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Friday
Oct232009

The Shame List

You already know about the current book pricing conflict that Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target and Sears are engaged in; a price war that probably won't end all price wars, and their own version of the old state fair Wall of Death motorcycle stunt, where two or three bikes whizzed around a cylinder, "defying gravity and the Grim Reaper!"

Titling this column the "Shame List" might reasonably cause you to think I'll be writing about those 10 inevitably hot--but now literally almost price-less--upcoming titles that have quickly become linked on a new list of their own (call it what you choose), defying retail gravity.

But I'm not writing about them. I bring up the Shame List only because it is an old, venerable independent bookseller creation that I am preemptively saving from potential misuse.

I recently heard the concept mentioned during a seminar at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Cleveland. "The Art & Science of Buying & Selling Backlist" featured Michael Boggs of Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ky., Sue Boucher of Lake Forest Bookstore, Lake Forest, Ill. and Melissa Weisberg of Macmillan. The moderator was Anne Storan of Paragraphs Bookstore, Mt. Vernon, Ohio.

"Backlist used to be defined by publishers," said Boggs. "Now backlist is much more what you define backlist to be for yourself. Special offers aside, backlist is the books you want to have most of the time."

I was a backlist buyer for many years, so I was intrigued by the insights about a process that I already knew was, as the title suggests, on the thin borderline between the artistic and scientific. The Shame List offers the best of both worlds.

More specifically, the Shame List includes those backlist books every bookstore would be "embarrassed" and even "mortified" not to have in stock when a customer asks for them. Boucher brought up the term while discussing titles that may not turn regularly but are essential to any bookshop's credibility--books, as she put it, that "I'd hate not to have," the ones for which she has to ask herself the question: "How important is this book to me as a bookseller?"

Boucher observed that, when pulling returns, a report was never a sufficient guide for her. "I have to go through the sections myself. I know what the embarrassment factor is."

There are, of course, obvious choices for the Shame List, like Great Expectations or The Age of Innocence. Where it gets tricky is moving down an author's bibliography. Is Dombey and Son on the Shame List? Perhaps not. What about The House of Mirth? Probably. Ethan Frome? Maybe; maybe not. And, depending on where your bookstore is located, regional books can often be Shame Listers, as are books by midlist authors who happen to live in your area, whether or not their titles sell. It's only polite, after all.
 
What intrigues me beyond these categories, however, is the personal Shame List every bookseller develops over time; those books, for example, that you instinctively handsell in a conversation without even doublechecking the shelf to see if the title is on hand. You assume--sometimes at your peril if you aren't the buyer for that section--that it will be nestled in the stacks, waiting for you to pluck it free and place in the grasp of its next reader.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I had to consider my own Shame List and came up with just a few key titles that I recall having often handsold "sight unseen": 

  • Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill
  • Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
  • The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
  • The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac
  • Train by Pete Dexter

Years ago (I looked it up, in fact, and the year was 2001), Slate ran a piece, "The Literary Critic's Shelf of Shame," in which book critics and literary journalists played "Humiliations," a parlor game from David Lodge's Changing Places "in which participants confess, one by one, titles of books they've never read."

There are no comparable humiliations on a bookseller's Shame List. It's what keeps us in the game.

I would love to hear what titles are on your personal Shame List. In particular, I'd like to hear from frontline booksellers who may not have direct control over backlist ordering, but run herd on their buyers to make sure key titles are always on the shelves.

Factoring in the passion and dedication of indie booksellers for handselling backlist gems, shame can be a good thing indeed. So, what's on your list?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1037

Friday
Oct162009

'Ideas That Work' at GLiBA

Picture a bookseller with a light bulb over his or her head--the universal symbol for having an idea. Now picture a banquet room full of booksellers with light bulbs over their heads. O.K., O.K., if you insist, you can picture energy-efficient light bulbs.

How many booksellers does it take to change a light bulb? Maybe the better question would be: How many ideas can a room full of indie booksellers share in less than an hour? At the "Ideas That Work" session during the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Cleveland recently, symbolic light bulbs were ubiquitous, as were great ideas.

The Learned Owl Book Shop, Hudson, Ohio, puts its name "on everything"--T-shirts, mugs, etc.--and recently held a haiku contest where the winner's entry was printed on the front of a T-shirt, with other poems in smaller print on the back.

CoffeeTree Books, Morehead, Ky., creates gift baskets featuring regional books and products and has handled businesses orders for as many as 50 at a time.
 
