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Thursday
Jun042009

A Few Words About BEA--Part 1

Let it be recorded that Friday, May 29, at 8:59 a.m., a bookseller complained on Twitter about the meager food selection at the BEA Book and Author Breakfast, thus fulfilling one of my prophecies from last week's column, Seen & Heard at BEA: The Preview Edition. I wasn't keeping score during the rest of the weekend, but I suspect that, at one time or another, most of the predictions had their moments, too.

I feel like I've read a zillion words this week about BookExpo America 2009. When combined with my own observations and conversations there, I come away with decidedly mixed impressions about the show and the future of the book trade. A trio of disparate visual images partly sums up my reaction:

  • A cartoon of a man in a flowing robe on a city street (in New York, let's say), holding a sign that reads, "The end of the book is near."
  • An ostrich with a book clutched under one flightless wing and head planted firmly in the sand.
  • A not-so-young action hero holding hands with an emerging young actress as they run just beyond the reach of the consuming fireball from an explosion, escaping into what promises to be an exciting and glamorous, socially-networked future.

Perhaps I should add one more because, in retrospect, it now seems like a distant relative of the general air of uncertainty. On Thursday morning--as I walked from my hotel toward the 34th St. crosstown bus stop near Sixth Ave.--I saw a guy panhandling. He was shaking a plastic change bucket with one hand and talking on his cell phone with the other. At the time I thought it was just a bad marketing decision. Now I wonder if it has deeper meaning.

Fortunately, these images weren't my primary takeaway from BEA 2009. In fact, I headed home Sunday in a good mood because, appropriately enough, I was thinking about . . . words.

Words got us here in the first place, and words will get us to wherever we're headed next, regardless of the vehicle we choose for their transport.

Words strung in 140-character tweets over a couple of months turned into one of the hottest parties of the weekend. The BEAtweetup event at the Greenhouse club Friday night attracted a crowd of about 400 book people through word-of-mouth (word-of-tweet?) alone.

We've always known words can draw a crowd.

In conversations on the show floor, at panels and seminars, certain words were used again and again. Since I'm a writer, reader and bookseller, words are what matter most, so it's probably no surprise that I seem to be clutching a few of them in my hand, like Jack's magic beans, as I recall moments from this year's BEA.

Words like storytelling, authentic, content, listening.

Words that book people already know and love, but whose meanings are evolving on what sometimes seems like an hourly basis.

Old words that stay fiercely relevant, even as the pages upon which they reside transform in ways we've just begun to explore.

Hear the words:

"Things that go viral are about content," said Bill Wasik, senior editor for Harper's magazine, at a viral marketing session. "At the end of the day, viral stuff is all about stories and storytelling. It's about the way we tell stories about ourselves and about our cultures."

"We have to be more authentic because it's all there to be seen," said social media consultant Chris Brogan on a social networking panel. Erik Qualman, online marketing v-p for EF Education, was on the same panel and added, "It's all about who's the best listener. It's about listening first."

"Every company has the ability to pump out content. Content will always win," said Wine Library TV guru Gary Vaynerchuk, noting enthusiastically that he is "obsessed with storytelling."

"With very little money and with people who are authentic, you can go a long way," suggested David Singleton of AARP, on a panel about marketing online to Baby Boomers.

I heard variations on this refrain, using the prime vocabulary, all weekend long, in conversations both private and public. Whatever may be happening to the world of books--whatever our hopes and fears--words still mattered most at BEA.

I'll have more words tomorrow about where some this intersects with booksellers.

Wednesday
May272009

Seen & Heard at BEA 2009--The Preview Edition

As you walk through the airport concourse upon arrival, you can spot the "book people." Just as you think you're imagining this, you see another one coming your way. It turns out to be somebody you know. And when you look in the rest room mirror to check on your own post-flight status, a book person stares back at you bleary-eyed. You're not surprised. Or disappointed.

Waiting in the lengthy registration line at your hotel (hoping, as usual, to score an early check-in time), you recall thinking that this was going to be the year you opted for a room at a hotel that wasn't full of book show attendees, just so you could avoid the gridlock that is inevitable when every guest in the place is running on the same schedule for arrivals, departures, elevator use and taxi stalking.

At one of Thursday's educational programs, a panelist says, "If your business isn't (fill in the blank), you're falling behind the curve by missing a great opportunity that is not only crucial to your success, but maybe even your survival in the evolving marketplace."

