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Bringing Your Best Game Online

Shelf Awareness -- January 31, 2007

While I realize that last week's column could easily generate a book's--even a Borgesian library's--worth of "red cover" anecdotes, I'll restrain myself to just a few more observations, culled from recent bookseller emails about "the game."

Valerie Kohler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., says that in recent months, she has been giving a lot of thought to online searching as it relates to the game: "One of the downsides to the search engine offered through BookSense.com is that it is not particularly forgiving. But maybe we could have a place on the front page to click if a customer has a book mystery. It would take you to our e-mail with instructions (i.e. Did you see it on TV? Possible title?). We are definitely putting this idea on the talk-about sheet at our next weekly marketing meeting."

Finding a way to merge technology with bookseller instinct is the challenge. Koehler has always trained her staff to field title requests from customers with a healthy dose of well-masked skepticism. "When searching, use unique keywords," she advises. "Ask leading questions."

Assume they are a little confused. She cited a recent example. The customer was reading a great book and wanted copies for two friends. She described it as "a memoir with 'I Remember' in the title, in which a retired man is dying and telling his life story and he was a historian and he studied war and he lived on an island." Using these clues, Koehler "gently" enlightened the customer that she was actually reading Rules for Old Men Waiting, a novel. Result: pleased customer and two books sold.

I could go on. I shouldn't. How can I resist?

Susan Fox and her husband, Naftali Rottenstreich, opened Red Fox Books in Glens Falls, N.Y., last October. According to Susan, "People showed up on our first day with lists in their hands. They'd been waiting for us to open, so we really hit the ground running . . . lots of 'I read about this book, about a man . . . ' "

Some of her early favorites were a request for a Christmas book that "has Santa in it" and the person who was searching for "that book by the man who's going to be our next president."

Fox says her greatest success as a book detective thus far has been locating "a short story in a travel collection from a very cryptic description of 'I heard this guy on NPR.' But then again, I was stumped when someone else came in looking for 'the light blue book.' "

Marilyn Dahl, my colleague here at Shelf Awareness, recalls playing the game "usually with gusto" for many years. She contributes a variation on the theme, called "I know it's in paperback." This is a frequent customer demand for books that are at least 10 months shy of paperback status. Initial requests are delivered courteously enough, but when faced with--well, let's just call it what it is--reality, the customers' absolute certainty is quickly backed by evidence like "my mother has a copy" or "I saw it at Barnes & Noble" or "I saw it at Heathrow on my way back from Paris."

Dahl remembers the New Yorker cartoon in which a bookseller is shown tearing boards from a hardcover while saying to his customer, "You're right. It does come in paperback."

So, how can these labyrinthian debates, conversations, explorations, contradictions and ultimate solutions possibly occur online?

Valerie Kohler directed my attention to a recent article in Internet Retailer, which showcased a study of Web searches by online shoppers. According to the article, Inter-Engine researchers discovered that the "retail Web sites of major retail chains showed up in only 5% of holiday season 2006 Internet searches across 10 product categories, including digital cameras, iPods, plasma TVs and baby strollers . . . The study analyzed more than 2,000 results from searches conducted on the three leading search engines, Google, Yahoo and MSN. It found that the results directed online shoppers to online-only or independent multi-channel retailers six times more often than to major retail chains."

It sounds a lot like chaos, but could that also be opportunity I hear knocking?

I'll pose a question, even at the risk of sounding like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, staring at a mound of mashed potatoes and muttering, "This means something."

If search engines don't play the game as well as booksellers do, can booksellers find a way to bring their best game online?


Playing the Bookshop Memory Game Online

Shelf Awareness -- January 26, 2007

You must be able to play "the game" to work in a bookshop, and here's the first rule: When a customer has a specific title request, assume (but never let the customer know you assume) that the information provided is flawed. In any three-word title, at least one word will be incorrect; sometimes two; sometimes all three. I've heard titles that were close (Snow on Shingles for Snow Falling on Cedars) and not so close (Peggy Sue and the House of Hair for Patty Jane's House of Curl).

Decoding misinformation is not, however, a problem for a frontline bookseller; it's one of the pleasures. I was reminded of this once more last weekend, when a customer asked me to help find a book her daughter needed for school. She showed me a slip of paper, on which the "title" was written: Robert Fagles. The solution, reached with relative ease after a few questions, turned out to be the Fagles translation of The Iliad.

That's one way the game is played, though she probably could have found the answer eventually using an online bookstore search option.

But what happens when the request defies intellectual and digital gravity? Shortly before Christmas, I fielded a question from a man frantically scanning his scribbled list of gift suggestions for relatives.

"Do you have any books about Osama Barick," he asked.

I knew, even if he didn't yet, that he must be looking for Barack Obama's bestseller The Audacity of Hope. It was an easy leap of logic for me, but would that answer have come as simply online? A lot of time and money is invested in some very powerful search engines, but even high tech logic often meets its match when confronted with the low tech intangibles of consumer bewilderment and impatience.

What if the gentleman had looked for an answer to his relatively simple, if opaque, request at bookstore Web sites? I conducted a quick experiment to find out.

"Osama Barick" yielded no results at Amazon, Borders, Politics & Prose Bookstore, Powell's Books or Tattered Cover's BookSense.com site. Books about Osama Bin Laden came up as hits at Barnes & Noble and the Northshire Bookstore. Even almighty Google was puzzled by this request.

