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Love Is a Many-Splendored Read

Valentine's Day may seem to be about love, but it is also about words. Well, three words in particular; three words that have been used--and misused--on this particular holiday since most of us were children. Remember the cryptic messages on candy hearts; the anticipatory terror and joy of grammar school Valentine cards for everybody in the class?

"I love you." It's a fine sentence, infinitely complex, filled with emotion and history and danger, yet also quite simple and declarative.

If you're reading this, you are a member of the word tribe and readers, in addition to the traditional person-to-person exclamations, love reading, love books (some much more than others, of course), love particular authors and bookshops and publishers. Some readers have even been heard to proclaim love for their Kindles or iPads or Kobos or Nooks.
Love, for us, is a many-splendored read.

This weekend, indie bookstores nationwide will celebrate Valentine's Day with a variety of events, promotions and sometimes even direct expressions of love--chaste (usually), intelligent and enthusiastic--for their patrons.

For a reader's Valentine's Day, what better gift than a book? They're sugar-free (take that, box 'o chocolates) and they last much longer than roses. Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., suggests "an old fashioned love story--what could be sweeter? Pick up a few for someone you cherish and one more to carry you away in a warm glow."

Here's a sampling of how some other indies are celebrating the momentary warmth of a Valentine's Day weekend in the depths of a cold, cold winter:

In an e-newsletter from Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., Kelly Justice wrote, "We have chocolate for you &/or the object of your affections. Lots of sweet books and a few snarky ones if you're just not feelin' it this year. We also have a very large selection of Valentine's cards this year!!! Don't forget to pick up a sparkly libation to celebrate from River City Cellars! We love them and we love you... and I'm not just saying that. Wait... don't run away! Happy Valentine's Day!"

For the next two weeks, Bank of Books, Ventura, Calif., is giving away bags full of romance novels. Owner Clarey Rudd said, "We have the joy once again to give back to the community, by giving away 5,000 romance books. The bags will be filled with 20 to 40 assorted titles. This brings the total of books given away free to the public to over 115,000 books." Added Carmen Silva: "This is our way of celebrating Valentine's Day with the community. We're helping spread a spirit of giving, of love and romance."

On its store blog, RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, N.H., took a slightly different tack, observing that "it's almost time for that stupid holiday again--Valentine's Day. In the past, I have always thought it was silly that a specific day was designated to show someone that you love them. Love is mushy--I think all the best books are the ones where people get their hearts stomped on, not where they happily ride off into the sunset. This year, well, all I can say is 'le sigh.' Yep, how the mighty have fallen. HOWEVER, even with my new conversion to the Cult of Cupid, I am still going to come to RiverRun on Valentine's Day, to learn about really smart people who did poorly in the romance department. Our good friend Andrew Shaffer will be here to talk about his new book, Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love."

And, finally, as happens in any long-term relationship, sometimes Valentine's Day is a time to reflect. Mysterious Galaxy Books, San Diego, Calif., extended its holiday celebration throughout February with a "We Love Our Customers Month" promotion that was prompted by some soul-searching introspection that co-owner Terry Gilman shared with patrons in the shop's e-newsletter:

"Are we on the cusp of losing your business because of some need we didn't meet or a concern that we didn't address? Will there be a last straw that breaks our book bond with you? I hope not. The staff hopes not. It is always our goal to help you find the book you are looking for, in whatever format you are looking, and within any of the genres we love and stock at the store... or a wide selection of books in print (or electronic editions) from our website. I hope you will tell us if we ever miss the mark so that we can provide you with the best customer service of which we are capable. We look forward to seeing you soon and helping you find the next great book! This is all in line with our 'We Love Our Customers Month,' which we offer to you as thanks for the gifts you have given us as our customers."

Love, as I mentioned before, is complex. Happy Valentine's Day, word people.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1389.


Memory & the "Smell of Books"

"Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land? I loved to smell them when I was a boy. Lord, there were a lot of lovely books once, before we let them go."--from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

It is almost impossible to find an article about the e-books versus print books debate that does not include at least one person citing the importance of the "smell of books" as a primary reason for resisting the digital world's siren song.

If you're an addicted e-book reader who still misses l'odeur des livres, you might choose to compensate for that olfactory void with a can of Smell of Books, "a revolutionary new aerosol e-book enhancer.... Now you can finally enjoy reading e-books without giving up the smell you love so much."