You are forced to acknowledge that a) your company isn't (fill in the blank) yet and b) you have never heard of (fill in the blank) until this moment. You feel guilty, take notes and wonder when you'll ever find the time to (fill in the blank).

At every panel you attend, many people are staring down at their laps--as if in silent prayer--rather than at the panelists. If you are not one of those texting or tweeting, you may feel like you're missing something. Don't worry. As public officials are fond of saying during disasters, "There is no cause for alarm at this time." Just listen to the panelists. You'll be fine . . . at this time.

You know that an orderly mob always gathers on Friday morning for the official opening bell at BEA, so you strategically delay your arrival until the show has been going for 15 or 20 minutes. A three-day event is neither an Oklahoma Land Rush nor a blue light special. That's your theory.

Just as planned, by the time you arrive the early crowd has dispersed through the entry funnel, but already a few people, overburdened as pack mules, exit the show with their first load of biblioswag. Their shoulders droop beneath the weight of tote bags filled with ARCs and bookmarks and myriad freebies. For them, it is a blue light special moment.

You experience several embarrassing cases of badge dysfunction. The two most common manifestations are:

  • The Twist--a badge hanging around the neck of someone you know, but whose name escapes you, has flipped over and you must find a dozen ways during the conversation to project familiarity without actually naming names.
  • The Hip Check--too many people inexplicably pin their badges to a belt loop, which compels you to stare, however briefly, at their, shall we say, "mid-section region."

Somebody complains about the food options at a BEA Book & Author breakfast, as if food were remotely the point.

A person of indeterminate sex, height and weight, dressed in the colorful garb of an unfamiliar cartoon character of indeterminate species, approaches you and says, in a happy (if unintentionally creepy) voice, "Would you like to read a new book about me?"

You're in conversation with someone at an after-show party. Suddenly they look through you as if your head has become transparent. "I'll be right there," they yell cheerily. Then they politely end the conversation with you while appearing to resist saying, "Awright, move it along, show's over." Don't take this personally.

On Sunday morning, exhausted and footsore, you opt for room service. You wonder if you should tip, despite the 18% gratuity charge on the check. You tip anyway. Munching on a piece of cool, soggy toast, you sit on the edge of your bed, staring in awe at the stacks of ARCs you have accumulated in just two days. What were you thinking? You'll need another suitcase. Time to sort, prioritize and, regrettably, discard. The hotel staff will definitely get an advance look at this fall's list.

You wait in line in front of your hotel for a cab. NYC tip: walk a block away from your hotel in any direction, raise your arm and the cab will find you.

Soon, you won't be surrounded by all these book people and, quite suddenly, you will miss that feeling . . . until next year.

Thursday
May212009

Trying to Keep the Future Ahead of Us

Whenever I ponder the unpredictable nature of our business, the title of a Charles Womack novel that has nothing to do with this subject instinctively pops into my brain--Let’s Put the Future Behind Us. This week, however, we'll blend present and future.

Susan Novotny owns the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., and Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y. She also co-owns POD publisher Troy Book Makers with Eric Wilska of the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass.

"This is the time of the year when university students send me questions for their for year-end papers," Susan observed. After fielding queries from a student recently, she noted that it was "good to see the younger generation take an interest in our angst."

I'll share some of Susan's responses in an upcoming column, but in the spirit of spring and graduation season, I'll introduce the person who contacted her. Katrina Swartz is a graduate student in the Master's of Publishing and Writing program at Emerson College. She interviewed Susan for a paper she wrote in a class called "Bookselling: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow."

Her assignment was to select "one aspect of bookselling and try to forecast what might be coming in the future," Katrina said. "I wanted to look at how a bookstore might turn to other sources of revenue to support itself, and from there decided to focus on print-on-demand, with Troy Book Makers as the primary example. It was the last project in a class that, as the course title suggests, started with a look at the history of bookselling in America, moved to a study of bookselling at present (which included each student shadowing and interviewing a local bookseller for a few hours), and ended with a consideration of what bookstores might be like going forward (which included, in addition to the paper mentioned above, a partner project developing an idea for a bookstore of the future--mission, business model, demographics of the customer base, actual location in the Boston area)."

