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MPIBA Show Takes the Cake

Last Friday, for the second year in a row, the exhibit hall at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Denver opened from 5-7 p.m. for a preview/cocktail hour combo platter. There were snacks and a cash bar; there were casual conversations among friends and networking opportunities for exhibitors and booksellers.

It's a great idea. "Adding in some alcoholic beverages and food really helps," said MPIBA's executive director Lisa Knudsen, who was supervising her final show before retirement. "I'm just a great believer in people eating and drinking together."

And then, quite suddenly, there was a cake.
Before--and after--the cake, however, the conversations at this show were all about the business of books. I talked to many booksellers in Denver, and left impressed by their generally positive outlook about the current state of the book trade. Business is, well, not bad, which is a quantum leap from where we were just a couple of years ago.

One of the buzz themes at the MPIBA show turned out to be independent publishing. An early panel--"Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?"--created some serious heat that carried over into conversations I subsequently had with booksellers, authors and publishers--independent as well as traditional. There were some questions raised here that are being asked worldwide and probably won't yield clear answers any time soon--What is a publisher? What is a book? Can we talk about all that?


On the final day of the show, I moderated a panel during MPIBA's first-ever Writers & the Independent Marketplace conference, which was held in tandem with the bookseller show. That discussion convinced me we can talk... and will... soon. I'll be revisiting those Denver conversations later this month.

As often happens at these shows, visiting authors took the time to thank indies for their support. At the regional awards breakfast, adult fiction winner C.J. Box (for Below Zero) said that when his first book came out, he was sent on a one-city tour to L.A., where his escort offered some advice that he's followed through 11 subsequent titles: Books are sold one at a time from a bookseller recommending them to a reader. "I know how that works," Box told the assembled booksellers. "It comes from you saying to a potential reader, 'You might like this.' "

During the author luncheon on Saturday, Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, also expressed his gratitude, saying, "You're in the right business," and offering special thanks to Colorado booksellers Maria's Bookshop, Durango, and Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, as well as Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan., for their early handselling passion for his novel.

There were many other highlights at this year's show that will be noted in coming weeks, but the primary emotional undercurrent here was a bittersweet awareness that this would be the final MPIBA event for Lisa, whose well-earned retirement comes after more than 22 years as executive director and 30 years total in the book business.

In her letter to members last month announcing her intentions, Lisa wrote she was "looking forward to spending lots more time in my sadly neglected garden, to re-acquainting myself with the contents of my bookshelves, and especially to volunteering in the schools helping children learn to read."

On Friday night at the exhibit hall cocktail hour, we were called together near a podium and MPIBA president Meghan Goel of BookPeople, Austin, Tex., started things off by acknowledging sadness regarding Lisa's departure, but also noting this night was "really a celebration" for someone who has been "the real backbone of what we've done."

Three subsequent speakers offered personal, heartfelt, sometimes tearful recollections. "I was a board member when Lisa was hired in 1987. She was the perfect choice," said Nancy Rutland, as of today the former owner of Bookworks, Albuquerque, N.M. (Shelf Awareness, September 27, 2010).

"What Lisa does, has done and will always do is she connects us," Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands, Tempe, Ariz., observed. "I have made some of my very best friends through Nancy and this association. What Lisa has enabled us to do is become friends as well as colleagues."

"A few minutes ago I was saying, 'Where's Lisa?' " said Tattered Cover's Cathy Langer, "and I realized that's been the mantra for 22 years."

FInally, Lisa came to the podium and the crowd erupted with applause. "For 22½ years, MPIBA has been my home, and in addition to my daughter, it has been my family. I have a real clear conscience because all of us have been doing the good work," she said before concluding: "When you're a bookseller, you're a bookseller for life."

There were more tears and then, at last, there was that cake.