But that is probably not an answer to the real question: Why do we care so much about that smell?

I've been a book person most of my life, yet only recently have I paid much attention to this particular issue. Sure, I loved the smell of those ancient, often untouched volumes that lined the dark wood shelves of our tiny village library when I was a kid. I even love the musty scent of the wares in used and antiquarian bookshops, which dredge up literary dust with every turned page, triggering my allergies. And when I open a newly acquired hardcover, there is something exquisite about that first waft of ink and paper that I cannot replicate with an iPad app... yet.

Addiction, indeed.

Sometimes the reason we smell books is practical. At a used bookstore run by the Friends of the Library, Montgomery County, Md., business manager James Ludlum uses his nose to determine what they will sell: "We get things that are in such poor condition and that you don't want them inside the place because they smell. We can tell the difference between a garage smell and attic smell and a basement smell."

Sometimes the reason is artistic. Artist Rachael Morrison has been smelling books at New York's Museum of Modern Art library and keeping a ledger in which she describes the unique scent of each volume. She daydreams of someone in the future finding her notebook: "Assuming all text has gone digital at that point, I wonder if he or she will think it’s strange or even gross that books once had a smell. What will my notebook smell like?"

Morrison is attempting to capture the ephemeral with her project: "Smelling books is really nostalgic for me--I am often reminded of my grandparents’ homes, or libraries where I used to go when I was a child."

I suspect we're all a little Proustian in that way; it's a madeleine moment for most of us, as old as books and readers.

In 1853, a fan of Harper's magazine wrote to tell the editor how the scent of a new issue served as his own memory catalyst:

There is a peculiar smell about some new books to me; and there is nothing that touches Memory with me like that, unless it is the scale of taste in an apple, or other kinds of fruit. I have come across some apples and pears in the city sometimes, that have taken me back forty years, when I had to live in the country, and pick the same kind up off the ground in the orchard, when there had been a high wind to blow them down. But the smell of the fresh leaves of your book took me back, in memory, further than almost anything else that I remember.

Old Noah Webster's Spelling-book was my first acquisition; with its coarse, blue paper, and white-yellow sheep-skin back, and the strong, or "new-book odor," which pervaded its leaves, when pressed open. This, together with the Third Part and the American Preceptor, was our first literary treasure; and a faint, wandering smell, or rudiment of smell, that floated up to my nostrils as I opened your Magazine, brought back to me the manner in which we procured them; how we cut with sickles the grass, when it was ripe, that grew in the corners of the crooked, zig-zag fences; and having bound it up in bundles, put it in the barn; and when we had gained the necessary leisure, threshed it out, winnowed the seed in an old fanning-mill, and then sold it for "grass-seed;" and how, also, we parted the fresh bark from hemlock-logs in the swamp, piled it up to dry, and then sold it to a neighboring tanner; both of which operations enabled us to "lay in" our school-books, as afore-said, and, likewise, to purchase a copy of Pilgrim's Progress, and--strange juxtaposition--Roderick Random. All this came into my head, and it is now out of it.

That's a classic "smell of books" story. A century and a half later, you can imagine the smell of the new print, the freshly cut grass... and the old, old books--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1384.


Bookstores Don't Have Friends; Booksellers Do 

Tonight we are pleased to welcome (insert author's name here), who's been a friend of the bookstore for many years.

Here's a confession: When I was a bookseller, I invoked "friend of the bookstore" far too many times. It's one of those phrases we use during author introductions because it sounds so good, and is often followed by the visiting writer's generous expression of gratitude as well as--sometimes--a heartfelt paean to indie bookstores.

Long before Facebook devalued "friend," I struggled with the concept of bookstore friends. Frontline booksellers, book buyers, events coordinators or bookshop owners can claim friendship with authors, but bookstores--bricks, mortar, shelving, cash registers--have fans. It's about people, not semantics.
Bookstores don't read books. Booksellers do.

This week I'll tell you a friend-of-booksellers story. Since the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., was the place where I said "friend of the bookstore" occasionally for more than a decade, it seems an appropriate setting for our tale. Now all we need are some characters, so let's cast Jon Clinch, author most recently of the excellent novel Kings of the Earth, as the writer, with Erik Barnum and Karen Frank as the booksellers.

