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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."


The Dump Truck and the Motorcycle

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Last week, BookSite's Dick Harte posed--and answered--a central question for booksellers who want to unlock the secrets of bookstore website success. At the risk of redundancy, I'll ask the question once more and call it Harte's litany.

What is the single most important thing needed for a successful bookstore website?
It's the store.

When you follow a provocative question with a "simple" answer, inquiring minds will inevitably demand a follow-up query. Harte anticipates them: "If the answer is 'the store,' then what is it you want to get out of the Internet? Why bother? Most booksellers don't need anything unless they can answer the question, 'Why bother?'"

"Because it's there" would be too obvious a response. Focus is necessary. There are myriad opportunities for communication and personalization online. Harte suggests that certain bookstore website ingredients are key:

  1. Clear branding, location, hours, etc.--Yellow Pages stuff.
  2. Events
  3. Focus on "exclusive" unique local items, not just books. One of the things that makes college bookstore websites so successful is the insignia merchandise they sell that is unique to the site. So add local items to your promotions.
  4. Easy to use Search with in-store inventory featured
  5. Personality--emphasize people, staff and customers to get the identity of the store and community through
  6. Integrated newsletters
  7. Brevity and simplicity
  8. Co-marketing with fellow retailers
  9. In-store pick-up/two-way communication (remember iPhone)
  10. Fun stuff

"If you want to reach your customers, you need to look downstream, not upstream," he says, "and communicate directly with your customers. What is the most successful thing you can do that's going to make it work? What is your relationship with the customer?"

He cites creative and coordinated use of e-newsletters as a prime example, noting that a bookstore's website and newsletter should work hand-in-hand. "The granddaddy of Internet marketing tools is the e-mail. I believe something like 96% of Internet users have used e-mail and less than 15% any of other services [blogs, podcasting, etc.]. Not having your newsletter tie into your website is a mistake. A website is like a dump truck and a newsletter is like a motorcycle. It can't carry much, but it darts here and there, delivering your message."

That mobility can, and should, also draw customers back to a bookstore's website, particularly if the newsletter is taking advantage of one of the best, and least expensive, tools available, the hyperlink.

"Imagine sending out a newsletter with no links," Harte says, and I can hear the perplexity in his tone of voice. He doesn't have to imagine such a thing. He's seen it--too often--and so have I. And so have you.

In other words, not all e-newsletters are created equal. According to Harte, "What BookSite, Amazon and BN.com do is deliver a live e-newsletter, while most indies seem tied to the dead newsletter approach. Here is where indies have a big competitive advantage that most are ignoring. I believe the local audience is looking for only two things from their newsletters: interesting local news in the form of activities, sales and recommendations from the store; and an easy way to act on it, namely order buttons and integrated store pick-up opportunities of the items presented. The national chains don't do the former very well, and the indies don't do the latter. The group that tackles both is sure to win this inning."

Questions arise. I ask Harte what an indie bookseller should be minimally attempting online if time and finances are limited.

"I have yet to find an indie where time and finances aren't the issue," he replies, "so it is important for everyone to be prudent with their resources. The cost shouldn't be an issue as the Internet is the most economical marketing and promotional tool available to indies. Internet marketing can be 'free.' A smaller store (with sales of less than $200,000) can make a good Internet marketing program with a simple e-newsletter using their e-mail address book that wouldn't cost them anything out-of-pocket. BookSite clients tend to be marketing-oriented and have a need for tools to make their staff more productive with their time. They appreciate the impact of providing 'live' e-newsletters to keep their audience. But even this full-service approach only costs $150-$300 a month, which is less than most stores would pay for a typical single-day, four column inch ad in the local paper."

Next week, we conclude this series with a few precedents and predictions. "Everything is going in our direction," Harte says, and he'll tell you why.



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.