creative writing as a career path. My parents raised me to be more practical than that, and when my dad died while I was still in high school, I clung to that practicality."

At Wayne State University, she focused on journalism and advertising, earned her Master's in English, and then moved west to study film and television critical theory at UCLA. She also began working at Vroman's "and discovered that bookselling was a lot more fun than writing my dissertation. In fact, it was more fun than any other job I had ever had. I was hooked."

Her writing life was still on hold. Urban's father had died at 40, and she believed that she would die by the time she was 36. "I turned 37 and was suddenly struck by what a gift that was. It gave me the courage to try something highly impractical. Despite the fact that I was still working and now raising a child, I decided to try writing again. I got up every morning and wrote for an hour before going to work."

She submitted picture book manuscripts to publishers "and received rejections--but nice ones, with encouragements to send more things. That was enough to keep me setting the alarm clock."
Her first sale, Mouse Was Mad, "is currently being illustrated by Henry Cole and is scheduled for release by Harcourt in the spring of 2009. I had a two year old when I wrote it and--surprise!--the book is about tantrums."

A Crooked Kind of Perfect was also conceived as a picture book, but Jeannette Larson, her editor at Harcourt, "encouraged me to try it as a novel. It took a year or so of thinking about it--during which time, I moved cross country [to Vermont] and had another baby--before I gave it a shot. Once I started writing, the book came pretty quickly."

Urban believes her experience as a bookseller has been an asset. "Vroman's was my MFA. I read more while I worked there than I ever did in real graduate school and I had to process more of what I read, too, so that I could talk about it intelligently with customers and colleagues. I heard thousands of authors read from their work and talk about their process. For nine years, I hosted a summer writer's workshop series on Saturday mornings. Writers, agents, illustrators, and editors all came to give hour-long workshops to aspiring authors. Secretly, I took notes."
She also suggests that authors should know more about the marketing process. "I'm anti-ignorance. Ignorance is expensive. When I was at Vroman's, I opened tons of mail from authors who were trying to promote their books. Many of them mass-mailed generic notes with boring press releases attached, or they spent lots of money to have toothbrushes or napkin rings imprinted with the title of their book, or four years after publication they were requesting a signing at 'Vermin's Bookstore.' I knew not to do those things."

Urban places great faith in her bookselling roots. "Booksellers are some of the kindest, most friendly, most encouraging folks on the planet. They are my people, you know? It is weird to be on the other side of the desk, though. I'm always wanting to straighten the stacks and answer customer inquiries. I can't seem to help myself. I go into a bookstore and invariably handsell somebody else's novel."



'Everything Is Going In Our Direction'

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, September 20

For the past two weeks, BookSite's Dick Harte has been sharing his thoughts regarding the many opportunities available for booksellers online. We'll conclude the series with a brief history lesson and a message of techno-grassroots hope from Mr. Harte.

An early, text-based model of BookSite was born in 1994 as the online version of Rutherford's Book Shoppe, Delaware, Ohio. "The real creator of the online bookstore, Charlie Stack, wasn’t even a bookseller. He was an ISP who created the store to give his staff something to do during slack times. He was very helpful to me, and much of what I started on the Web was modeled after his text-based version. I found it strange he would help a potential competitor get started, but he said it was more important to get services into the marketplace to attract a large audience, and he was right. Amazon came in 1995 with a different attitude and three very important strategies: customer focus, barriers of entry and branding. They invested $2 billion in building their brand and customer base before making a dime. They scared away anyone who might consider making a profit and created an excellent, very expensive platform booksellers could not hope to duplicate on their own."

By 1996, however, Harte "had already invested heavily in the BookSite platform and had no intention of throwing it away. I decided on a strategy to overcome two barriers with one stroke by tweaking the platform to share the cost with other indies that had their own local established brand. Thus booksellers could avoid both the cost of the technology and that $100 per new customer by keeping focused on their established market."

Harte calls this time a period of implementation. "I was one of the first advertisers on Yahoo," he says, "and bought the word 'book' and its derivatives so my banner would show up at the top of any of those searches. Sales skyrocketed and I had a global clientele overnight, selling in 65 countries. My losses were skyrocketing as well."

As the Millennium, as well as the "Dark Ages of the Internet Bubble," approached, "The flim-flam folks had a field day," Harte says. "There was no economic or retail basis for decision making. Everything was geared to get a piece of the action, not take care of business. These were scary days for the independents, who were stuck with a set of economic rules built over the centuries (like make a profit), while having to compete with Amazon and BN.com, who were being rewarded by Wall Street for losing a dollar for every dollar of sales."

Then, around 2002, what he calls the "Google Enlightenment" era dawned and provided the catalyst for two important changes. "'The establishment' was starting to 'get it' and Google attracted tens of millions of normal folks to the Internet. Corporate America was investing heavily and wisely in the technology for marketing and advertising power but was still blind to the bottom-up culture that is part of the process. Google, on the other hand, saw it all, with communication channels evolving toward communities and one-on-one contact instead of mass marketing."

All of which led to the "unwired" era," according to Harte. "Call it what you may--Web 2.0, RSS, XML, Blogs, Pods, or social networking--it is coming (to some extent already here) with three attributes that bode well for savvy indies: mobility, miniaturization, and personalization. The iPhone epitomizes this wave. Indies can take their stores with them, customers can carry their favorite stores around in their pocket, and publishers can pass through their promotions all the way to the consumer.

"The store website is being replaced with hundreds or thousands of customer web pages containing selected content from the store (if we are lucky) and scores of other sources. The new unwired environment will continue to morph from e-newsletters, with websites being the invisible workhorse behind the scenes."

Now, Harte believes, "Everything is going in our direction. There are many tools available for booksellers looking to enhance their websites, including podcasts and blogs, but like the environment of 1994--when we were faced with the new and yet to be popular Web versus an established, large text-based platform, success will be determined by how we adapt to the future. All the tools are affordable, easier than most indies realize, support what indies do best--personalized service--and will be significantly more popular five years from now."