Once upon a time (let's call it 2007), an ARC arrived at a bookshop, as often happens in the beginning of author-bookseller friendship stories.

Karen recalls that she "noticed a galley by a debut author with an intriguing cover and the snappy title of Finn [featuring Huckleberry Finn's 'Pap'] in the buying office. I have always been greedy for fiction by a new author and dove right in. I had never read anything like it. I was shocked and thrilled. After passing it on to fellow booksellers Nancy, Liz and Erik, we began to discuss the novel and agreed that we all needed to get behind this book. And we did, using individual shelf talkers, a group shelf talker (which has only been done twice) and our verbal powers of persuasion. Many readers who trusted us got behind Finn, too, choosing it for book groups and buying it for friends. The response was overwhelming."

The first time he visited Northshire "as a writer," Jon introduced himself to Karen. "I'd gotten word from Random House rep Michael Kindness that she admired Finn. That was a weird and uncomfortable moment, believe me. I'd just driven four hours with my in-laws in the car, on top of everything. My wife and I lived in Pennsylvania at the time, and we passed within a few miles of Manchester on our weekly commute to our place in Vermont. Northshire was an important landmark and a favorite stop for us. The shift in my relationship with the store--How is a writer supposed to act in a bookstore, anyhow? What's he supposed to expect? What do they expect of him?--seemed a little daunting. I should have known that it wouldn't turn out to be all that difficult.

"Karen introduced me around, and I'm willing to bet that one of the folks I met on that first day was Erik. Early on we started talking music. We're both guitar players, and we both adore the late John Hartford. That right there is enough to build a friendship on. We talked books, too, of course. We learned quickly that although our reading tastes intersect at a great many points, they're nowhere near identical. That's okay. It gives us something to laugh about--and it keeps Erik on his toes when he's making recommendations. Our relationship is sustained the way all good relationships are, really, by little stuff: eagerness to see each other more than anything else; that basic human connection."

Although Erik received a Finn ARC because Karen knew of his love for Mark Twain's work, he was initially a reluctant reader: "I'm normally not a fan of what she calls 'rewrit lit,' but she caught me when I was at a point where I hadn't found anything good to read in a while. I loved the book, and touted it to other booksellers who signed on to the Finn train."
Shortly after that, Erik and Jon met and learned of their mutual admiration for Hartford's music: "At one of his early visits, I happened to bring my guitar to the store to give a lesson after work," Erik says, "and he mentioned that he was a guitarist also. We wound up playing some tunes on the sales floor, swapping out the guitar as we each played tunes that we loved. He plays a unique and great rendition of Johnny Cash's 'Big River.' "
After writing Kings of the Earth, Jon sent a copy of the manuscript to Erik, who "was the first civilian other than my wife and my daughter to see Kings when it was finished."

Erik "realized it was something special and altogether different from Finn, a character-driven piece that just sang to me. I teased Jon that I loved Kings in spite of the fact that he wrote it, and the Clinch train moved out of the station again, in much the same way--ending in me hosting his Kings of the Earth event in the store."

Tonight we are pleased to welcome Jon Clinch, who has been a friend of Northshire booksellers for many years.

"Jon and Wendy Clinch had been (and still are) loyal customers of the Northshire and we were already on chatting terms about books," Karen observes. "After meeting and talking to Jon after the publication of Finn, absolutely nothing changed. He was still charming, eloquent and interested in everyone's reactions. Jon is one of the more delightful and sincere authors I have met in my 10 years as a bookseller and I will always remember Finn as a completely rewarding experience. In fact, it continues to be my great pleasure to recommend this marvelous novel."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1378.


Indies E-Handselling Books & Technology

"When you put a book into your cart on Amazon, there's no bookseller, no Mr. Amazon, to consult with about whether your selection is a good choice for you. At indie stores like ours, you can call or drop by to chat with a favorite bookseller whose recommendations you've come to value, then get online and order your pick as a Google eBook. It's a two-step process, of course, but one that preserves what we do best--matching books to readers. That's what we'll continue to do in whatever format works best for each customer."

Anne Holman, co-owner of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, offered that response to a question--How do you handsell the concept that an indie bookstore is the best place to buy a recommended e-book?--I posed shortly after the introduction of the Google eBookstore last month.