Earlier this week, Lisa reflected that she'd been, as you might expect, particularly moved by the celebration on Friday: "It was just huge for me. It was one of the loveliest times of my life. To have women who are goddesses speak that way; to have the opportunity to know these women and that they have thought enough of me to say such great things about me was wonderful. They are friends for life.... And now I can just toddle off into my sunlit gardens."--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1295.

Note: Photos courtesy of Drew Goodman, University Campus Store at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.


The Present Is Prologue & Dialogue

Where are the flying cars? Okay, the future hasn't turned out quite the way we imagined it might during the middle of the 20th century. In the book trade, it is the present that sometimes feels like it is "beyond our wildest dreams" (the false promise of any future).

But we bookish folk have always toiled in the future, reading ARCs of books that won't be published for months and trying to keep pace with news of the feverish daily changes that engulf us in the form of the latest e-reading devices (no, wait, there's an even better version just out now! And another! And another!) or the biblio-flying car wonders of an Espresso Book Machine soaring through Google's tome cloud. Future. Present. What's the difference?

This week I'm in Denver, Colo., for the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Trade Show. It's the third MPIBA show I've covered during my four-plus years as an editor at Shelf Awareness. In preparation, I glanced through my notes from the prior two shows and found that certain themes emerged, the most intriguing one being the gradual shift from a future-focus in 2006 to a present-focus in 2010.

In 2006, what might happen next was on everyone's agenda.

"I don't know what's going to happen. The changes in the next 15 years will make the changes in the last 10 look like nothing," said Dave Weich, who was then at Powell's Books, Portland Ore. At the time, I called it the wisest statement of the weekend. He also noted that Powell's had "sold e-books for six years or so for Adobe Reader, Microsoft Reader, Palm Reader. They account for about 1% of our sales." He projected notable gains in those numbers when the long-anticipated--but then still unrealized--development of a first-rate reading device occurred. "People are committed to their device, not to their desktop computer. Eventually there is going to be an iPod for books; that's when e-books will explode."

Technology was the prevailing theme of MPIBA's 2006 panels, which featured titles like "Essential Technologies: An Overview," "Digital Media Formats and the Independent Bookstore" and "Capturing the I and My Generation (iPods, IMs and MySpace)." During the Digital Media Formats seminar, a panelist used the term "fiber-based books" to describe print editions and the audience laughed... uneasily.

The ever-prescient Carl Lennertz of HarperCollins stressed the need for every bookstore to have a high-speed Internet connection in order to acquire information from and communicate with publishers. "Catalogues may go online in the next five years," he said, adding that publishers were already offering an array of digital POP materials. He stressed the importance of ongoing communication with customers, citing Constant Contact as "the best invention since Above the Treeline." 

"Interactivity" was mentioned a lot in 2006, along with MySpace and Constant Contact. Our vocabulary wasn't ready for words like Facebook, Twitter, Kindle or iPad. Four years ago, the challenge for panelists was to convince 75% of the people in the room that it mattered to be technologically aware and proficient. Now, such a brief time later, good indie booksellers have adapted to technology and the percentages have changed dramatically in those seminar rooms.

At this week's MPIBA trade show, the panels seem to reflect something of a time and attitude shift. Sharing--well, "stealing," to be precise--ideas is an often heard phrase. The future we envisioned four years ago is now; any future envisioned today may just be a car that never flies, so we're concentrating on doing business in the present and sharing ideas.

We're going to work.

Many of this year's MPIBA panel titles reflect this practical approach:

Charge it! How to Get the Best Credit Card Rates for Your Store
Using Telereps Effectively
Independent Publishers and Booksellers, Can We Talk?
Linked By Passion: Growing Sales Through Local Retail Partnerships
Beyond a Love of Books: How to Transform Booksellers into Industry Advocates


The future is not being ignored by indie booksellers here. It is thoroughly embedded in how they do business and the conversation has branched out. The future, quite literally, is now. The present is prologue. Maybe what we need is a new concept of time. And sorry, still no flying cars. More on MPIBA next week.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1289.