During the semester, the class examined "several business models booksellers are turning to in order to survive in this environment, such as non-profit or community-supported shops. I found the Troy Book Makers model of bringing in revenue through publishing services particularly interesting because it's self-sustaining. At the same time that we're thinking about the effect electronic content will have on the printed book, this print-on-demand model is emerging, which is an application of technology that still results in ink on paper."

Asked if she'd had any preconceptions before beginning the project, Katrina replied, "I came to my interview with Novotny expecting that their print-on-demand services were really keeping the bookstores in business, and what she actually told me is that the bookstores do not depend on Troy Book Makers for funding, at least not yet. But, what I focused on is that she and Eric Wilska decided their response to a difficult bookselling environment would be to sell another service that would provide some additional revenue. They're thinking creatively about how to sustain their businesses in a time of change.

"I was also struck by her assertion that all this talk of digital books is distracting the big conglomerate publishers from their real asset, their backlists. That's really interesting because when I think of electronic content, I think of the music industry and how difficult it is to control digital files, and the fact that people tend to want to pay less or nothing for digital content. So if more and more books do become digital, what will happen to that core of the publishing and bookselling business, the backlist? The print-on-demand model at Troy Book Makers is attractive because it places value on the physical book and the editorial, design, and production skill that goes into producing a good-quality work, and it suggests the possibility that publishing and bookselling can continue on in a recognizable form."

Katrina is an editorial assistant at the American Journal of Archaeology, so "the question of how technology will continue to affect publishing and bookselling is of interest to me, particularly as a company like Troy Book Makers emerges, serving, in conjunction with the owners' bookshops, as publisher, printer, and bookseller."

And what about the bookstore of the future? "Well, independent bookstores are so varied, it's difficult to make a general statement about them," said Katrina. "Many focus on creating a sense of community that draws customers to the store, particularly by holding events. That is absolutely important, even essential, but the survival of physical bookstores may really take a push to consider possibilities beyond that approach, a combination of community and some other attractive quality or service."

Thursday
May212009

Trying to Keep the Future Ahead of Us

Whenever I ponder the unpredictable nature of our business, the title of a Charles Womack novel that has nothing to do with this subject instinctively pops into my brain--Let’s Put the Future Behind Us. This week, however, we'll blend present and future.

Susan Novotny owns the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., and Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y. She also co-owns POD publisher Troy Book Makers with Eric Wilska of the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass.

"This is the time of the year when university students send me questions for their for year-end papers," Susan observed. After fielding queries from a student recently, she noted that it was "good to see the younger generation take an interest in our angst."

I'll share some of Susan's responses in an upcoming column, but in the spirit of spring and graduation season, I'll introduce the person who contacted her. Katrina Swartz is a graduate student in the Master's of Publishing and Writing program at Emerson College. She interviewed Susan for a paper she wrote in a class called "Bookselling: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow."

Her assignment was to select "one aspect of bookselling and try to forecast what might be coming in the future," Katrina said. "I wanted to look at how a bookstore might turn to other sources of revenue to support itself, and from there decided to focus on print-on-demand, with Troy Book Makers as the primary example. It was the last project in a class that, as the course title suggests, started with a look at the history of bookselling in America, moved to a study of bookselling at present (which included each student shadowing and interviewing a local bookseller for a few hours), and ended with a consideration of what bookstores might be like going forward (which included, in addition to the paper mentioned above, a partner project developing an idea for a bookstore of the future--mission, business model, demographics of the customer base, actual location in the Boston area)."

During the semester, the class examined "several business models booksellers are turning to in order to survive in this environment, such as non-profit or community-supported shops. I found the Troy Book Makers model of bringing in revenue through publishing services particularly interesting because it's self-sustaining. At the same time that we're thinking about the effect electronic content will have on the printed book, this print-on-demand model is emerging, which is an application of technology that still results in ink on paper."

Asked if she'd had any preconceptions before beginning the project, Katrina replied, "I came to my interview with Novotny expecting that their print-on-demand services were really keeping the bookstores in business, and what she actually told me is that the bookstores do not depend on Troy Book Makers for funding, at least not yet. But, what I focused on is that she and Eric Wilska decided their response to a difficult bookselling environment would be to sell another service that would provide some additional revenue. They're thinking creatively about how to sustain their businesses in a time of change.