More recently, she expressed delight that "we are selling e-books. Our customers' main concern is that we are making money on selling them. Our response has been a resounding 'Yes, thank you!' We feel like this is a golden marketing opportunity for us in terms of no upfront costs and lots of talking points."

Matt Norcross, owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., says it has been "an interesting start to the New Year. We've had a steady flow of e-book purchases so far, which frankly surprised me. It's not 'bringing home the bacon' yet, but it is encouraging and the customers are coming back, sometimes twice in one night. Evening does seem to be the preferred shopping time; almost always after our bricks & mortar store has closed. It has made me a little obsessive about checking the orders every morning, but it's also fun."

E-handselling both the books and the concept of buying e-indie is the challenge. Matt contends that recent developments are "changing the way we need to think about our websites as well. We need to think about improving the browsing of our sites; we need to create the 'I never know what I'll find next' kind of experience that people associate with our physical store on our websites. We also need the publishers to work with us. Currently, they seem surprisingly unprepared to help the indies promote digital sales. Mainly, I've had to discover what our e-book store has to offer the same way our customers do, through our search bar. Some of what I've found, including pricing errors, has even surprised publishers."

Among his positive discoveries, Matt cites "great opportunities" for e-handselling like Chuck Klosterman's The Karl Marx of the Hardwood: An Essay. "I love Chuck K. and this particular essay and it's 99¢ on our website. What a great teaser to get new customers and introduce people to Chuck."

E-handselling works. Based on Matt's recommendation, I purchased a copy of the essay through the bookstore's website. Another satisfied indie e-customer.

He also notes that McLean & Eakin is creating "smart shelf talkers," which use QR codes that "can direct the customer in the store to the e-book version on our website" to help stem the "leakage" caused by customers scanning UPC codes in an indie with their smartphones, and then purchasing elsewhere.

With up to five e-book orders per day, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Calif., has seen "quite a bit of interest from customers about the program," says Casey Coonerty Protti. To fan the e-flames, they've passed out instruction sheets and last week hosted an "e-book petting zoo," at which customers could try various devices, get support with technical questions and learn "about the ways that you can enjoy e-reading while supporting your independent bookstore in the process."

While using such tools as in-store signage, staff education and website promotion to e-handsell, Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., thinks "our conversation with each customer is going to be the best way. We need to figure out who owns the readers. Our customers have been reluctant to talk about them (I think out of a misguided loyalty to us)."

The choice of e-reading devices is a primary concern for Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., who observes that "most of our customers who read e-books are using the Kindle. In fact, all the conversations we've had about e-books have been with Kindle owners. It seems that Kindle is now synonymous with e-readers to many people (kind of like Kleenex is to tissues). We certainly hope this will change with time, as we've lost entire book clubs to the Kindle this year, but Amazon has done such a brilliant marketing job that it's hard to counter that. Now that Staples, Target and Walmart are all selling the Kindle, too, it's even harder to convince people to buy something else. It's also strange to find ourselves in a position where we are sending people to Barnes & Noble to buy the Nook."

Red Fox's owners now have an iPad "so that we can better understand e-books," and Susan notes that on March 10 they will host an event called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About E-books and E-Readers. "We're hoping that this will be a good place to discuss e-readers and e-books with our customers. We are going to invite guest speakers to talk about their experiences, including someone from Barnes & Noble."
E-handselling, like any handselling, is all about the conversation.

During a recent Jonathan Franzen event at Bookshop Santa Cruz, someone asked the author to sign her iPad with a marker. Casey believes "our messaging is getting through. I had a customer tell me that she bought an iPad for her nanny as a holiday bonus. Her nanny had mentioned she wanted a Kindle, so she bought her an iPad and put a note on the front saying that she decided on an iPad instead because that way she could buy her books from an independent bookstore. One down, thousands to go."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1372.


Indie Booksellers & E-Pricing

Indie e-bookselling will probably be a popular conversation topic at ABA's Winter Institute next week, so it makes sense to come back to the discussion we began here before the holidays regarding booksellers' initial response to the Google eBookstore and its potential as (okay, I'll use the term just this once) a "game-changer."