At Forever Books, St. Joseph, Mich, about 100 people attended a book club symposium featuring sales reps presenting new titles. In addition, one of the bookshop's key staff members is Trevor, a golden retriever who oversees the animal book section where his recommend tags are posted. Last year, for Trevor's birthday party, guests were asked to bring donations for the Humane Society.

Jill Miner of Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, Mich., asked her staff to pay close attention to the reasons people said they were drawn to the store, so she could react accordingly in terms of inventory range and display focus. "The idea is to make it a one-stop shop."

Holding a Chamber of Commerce "after hours" event was suggested by a bookseller who noted that "even though our store is in a small town, there are people who have never been in it."

Bill Cusumano of Nicola's Books, Ann Arbor, Mich., said his shop displays faced-out books at the same level, so when customers move from section to section, their eyes are drawn to the titles displayed in a line "at a reasonable height. No matter what alcove, it stands out."

Bookstores are constantly being asked for donations. McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., generates sales and good will by offering specific days on which customers can request that 10% of their purchases be contributed to a designated nonprofit.

Dealing with the ongoing flood of advance reader copies is a common challenge for booksellers, and some creative solutions were offered.

"This summer, we made them part of our summer reading club," said Sally Bulthuis of Pooh's Corner, Grand Rapids, Mich. And Becky Anderson Wilkins of Anderson's Bookshops, Naperville and Downers Grove, Ill., said the stores use old ARCs, especially children's books, as part of a donation program connected with asking kids to also bring in their old books. "To this day, we've probably distributed over 400,000 books."

Other great suggestions:

  • One bookstore holds what amounts to a community Secret Santa promotion each year. Customers pick a name from a hat and purchase a book for that person. Only the bookstore knows the names and chooses appropriate titles for participants, then hosts a holiday party at which people open their gifts together (with 10% of the proceeds donated to a local charity).
  • Another bookseller has the store's logo on her car, though she cautioned: "You do have to be a nicer driver."
  • Distributing free bumper stickers with your bookstore's name and/or logo was recommended.
  • Another bookstore sometimes pays staff members ($20 gift certificate, $10 for children's books) to read and review certain ARCs they might not otherwise be inclined to read, but which are going to be of interest to customers when published.
  • In anticipation of the release of the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, a bookstore purchased advertising space on the local movie theater's screen saying that it was the place "where the wild books are." Also suggested was putting up book-themed movie posters in bookstores and displaying books at theaters.
  • Co-sponsor a community promotion where, if children get their "passports" stamped at the library and bookstore they get into the movie for half price.
  • Where the Wild Things Are has also inspired costume parties, where individual photos are taken and posted on the bookshop's website.

How many booksellers does it take to change a light bulb? If those light bulbs are ideas, then a room full of booksellers seems to do the job quite well.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1032

Friday
Oct092009

Conversation in Trade Show World 

I just ran the numbers. During the three-plus years that I've been writing for Shelf Awareness, the term "conversation" has appeared in 75 (or about half) of my columns. This means either I'm terminally redundant or the word really matters in our business. For obvious reasons, I lean toward the second option.

Between Thursday, September 24, and Sunday, October 4, I spent eight of the eleven days in conversation with booksellers, writers and publishers at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in Greenville, S.C. and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association show in Cleveland, Ohio.

Trade Show World is a suspended state of time and reality that I happen to love. It has its definite advantages over real life, including room service, daily housekeeping and hotel lobbies full of people who care deeply about books and aren't afraid to say so.

There are seemingly endless streams of conversations going on when you're living temporarily in Trade Show World. These include casual, person-to-person chats; public exchanges during panels, workshops and seminars; small group discussions at luncheons and dinners; and the serial chatting near book-laden display tables on the exhibition floor.

Most of these conversations are simultaneously private and public. I learn things that inform, and sometimes alter, my views about the book trade, but I consider them off the record and you won't see those quotes here. I'm not so much protecting sources as honoring the spirit of conversation by recognizing a borderline.

Wherever you are in Trade Show World, though, you're talking books. All books all the time. And, of course, you're listening. Being a good listener is arguably the more important skill.

So let me tell you a few of the things I heard while talking about, and listening to others talk about, the world of books during my recent pilgrimage to Trade Show World.

Technically, the longest conversation I had was with novelist Joseph Kanon (Stardust). On Friday, September 25, I attended a "Before We Were Authors" panel at SIBA, during which Joe said that when he worked in publishing, writers would often say, "I hear you work on the dark side." Later, at publishing parties after he began his career as a novelist, people joked, "You've gone over to the dark side."