Perhaps the game, an integral part of bricks-and-mortar bookstore customer interaction, has no equivalent online.

There's a wonderful description of the game in Sheridan Hay's The Secret of Lost Things, which will be published in March. In the bookstore where much of the novel's action occurs, the staff is adept at a game called "Who Knows," loudly pooling their varied and idiosyncratic skills to answer unfathomable requests, such as a customer whose "hands might move apart, as if to say 'it's about this thick.' " Hay writes that "the only reliable source of reference was the staff and their collective memory."  

Memory coupled with well-honed instincts. Often, niceties like author or title won't even be part of a demand. Booksellers must decode clues like "a book I heard about on NPR last month" or "a book that was on display last week over there" or "a book with a red cover my friend bought here."

The "red cover" is a classic. George Orwell wrote about it in his 1936 essay, Bookshop Memories: "For example, the dear old lady who 'wants a book for an invalid' (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover."

What booksellers really do, on our own or with colleagues, is play tag-team mnemonics. Customers enter the store with raw materials, garnered from conversations, misremembered ads and half-heard radio interviews. They deliver the clues and want rapid, even magical, revelation of the title. They scatter beads across the counter and ask us to hand them back a necklace . . . immediately.

Do they have the same expectations online? I suspect they give up more quickly there.

If the game is being played well virtually, I'd love to know where and how. I've seen little evidence of it in my bookstore Web siteseeing travels. E-mail, listservs and search engines are useful tools, but they are not really the game.

Imagine a bookstore Web site where the game could be played with the ease and frequency of the sales floor version.


KOMENAR Publishing and Community, Part 2

Shelf Awareness -- January 18, 2007

Charlotte Cook portrays her efforts to launch and sustain KOMENAR Publishing as "my ironwoman experience," drawing upon "a huge catalogue of experience and expectations." She is also inspired by her favorite bookseller, husband Richard, owner of Sunrise Bookshop & Metaphysical Center in Berkeley, Calif. She describes him as a "cosmic bartender . . . people come in and tell him stories about their life, then instead of a drink he gives them a book. Sounds like a community bookseller to me."

Perhaps we're all in the cosmic bartender game, but how can one new, small publisher translate her particular experience, vision, and desire for community into national success?

It ain't easy.

"The book industry is an injured enterprise," says Charlotte. "Just the fact that so much is consignment business startles me. The bolstering cry that 'you can always return it' means that product choices can be only for the moment. And of course discounts to readers mean little room to cover costs and therefore stay in business . . . and suggest that a book's content or long-term value isn't worth full price."

Concerned that she will sound like "another whiny publisher," Charlotte insists that she is just "trying to figure this out. The alternative or small publisher is held suspect. I don't know why. I can say that our experience has led to the following joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from a small publisher. Now when you laugh--and it isn't an 'if,' is it?--it's because you identify with the chicken. But I don't. That reaction doesn't make sense to me."

Charlotte cites her experience with My Half of the Sky by Jan McBurney-Lin, which garnered an August 2006 Book Sense Pick, as symptomatic. "We rejoiced at our good fortune, then everything sort of stopped there. Instead of books going onto shelves and through the hands of booksellers into the grip of readers, we saw digital images of the art work show up as if books were within reach of a reader. But the title was only available by special order. The outcome: an increase of maybe 800 books with a quick set of sales. Nice, but booksellers within the Book Sense community were more passive than active, leaving us with a profound sense of disappointment, not only in sales but for all the work we have done to be part of the non-chain bookseller renaissance."

What had her expectations been? "We thought each Book Sense bookseller would carry a copy or two of the title and place the book in a prominent display. We thought that each bookseller would at least acquaint him- or herself with the title and why it received attention. We thought that books getting Book Sense attention would give us a bit of buzz. We thought more booksellers from outside the regional areas we targeted at trade shows would discover our book(s). Our smallest expectation also met with disappointment--that we had ended the need to prove we were not a subsidy publisher."

Building credibility one bookshop at a time is a hard road. One strategy KOMENAR employs is a Starter Kit, sending at least one complimentary copy of each title to booksellers. According to Charlotte, "The string attached is that, when those books sell, the bookseller places an order to replace them. We use the honor system, and it's a great deal for all. We've had good performance from this."

Charlotte believes that community building for small publishers must be multi-tiered. She calls the work of ABA and Book Sense "valuable and necessary," and is quick to point out "how grateful we are to these wonderful people," but stresses the absolutely critical role of regional associations, which "tackle issues of community all the time. They push and shove--in the nicest ways--issues of business practices, relationship, and competition out into the open. KOMENAR's staff has been critiqued and introduced, teased and soothed, and much more by some of those people and always with an eye for this publishing house and that bookseller to do better. We have never felt injured or patronized."

According to Charlotte, KOMENAR's strategy is to "push ahead, focusing on people who share our passion: reading compelling fiction." Following that path, she will continue to look the industry in the eye: "I question what I see. What I choose to question and how has often been taken as hard opinion. Not so. People who know me know that my expressions of frustration are me on my way to a solution or some humor." The stuff, perhaps, of dreams and community.


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.


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?