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Booksellers Writing on the Virtual Borderline 

Like good books, good bookseller blogs are irresistible and, with hard work and a little luck, find their audience. Bad or mediocre blogs tend to stack up like digital bones. You can even carbon date them. If the last post was in 2007, for example, the blog is probably . . . extinct.

We're not here to mourn fallen bloggers, but to explore a few that have succeeded. For many reasons, personal and otherwise, I have long been intrigued by how booksellers manage to write their way successfully along that border between the personal and the bookstore blog.

In last week's column, I mentioned that Megan Sullivan's Bookdwarf blog was an early influence on my efforts. Megan is also head buyer at the Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass. She began working there in 1999, and when she launched Bookdwarf in 2004, "it had nothing to do with work. I just created it one day and started talking about books. It was fun. Other bloggers started reading it and I started reading their blogs. I didn't let anyone know at work about it, but they found out anyway eventually. I've been told that customers have come in asking about Bookdwarf, which I find funny."

Megan adds that although she didn't write specifically about the bookstore except in reference to events or galleys, "I also started writing about the plight of independents a little bit. Perhaps that's why they never complain about me blogging at work. They know that I'd never break confidentiality or use the blog to complain about the store. It can occasionally be difficult to know what I can and can't say as more and more people read my blog. I also like that the blog is mine. Other booksellers I know blog for their store, but I would find that limiting. Bookdwarf is my voice, no one else's."

For Daniel Goldin, the borderline has shifted in recent months. A longtime buyer and general manager for Harry W. Schwartz bookshops, he opened the Boswell Book Company at Schwartz's former Downer Avenue location in Milwaukee, Wis., this year. He is also making the transition to considering blogs as an owner rather than as a staff member.

Daniel notes that when he started the Boswell and Books blog last fall, "I went to Schwartz's owner Carol Grossmeyer, and asked permission to set up a blog, with the idea that it would transition to a possible new bookstore. I also set up our bookseller blog, the Boswellians, in the same way. I bought the domain names for both as well. One of my booksellers, Sarah Marine, has been doing the day-to-day postings, which are done on work time. Sarah is leaving, and another bookseller, Greg Bruce, will be taking over posting. In addition, our buyer/manager Jason Kennedy tried his hand at a personal blog, but wasn't posting enough to make it viable, and has now been posting on the Boswellians as well.

"Though I don't always agree with everything said in every posting, I haven't had any concern so far with what's been said in the blogs. My big beef early on was suggesting to booksellers to hold their in-depth pieces on galleys they read until the book came out. It was my feeling that this was not going to help anyone sell books except Amazon. It was generally accepted by the staff."

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo is currently leading a blog juggler's life. As the events coordinator for McNally Jackson Books, New York, N.Y., she blogged there as well as on the Written Nerd. Now that she has begun the transition to her own Greenlight Bookstore, she's blogging about that (ad)venture, too.

"When you're doing work you love, the line between the personal and the professional is often extremely flexible," Jessica observes. "Your coworkers and customers and clients and vendors and competitors are also your friends. Your professional development is also what you'd be doing in your free time. And when you talk about your product, it's a conversation packed with emotion. That requires a certain amount of diplomacy, as well as a willingness to let the personal become the professional. Everyone decides where to draw the line of conviviality vs. privacy, but there's always some overlap. In that sense, I think being a bookseller is actually great practice for being a blogger, where that personal/professional balance is always a factor. You want to be honest and have fun, but only to a point--there are reasons for keeping things nice, for maintaining relationships."

The conversation continues next week.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #956


Who is Your Company's Online Voice?

One of my favorite moments at this year's BEA occurred when Wine Library TV guru Gary Vaynerchuk addressed the issue of finding precious time away from our "real jobs" to handle online duties like blogs, e-mail or social networking sites.

"When the hell is interacting with clients not your real job?" he asked in his logical, passionate and conclusively rhetorical way. Another relevant question: Who is doing that interaction? I'm going to start this discussion by focusing on bookstores and blogs, but will necessarily open it up to include anyone in the book trade who "goes public" in the numerous online venues.

First, a quick history lesson: I started a blog in 2004 called Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal while I was still working full-time for a major indie because the shop wasn't quite ready to do one in-house. There were few booksellers online then, though Megan Sullivan's Bookdwarf was an inspiration.

It seems odd to feel a little nostalgic for a past that isn't even a half-decade old, but at the time I was excited to move from the information confines of a single bricks-and-mortar bookshop into an ongoing conversation about the industry with the likes of M.J. Rose at Buzz, Balls & Hype and the then-pseudonymous editor Mad Max Perkins at Bookangst 101.