The conversation now turns to pricing because last month, Sarah Pishko of Prince Books, Norfolk, Va., expressed surprise "at how few booksellers have bothered to discount the non-agency titles. I'm thinking primarily about Random House. I spot-checked a number of RH titles, and it looks like our discount would be 41%. So I've got them listed at 30% off, but a lot of major bookstores have failed to do so. That said, I guess I was very lucky to get Scott Nafz on the phone, and he talked me through it."

Chuck Robinson of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., is also surprised by the lack of discounting he's seen thus far: "We decided to discount the non-agency e-books. I know that some stores are adamantly opposed to any discounting (I usually find myself in that crowd), but this seems a special case, since prices were not initially established at bricks-and-mortar retail, but by online retailers. We're not discounting below what we're paying (as online Amazon et al apparently are--unless they're getting special deals), but we figure a sale with any income is better than no sale at all, and it keeps our customer with us."

Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Calif., is discounting bestsellers and many Random House titles, with plans to discount more RH books in the near future. Casey Coonerty Protti notes that "one of the drawbacks of launching in mid-December is that we didn't have the staffing from the get-go to focus on these issues). A few customers have written us about pricing and we've changed books manually to meet their needs." With a touch of humor, she adds it's all "about resources and time, something that indies have in abundance."

Time has also been a factor for Neil Strandberg of the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo.: "As to non-agency pricing, we remain commited to noodling the math of what to discount, by how much, and how to feature it. It just so happens that I've been preoccupied by some very brick-and-mortar concerns these last three weeks: How was the holiday season? How is the payroll level? What must I return? Where's my gross margin?"

The learning curve is key for Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., who says, "We are still learning the Drupal system (we just switched before the holidays, so we haven't had time to play around with it much) and just figuring out how to adjust e-book prices. We are going to lower the prices on some hot titles, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But to be honest, I can't imagine a more daunting task than searching through all Random House and other non-agency titles to change the prices. I suppose for stores with many employees this is do-able (and no doubt Amazon has an entire department to handle this task), but it's just not something we have time for. And since we're not selling any Google eBooks it's hard to feel the urgency behind this."

Up to this point, Lanora Hurley of the Next Chapter Bookshop, Mequon, Wis., has "made the deliberate decision to not adjust the prices. Since there does not seem to be much demand so far, at least from us, I just haven't had the time over the holidays to look at it. I suppose that I should."

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, is anticipating future changes: "We are planning on discounting selected titles that will tie to our internal bestseller list. That way we can still talk about the books we love and offer our customers a deal. We won't be discounting across the board as each publisher seems to have very different discounts but we will be looking at individual titles strategically. "

As far as booksellers choosing not to discount is concerned, Christine Onorati of WORD, Brooklyn, N.Y., observes she "wouldn't be surprised if for some it was just something they don't know how to do on their site, and maybe they don't have a savvy tech person to explain it to them. It is not the most intuitive process, to be honest, and no one wants to discuss pricing and discounts in public forums, so maybe that's a factor? That's the only reason I can think of. But we are discounting everything non-agency by 20%, so our margins of profit for agency and non-agency titles are pretty much the same at that rate."

Onorati also shared a recent pricing story: "One customer e-mailed me about the pricing issue in regards to Cloud Atlas, which she tried to buy from our site, but Google was having technical difficulties with it, so she bought it from Amazon at a considerable discount instead and let me know that--in case I wasn't aware of how cheaply Amazon was selling their e-books. It's definitely one of the biggest frustrations, since most customers don't understand the agency model and the extreme price divide between us and Google direct/Amazon."

The conversation didn't end there, however: "I explained it to her as succinctly as I could, and even explained that I am discounting all non-agency titles by 20%, and she was really nice about it and asked me to suggest a few more e-books that she should consider for a long plane trip. I sent her a few suggestions and the next day she purchased Skippy Dies, an MPS title at a competitive price. So a little bit of explanation seemed to help in that case, and through our e-mail conversation she told me she lives in a neighboring town and therefore can't shop at my store as often as she'd like, but that she's thrilled she can at least purchase her e-books from me, so hopefully I've gained a new loyal customer from it all. I know I won't have the opportunity to explain the pricing issues to all the customers who are confused by it, but we'll do our best to let them know we're discounting as much as we can."

Next week: e-handselling now.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1367.