So now we know a trade secret. Apparently we all inhabit the same side of the book planet. Maybe somebody should hit the light switch.

After Joe's panel, we talked briefly. I'd first met him in the 1990s when he read from Los Alamos at the bookstore where I worked. What made our recent conversation epic in length was that we were interrupted (duty called for both of us) and we didn't finish our chat until we saw one another again at a signing table in Cleveland a week later after GLiBA's Booksellers Banquet. Such are the mysterious ways of Trade Show World.

What else did I hear? Novelist Elizabeth Kostova (The Swan Thieves) acknowledged an enthusiastic greeting from booksellers at the SIBA Supper by saying, "I just feel we should applaud you."

During the "Taste of HarperCollins Breakfast," Ron Rash (Serena) compared SIBA to "a family reunion because I see so many people I know. I guess it's more like Heaven."

Belief was in the air at the GLiBA Book Awards luncheon. "I truly believe that if you get one book into the hand of a child, that will lead to another and another. It will open a wider world," said children's picture book winner Heather Henson, author of That Book Woman. And Pamela Todd, who received the children's chapter book award for her novel, The Blind Faith Hotel, observed: "I really believe that books can save us. You give a book to someone and it creates a chain reaction."

The keynote speaker at GLiBA's Authors Feast was Dan Chaon (Await Your Reply), who said that "one of the things we can draw upon as author and bookseller is that books are not products. Individual books are not interchangeable." Writing, he added, "is a small private discourse between a writer and a sympathetic reader. I think what you are doing is really adding to the good karma of the universe."

Or, as Becky Anderson Wilkins, co-owner of Anderson's Bookshop, Naperville, Ill., so eloquently observed in her acceptance speech after receiving GLiBA's Voice of the Heartland Award, "We fight for our businesses. We fight for each other. We fight for our communities. . . . I have learned so much from these books, but I have learned so much more from you." The conversation continues.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1028

Friday
Oct022009

Storytelling, SIBA Style

"When I bought Mountain Crossings, I was journaling these stories that pass through each day," said Winton Porter, author of Just Passin' Thru: A Vintage Store, the Appalachian Trail, and a Cast of Unforgettable Characters. Speaking at the "Before We were Authors" panel during the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show last week, he noted that the Appalachian Trail literally runs through his supply store: "If you miss it, you are lost." His book came from listening attentively to stories told to him by the more than 2,000 hikers a year who find their way to Mountain Crossings.

Porter was just one of many fine storytellers at SIBA. Not all of them were authors. It's what we do--booksellers, writers, publishers, readers. I heard many great stories from podiums and at dining tables, on the trade show floor and in the Carolina First Center's hallways and meeting rooms.

We are, as Garrison Keillor might say, a storytelling people.

Now I'm in Cleveland for the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association trade show, where I know more stories are headed my way this weekend. In upcoming columns, I'll share tales from both shows, but I decided to start with one about social networking, since that seems to be on everyone's mind lately.
   
As I mentioned last week, I was on a "Social Media and the Independent Bookseller" panel at SIBA with Rich Rennicks (Unbridled Books/Malaprop's Bookstore) and the ABA's Meg Smith. I've been on similar panels over the past five years, watching the discussion evolve from bookstore blogging and websites to include options like Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter (and, briefly, MySpace).

In olden times (2005?), 75% of the audience was skeptical, engaging in these online options reluctantly or not at all. Now that percentage seems to have reversed, and many--certainly not all--of the skeptics have edged toward the "Why should I?" camp rather than a flat out "No!"

But love it or hate it, social networking is a key tool in our business. At one point during the session, while Meg displayed the blog I'm an Avid Reader as an example of how even prospective booksellers are using social media effectively, we discovered that Janet Geddis--the blog's creator, who hopes to open Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., in the not-so-distant future--was sitting in the front row.

Once in the discussion, she made some excellent contributions. Afterward, I asked her to tell her own social media story: "I dream of the day I can run events, handsell to curious customers, and organize Avid Bookshop's shelves--but for now I have to bide my time and wait for the stars (and dollars) to align. Though I'm usually rather impatient, this process of planning a bookstore has taught me to take my time and lay the proper groundwork before jumping in. Because I am not flush with cash and know no rich benefactor who wishes to bestow her wealth unto me, I chose instead to get in touch with my customers before the opening date is set. Through my blog and personal Facebook page, I'm attempting to engage people in dialogues about literature and reading; so far, it's working and gaining momentum every day. More people keep spreading the word on my behalf, which is humbling and exciting. I've gotten to the point where strangers recognize me and have heard about the bookstore."