Others soon joined in this exchange of ideas. On Thursday, October 20, 2005--long before she became the Jessica Stockton Bagnulo who coordinates events at McNally Jackson Booksellers and co-owns the soon-to-be dazzling Greenlight Bookstore--an initial post appeared on Jessica's new blog, the Written Nerd:

"I am so excited about bookselling, as the place where literature hits the streets, and as a possibility for the creation of community which is grounded in tradition but looking forward to the most exciting developments of a new age, that I bore even my bookseller friends. I do so much talking about this stuff that I finally realized I'd better start talking to more people. So here's the beginning. There are a wealth of fantastic literary blogs out there--I'll link to some of my favorites. There are even some booksellers getting into the act. This will be a place to record cool experiences in the literary biz, to talk about books that I'm excited about, and to speculate and plan endlessly for my own bookstore, a goal that I'm working toward with embarrassing giddiness."

The rest, as they say, is history, and Jessica is still recording that history online as it happens, in a passionate voice that reflects her commitment to books, bookselling and this crazy industry.

Going public can also feel like a highwire act sometimes. I wasn't writing a "bookstore blog," for example, yet I was fully aware that I represented the bookstore whenever I posted something on Fresh Eyes, especially if the topic was controversial. That didn't stop me from discussing such issues, but I knew I wasn't flying solo.

Now it's an even more complex book world online and that's why I'd like to open a discussion about it with a few questions:

  • How difficult (or easy) is it for business owners to turn loose staff members as "the voice" of their companies?
  • How much freedom do staff members feel they have to "write what they know," as it were?
  • Is there a carryover effect (positive or negative) between personal blogs and company blogs by the same staff member?
  • How do we avoid Gary V.'s wrath and find the time to make blogging (and social networking) part of our "real job?"

Patrick Brown, webmaster at Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., is one of several gifted "online practitioners" we'll hear more from in upcoming columns. Like many of us, he's been thinking about this subject a lot as the tools evolve and the borderlines dissolve.

"Should an employer be able to fire you for remarks you make on your personal Facebook account, for instance?" he asks. "Is it now your responsibility to monitor your own privacy settings so that such a situation never arises? Is there such a thing as 'private' space online or only 'personal' space? It's pretty fascinating."

He cites Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody to try to "explain the dissonance" people are feeling: "In the book, he says until the Internet era began, it was easy to identify a message meant for private consumption (a phone call, a letter) and something meant for public consumption (TV, newspapers, books). The Internet has really destroyed those two categories and many people have yet to catch up."

Who's your company's voice on the virtual borderline?--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #952


All Aboard the Digital Express!

Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way. That's one vision of our digital future in the book trade.

"What if everything you ever imagined came true?" This line from a movie trailer for Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express is another way to think about it, though the strategic placement of one additional word (good, for example, after everything) might make it a touch less ominous.

Like many of you, I think about the book business too much, the way some of my friends think too much about the Yankees or politics or death. Perhaps also like many of you, I came away from BookExpo America wondering about my place in a publishing world where "the book as we've known it" is becoming the book as we don't quite know it yet.

I attended panel after panel about social networking, connectivity, mobile technology; watched the Espresso Book Machine conjure trade paperbacks out of computer files, paper and glue; viewed demos of electronic devices that promised to reinvent the reading experience.

A couple of weeks ago, I compared BEA with the circus, but in the middle of the show itself, I felt less like I was being entertained by dancing bears than that I might be witnessing the birth of, well, the future.

I could easily let my imagination run wild. What if it all came true?

At BEA, I had lengthy conversations with book people who are enthusiastic devotees of texting and Twitter and FaceBook; with casual adapters; with curious bystanders; and with devout followers of the full crucifix-and-garlic-necklace "WebDracula begone!" society of unbelievers.

I listened.

Many people are saying the future is now. Not all of them are happy about it. But if the future really is now, we still have to discover what's going to happen next? Some think they know that, too, and tried to lay it out for us at BEA.

I don't know. I could write about crystal balls or digital I Ching, but I've opted for train travel instead because in the weeks since the show, I realized not where all this is headed, but how I plan to get there.

I'm on the train. It's that simple. I'm on the train.

I work for an online newsletter; I have Twitter and FaceBook accounts; I read on my iPod; I have two--count 'em--two computers on my small desk. And I'm always ready for more.

But something else that happened at BEA made me realize not everyone on the train has to ride in the engine, scanning the track ahead for what's coming round the next bend. For me, the best place to ride is the caboose, since I'm going to arrive where the engine is now within seconds, but I still have a great view of where we've come from out the back window. I want to keep that perspective.