"I was also struck by her assertion that all this talk of digital books is distracting the big conglomerate publishers from their real asset, their backlists. That's really interesting because when I think of electronic content, I think of the music industry and how difficult it is to control digital files, and the fact that people tend to want to pay less or nothing for digital content. So if more and more books do become digital, what will happen to that core of the publishing and bookselling business, the backlist? The print-on-demand model at Troy Book Makers is attractive because it places value on the physical book and the editorial, design, and production skill that goes into producing a good-quality work, and it suggests the possibility that publishing and bookselling can continue on in a recognizable form."

Katrina is an editorial assistant at the American Journal of Archaeology, so "the question of how technology will continue to affect publishing and bookselling is of interest to me, particularly as a company like Troy Book Makers emerges, serving, in conjunction with the owners' bookshops, as publisher, printer, and bookseller."

And what about the bookstore of the future? "Well, independent bookstores are so varied, it's difficult to make a general statement about them," said Katrina. "Many focus on creating a sense of community that draws customers to the store, particularly by holding events. That is absolutely important, even essential, but the survival of physical bookstores may really take a push to consider possibilities beyond that approach, a combination of community and some other attractive quality or service."

Friday
May152009

Care & Feeding of the Local Author Event

As BEA approaches, a bookseller's thoughts turn to . . . author events. I've had several conversations recently about the changing landscape of this particular book world ceremony, but it gets more complicated when the subject turns to local authors, especially those who choose to self-publish.

You know the prime questions:

  1. How do you put fannies in the seats?
  2. How do you get people to buy the damn book?
  3. How do you avoid losing money on the deal?

So this topic was already sautéing in my brain-pan when I received an e-mail from Pamela Grath--owner of Dog Ears Books, a small shop in Northport, Mich.--in which she confessed that her approach has gradually altered to a more collaborative effort.

"It began when a friend insisted, over all my protestations, that she would provide the refreshments for her husband's book signing reception," said Grath. "I wasn't sure I liked the idea at first. It seemed to me that it was my business and that my business should be financially able to provide everything for store events, but my friend really wanted to do this. Reluctantly, I agreed. She did food and flowers. We worked together on invitations. I handled publicity. The party was lovely and sold a lot of books."

Since then, Grath has hosted several collaborative events. A local author's son and daughter-in-law offered to share responsibility for refreshments; a husband and wife who co-authored a book published by a small local press provided their own refreshments, flowers andpostcard invitations, while Grath took care of publicity and e-mail invitations.

Grath observed that this has caused her to "come around in my thinking to realize that this collaboration is a good thing. The cost savings to the bookstore when authors or family members provide refreshments is only the beginning of a series of advantages for all concerned--author, bookseller, families and community. Having invested psychologically in the event, the author and family are keen to beat the bushes and get people to the bookstore. They don't just show up with a pen, waiting to sign books. Each event is a family as well as a literary event, a celebration party, and so far, these parties have been very successful, both in terms of attendance and sales."

Not all of her events can be handled this way, of course. Grath stressed that "it wouldn't do to insist that a famous or out-of-town author the bookseller had not even met bring their own punch and cookies. The development I'm describing grows naturally out of 'Buy Local' campaigns and sentiments. Local authors--logical supporters of local bookstores but not always tapped as a resource--seem especially eager to show support in tangible ways when they and their work also receive appreciation and support. Community bonds are strengthened in ways that I had to see to believe."

Events featuring local and/or self-published authors come with their own set of "handle with care" instructions. "It wouldn't work for me to host an event every week of the season for just any self-published book," said Grath. "I have to restrict the number of events, so as not to wear out our small public with constant demands to buy books, and it's critical to my reputation that the books I choose to support with in-store events are those I feel are worth their cover price."

As with many aspects of publishing, saying yes is easy; saying no is the tricky bit. "In the beginning I said yes to everything much too easily," Grath said. "I guess in general I've become more comfortable being honest with authors--and there are other, non-bookstore venues available."

How Grath says no "varies with the author and the book. In some cases, I let them know that what they have would be a very hard sell, local audience or no, but they can leave books on consignment. I think my latest realization--that I have to limit the number of events I mount in any given season--will help take some of the sting off rejection. I hope so. Another part of it is that most people understand that I'm in this to make a living, while that was not generally their motivation in writing their books."

Grath shared a detailed e-mail she sends to local writers who have inquired about a possible event. In addition to asking very specific questions to build a local publicity campaign, she ends with a bookseller's vow: "I look forward to reading your book at my earliest opportunity!"