Geddis praised her Twitter account for allowing her to "join a really strong network of independent booksellers, writers, readers and publishers. To start a business from scratch is a huge undertaking, but being able to harness social media outlets means that lots of the pesky questions that bog new people down aren't bugging me so much."

She cited the recent example of working on her business plan and wondering about staff discounts. "I Tweeted my question and had several answers within minutes."

"My feeling is that social media tools are indispensable to prospective booksellers," Geddis concluded. "What better way to get your feet wet and start conversations with people you might not come across in your day-to-day life? Athens has no indie that sells new books, which means I have to go on long drives to meet booksellers face to face. Through my Twitter account I've been able to befriend people all over the country who own and/or work in independent bookstores."

The story of Avid Bookshop is still being written and we'll get to watch the creation of an indie bookshop through the window of social networking. Our book community is always telling new stories.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1022

Friday
Sep252009

Social Media for the Not-so-social

The world in present tense: Shortly after my column hits the virtual presses today (perhaps even as you read this), I'll be on a panel at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in Greenville, S.C.

I'm joining Rich Rennicks--of Malaprop's Bookstore and Unbridled Books-- and the ABA's Meg Smith to explore the topic: "Social Media and the Independent Bookseller." Assuming all goes well, this will be a conversation about how "social networking sites have fundamentally changed the way people approach not only their private lives but, also, their business transactions."

If you are reading my column on your laptop or BlackBerry in Room 101 B of the Carolina First Center this morning, please raise your hand because you are truly an example of living in the social media moment. Better yet, fire off a tweet to @IndieBoundMeg, @RichRennicks or @Fresheyesnow. Maybe we'll respond. Or maybe not, since we're presumably too busy listening, talking and trying not to sneak furtive glances at our own handheld devices.

There is, of course, much to discuss when it comes to social media and bookselling. All we'll be able to do is nibble at the edges, but every conversation helps. In a recent post on his blog, The Word Hoarder, Rich offered a handy, condensed version of his thoughts on "Engaging Your Customers Through Social Media." The ABA has terrific materials available as well.

As Rich suggests, "you need to go where your customers are and engage them, and that means online. The fact is customers are coming into our stores less often than before. They're getting their book fix online: reading about books, talking about books and buying books. This is where social media can help booksellers. . . . I have two book industry jobs and do a bit of freelance graphic design on the side; for people like me (and you) social media is a set of tools to help me get my work done."

I agree. He also wisely observes that booksellers must become "part of the conversation" that is already happening online and will continue to expand, with or without them.

So, here we are, in South Carolina, in Room 101 B, and I'm sure there is someone in our audience (which by now is no longer an audience but, we hope, a gang of active participants in the discussion) still resisting social media's siren song. Objections may already have been raised about what has been called "the great time suck" of social networking sites, about monitoring staff usage or any number of other valid concerns.

From past experience, I suspect no one will just say that they're really not all that social to begin with. So I'll say it here, because there was a time not so long ago when this seemed like a great excuse to me. Despite the fact that I work for an online book trade newsletter, started a bookseller blog five years ago and now have active accounts with the usual social media suspects, I'm not a particularly adept social animal myself.

And you want to know a secret? It doesn't seem to matter. As madcap as the pace can be (type "book" into Twitterfall for a daunting peek), you really do have some control "out there." Want to know something else? I think social networking has improved my social skills in the non-virtual world. Some of you who know me may disagree, but I have a hunch it's true.

Booksellers, like readers and writers everywhere, value privacy and quiet. The prospect of living in a 24/7 social media world, even in a business context, may seem unappealing. But I've learned to use these tools because, in my chosen profession, that's where the people are--just as Willie Sutton once said he robbed banks because that's where the money was.

I post regularly, but not incessantly, on Twitter and Facebook. These contributions reflect my personality, and maybe that's the best advice I can share with the not-so-social among us who are eyeing social media with suspicion. You can be yourself online, personally as well as professionally. 

My approach is a hybrid of what I've learned and what I continue to discover every day. The fact that I still use the phrase "hit the presses" to describe the daily release of this online publication already carbon dates me. When I search for possible additions to the Shelf Awareness news notes section, I persist in using the phrase "checking the wires." Maybe I'm just old school new media, but it works.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue# 1017