At one point during the launch party for Book: The Sequel, PublicAffairs v-p and editor Clive Priddle explained that the goal of the 48-hour publishing project was to acknowledge the history of books as well as suggest possible answers to the question, "What comes next?"

The caboose offers past, present and future all for the same low price. And isn't everybody looking for a bargain these days?

About a week ago, I returned to New York for a meeting. Since I live in rural Vermont, this trip does require not-so-magical travel through space and time, including a 2½ hour drive to the train.

As I stood on the platform of the Metro North station just outside Wassaic, N.Y. (a hamlet I've never visited; could be as mythical as the North Pole of Van Allsburg's imagination for all I know), I scanned the relatively pastoral countryside just off Route 22. Beyond the highway, parking lot and railroad tracks, in every direction, I saw nature in full spring mode--hills, trees, meadows, marsh grass, bright sunlight. And I could hear birds singing.

Two hours later, I stepped onto another platform in Grand Central Terminal's murky, fragrant depths far beneath the streets of Manhattan. I walked upstairs to the main hall and out the door to 42nd Street, where everything was traffic, scurrying crowds and tall buildings. I heard the irresistible siren song of urban cacophony.

I love both worlds, and it occurred to me that, once upon a time, this seamless transformation had also been viewed as a miracle of unimaginable speed, a vision of the future.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #946.


What Do We Tell Our Customers About BEA 09?

It's been almost two weeks since the last booth was dismantled. BookExpo America 2009 has been praised and scorned, dissected and trisected, analyzed and psychoanalyzed by book trade pundits in both public and private conversations, online and offline. Is there anything left to say?

Well, I noticed that many indie booksellers offered their own responses to the show, posted on store and personal blogs, and in e-mail newsletters for their customers to read. That thought re-fired my BEA analysis jets and caused me to wonder: What do you tell your customers about BEA?

In an e-mail newsletter from the Next Chapter Bookshop, Mequon, Wis., Rebecca Rick noted that "Lanora, Dave, Taylor and I are mostly recovered from BEA 09 in New York this past weekend and we are excited to tell you all about it. (We would like to once again thank the generous customer who donated his frequent flyer miles to get us there.) Though the show was, by many accounts, a leaner show than in the past--meaning, not as many giveaways or galleys piled up everywhere--there was no shortage of fantastic books for fall, entertaining authors giving talks, and inspiration for us. We are all happy that we were able to go and come back with so many new ideas and information to share with you!"

"It was, if I've counted correctly, the 28th time we've attended our national convention and trade show," wrote Chuck Robinson on the store blog for Village Books, Bellingham, Wash. "So, wouldn't you think it would have become old hat? Why does my heart still race and why am I so excited each year? Well, in reflecting on who we saw and heard talk, I realize it is somewhat rarefied air we breathe at these events. . . . I'm always refreshed and renewed when I come home from BookExpo America. And, this year is no exception."

Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands bookstore, Tempe, Ariz., writing to "Bookstore Friends" in her e-mail newsletter, called the show "bittersweet" because her six-year tenure on the ABA board came to an end along with her term as president. For her, "the joy of the annual trade show is keeping in touch with my bookseller friends and connecting with authors. . . . They reminded me how much I love their writing and how lucky I am to be in this business of bringing words, ideas, and books to our community."

Green Apple Books & Music, San Francisco, Calif., reported on its Green Apple Core blog that "the first day is always remainder buying day; this involves jumping from hotel to hotel & to showrooms . . . many of which aren't always close together. We saw a lot of books & there will be some great remainder deals coming to you in the next month or so (to go along with the already great titles in the store currently) so be sure to check out the tables."

In a detailed account on his Kash's Book Corner blog, Arsen Kashkashian of Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, Colo., shared his impressions of BEA, concluding, "I hope that BEA can morph into something meaningful for publishers, authors and booksellers. There must be a way to communicate with each other, to wow each other that doesn't involve cheap Ikea-looking furniture. I think the dinners are valuable, the chance to meet authors is valuable, the empty booths are not. Something is going to change, because those vacant booths cost a lot of money."

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of McNally Jackson Books in New York (and her own Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn later this year) observed on her Written Nerd blog: "Maybe I'm just lucky. But this was the best BEA I've ever attended." She praised her book world colleagues as "people who are passionate about what they do, creative and energetic beyond belief, and awfully fun to be around. I have a sense that they're the ones I'll still be talking to in twenty years, through all the changes of our industry and our careers. Maybe we'll look back on this BEA as one of the last good ones, or as a quiet moment before things got big again, or as the beginning of a long-term change for the better. All I know now is that it was a hell of a show."

What did you tell your customers about the show this year?


A Few Words About BEA--Part 2

"When 'words' become 'content,' where do storytelling and storytellers fit into the public forum?" asked Laurie Lico Albanese, author and Shelf Awareness contributor, in response to yesterday's column. "I think the answer--the one you provided--is that storytelling is one of the most human of all impulses, and telling stories about ourselves and others will always be with us. The question? Will writers who provide 'content' be able to make a buck? And how will bookstores remain part of the storytelling equation?"

Good questions. I'm still thinking about my BEA takeaway words--storytelling, authentic, content, listening--but now I want to look at them in relation to bookselling and some of the education sessions I attended.

I mentioned earlier that in a social networking presentation by Erik Qualman and Chris Brogan, Qualman said, "It's all about who's the best listener." What I didn't say was that he prefaced that remark by morphing a classic line from Bill Clinton's presidential campaign: "It's all about a people-driven economy, stupid."

For anyone who feels overwhelmed by all the technology-driven options, Qualman advised, "Just admit that you can't keep up with every tool out there. Choose two or three. It's more about listening first."

"Learn how to be yourself in a different space," added Brogan.

For some booksellers, that storytelling space may be visual. At a session called "Using Multimedia to Market Your Store," Alex Beckstead, the documentary filmmaker behind Paperback Dreams, offered tips for indie booksellers on effective multimedia strategies.

"You should make Web video because it's a way to connect, not to make money," he said. "People's ignore filter is probably going to go up slower if they don't think you're trying to sell them something. . . . Web video is inexpensive and doesn't have to be reprinted. The reality of Web video: You're going to want to put it everywhere."

Because production values mean less than imagination and creativity, Beckstead added that Flip cams--in the right booksellers' hands--can effectively generate buzz-producing multimedia for store websites, e-newsletters and more, including tie-ins with other local businesses.

Hell, you might even go viral and national. Now that would be a story.

Beckstead offered samples of bookstore multimedia efforts, giving high praise to San Francisco booksellers Green Apple Books & Music for its Little Bee commercial and the Booksmith's local authors month promotion.

Ultimately, however, it still comes down to telling stories, and Beckstead highlighted key suggestions: Participate, don't broadcast; have a beginning, middle and end; be short, be funny, be personal; invite feedback/response and get help from staff, friends, customers, partners or pros.

If there is a contemporary patron saint of how to use multimedia effectively, it has to be Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV. Beckstead was not the only person at BEA who invoked his name to show how much can be accomplished with the simplest tools. He outlined what Vaynerchuk brings to the table (or before the camera) to sustain his successful online presence:

  1. He has deep knowledge about a complex topic that inspires passion.
  2. He offers consistently fresh daily updates.
  3. He's in a growth business (which helps).
  4. He's Gary Vaynerchuk, which means personality, authenticity and accessibility.

"If you send an e-mail to Gary Vaynerchuk, you'll get an e-mail back from Gary Vaynerchuk," said Beckstead.

What does this have to do with indie booksellers? Well, Vaynerchuk tried to answer that question himself at BEA on Saturday and I saw something special happen.

In a Booksellers Blog post this week, Ann Kingman called the video of the session "Mandatory Viewing for Independent Booksellers," observing that "you will not agree with every idea Gary has, and I look forward to a debate of those ideas: but I know that you will find inspiration."

Ann's right. Personally, I'd buy a copy of Vaynerchukisms for Booksellers, if that turns out to be his next book after Crush It! Here's a sampler:

  • Technology is going forward. It takes no prisoners.
  • I'm really hungry for [indies] to see what I see, which is more opportunity, not less.
  • It blows my mind that a very passionate and knowlegable indie bookstore owner would not start a television show for their store.
  • I think there's a massive missed opportunity for building a brand around you.
  • Content is king, but marketing is queen and she runs the household.
  • I cared and I listened.
  • When the hell is interacting with clients not your real job?
  • I spend only about 25 minutes a day on content. The rest of the time is community.
  • The scariest thing about [hiring someone to handle online marketing] is it becomes not authentic. It's not you.
  • It's not what you say; it's how you listen . . . Can you send somebody to represent you at a cocktail party? Probably not.
  • It's all storytelling. I'm obsessed with storytelling.
  • I believe in the details. I believe in the trenches.

When you listen to him, you find yourself wanting to get right to work; and to end every sentence with at least two exclamation points. Maybe I will!!