Author Events: Timing is the Key

Perhaps there is an alternate universe, imagined in a lost story by Jorge Luis Borges, where author events are never constricted by time--a land where readings stretch to infinity, no books need be sold and no one in the audience ever, ever gets restless or leaves early.

Unfortunately, for booksellers hosting author events, infinity isn't an option. It takes delicate choreography to get people into their seats at a reasonable time (the five-minute rule), introduce the author, listen to the reading while watching the clock, spark a Q&A session if necessary, escort the author to a signing table and, ideally, sell some books.

Last week, Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., asked an interesting question: "Do any booksellers have a polite way to wrap up/cut off an author who could go on talking all night? I loathe this (cutting people off) and more often than not let people ramble far to long."

An early warning system helps, suggested Mandy King of Boulder Book Store, Boulder, Colo. "We always tell our publicists and authors in the confirmation e-mail that the event should last no longer than 45 minutes, including Q&A. Then, when the author arrives at our store, our event host gently reminds them of this policy. We tell the author that there is a direct correlation between low book sales and events that last longer than 45 minutes. The nudge about book sales usually is enough to make sure the author keeps their presentation within the time limit. It's not a foolproof method, but it works 99% of the time. The other 1%, we jump in with an extra mic during the Q&A and announce that we only have time for one more question."

Cheryl McKeon, formerly of Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash., agreed: "When I hosted, we tried to outline the format to each author before the event, and I'd explain that events 'usually last about an hour, because if people have to leave we don't want them to go before they get to buy a book.' Then, I'd give the 'one more question' signal where the author and the audience could see me--playing the bad cop. If the author was long-winded, he thought the store needed the space, the audience thought the author had a deadline, and nobody was offended. Probably most hosts have some variation on this plan."
Describing himself as "the designated schlepper for off-site events" at the Bookshelf, Cincinnati, Ohio, Charlie Boswell--whose wife, Cary, is one of the bookshop's co-owners--said a "practical suggestion is to remind the authors beforehand that the object is to sell their book, so the Q&A and talk must end at ____, and that you will give them an enormous hint that that time is approaching. If necessary, have a staff person knock over a paperback display to create a noisy diversion, or pinch a baby..."
Shortly before the start of events hosted by the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo., Besse Lynch explains the 30-15-20 format to authors. This includes "30 minutes for the talk including any reading of short passages, 15 minutes of Q&A and 20 minutes of signing. I always point out the clock on the wall in front of the author so that they can pace themselves.

"Of course it never fails that some authors will take the ratio into their own hands. No matter how hard you try to explain that we set the structure for a reason--to entertain our guests and sell books--the author will ultimately do whatever they want, sometimes reading straight from the book for the entire 30 minutes and other times forgoing any sort of presentation at all and heading straight to Q&A. Sometimes I daydream about setting up an author event training course where the author would have to pass a series of practicums and tests before they are sent out on tour... Though ultimately, we never cut off the author; they are the reason we are here."

Donna Paz Kaufman of Paz and Associates said her overall strategy evolved from her experience as a bookseller: "At Davis-Kidd Booksellers and especially in the training field where I often have a tight schedule of guest speakers, I can't let people go on and on. Here's what I've learned from bookstore events and from training mentors:

  1. Tell them in advance how much time they have and let them know you'll give them a five minute warning.
  2. Stand up when it's time for them to wrap-up.
  3. If necessary, begin walking closer to them if they keep going at an uncomfortable and inappropriate length of time.
  4. If they simply don't stop even when they see your cues, keep walking closer and then jump in at the first chance to politely say a kind word about the presentation and say you're sorry you've run out of time. Then you can open things up for questions or invite customers to get their books signed.

"You'll know when to allow an engaging author to go on a little longer," she observed. "You'll also know when customers are getting fidgety. In both cases, you're in charge and others are looking to you to intervene (or not)."

Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., "used to be a booking agent for comedians and the perfect show always leaves the audience a little bit hungry. If an author hits a home run during Q&A, saying something funny, poignant... the perfect ending, whatever, I won't let him ruin it by having the poor schlep answer the same old 'So, what are you reading now?' or 'Are you working on anything new?' or (god help me) 'What is your process?' Bleah!

"I just get up off my stool at the back of the room (or wherever I'm standing) and just walk straight for them clapping and saying 'That was amazing! Thank you so much! If you have any more questions for the author, I'm sure he'd be happy to answer them for you as he signs your book.' That rewards the people who bought a book and shuts down the ones who just came to the event because they love to hear the music of their own voice. You know who I'm talking about. I admit I did actually turn the lights off once.  Sometimes you just have to tell people the old saw: 'You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!' "--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1283.


The Five-minute Rule

New York's commuter trains have the one-minute rule. Booksellers have the five-minute rule. When I hosted events, I could set my watch by the audience members who arrived at 7:05 for a 7 p.m. event. Turns out my experience isn't unique.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn N.Y., said, "We so have a five-minute rule. It's actually a five- to 10-minute rule, which sometimes goes as long as 20. We rarely have people show up en masse until about two minutes after the event is supposed to start, so we give them some time to settle in. One time only we got an annoyed e-mail that we had waited too long to start (which was kind of fair--it was 25 minutes later and the author was drinking wine in the back with her friends and the customer didn't realize she could have joined in the wine drinking rather than waiting in her seat.) But punctual, our Brooklyn audiences are not."

"Five-minute rule for sure," agreed Bookshop Santa Cruz's Casey Coonerty Protti. "Santa Cruz is a last-minute audience as well and we don't want to prematurely cut off browsing for the author event book or anything else. Our start time is 7:30 so people are usually trying to fit in dinner after work and make it to our event. Now, for the huge events that people are lining up way in advance, we usually start more on time.  Also, sometimes authors don't arrive until 7:30 on the dot!"

Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., uses "the five-minute rule because yes, many people run late. We don't have the problem that we had for years now that the freeway is 18 lanes wide--the authors were always the late ones! On the other hand, I start both store bookclubs and storytime on the dot. The attention span of a two-year-old may only be five minutes and I like to finish book club in the evening and go home (especially since I've been here since 9 a.m.)."

The rule is often in effect at Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wis., though Daniel Goldin said he's "been known to start as late as 7:15, depending on other factors. And still I usually get as many as a third of my customers coming to events after they start. I've not had any complaints, though I do have the other rule that the people lose interest after an hour (in that purchases go down and sometimes folks even start walking away), and I suspect they include that five-minute delay in their 60 minutes."

Malaprop's Bookstore, Ashville, N.C., is "not strict on starting," said Linda Barrett Knopp. "We are located downtown and sometimes finding a parking spot is a challenge, so many people do arrive en masse right at 7 p.m. or a few minutes after. Our customers are pretty laid back ('relaxed' is the vibe in Asheville). If we were super punctual, it might freak them out."

Local rules apply for Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., according to Chuck Robinson: "We tell folks that we start at 7 p.m., Bellingham time, which is five minutes behind the rest of the world. We've had no problems with this. Bellingham is a real 'last minute' town."

The five-minute rule is a natural extension of the way events are held at McLean and Eakin Bookstore, Petoskey, Mich. According to Matt Norcross, "We tend to begin our signings with a little mingling and wine & cheese with the author and the 'start time' is when we try to direct people to their seats so we can get the talk started. We have had many event start times dictated by the author, though, as I'm sure many other booksellers have. I've 'tap danced' and did an impromptu book talk while an author kept over 120 people waiting an extra 30 minutes (frankly, I ended up with a lot of extra sales because of it) and I've even had to call the local bar once to get the author off the stool and into the store. Events, even the best-planned, are always an adventure."  

Starting time strategy "is constant conversation here and we generally take it on a case by case basis," said Besse Lynch of the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo. "Our events are structured a bit differently than most other indie bookstores. Typically when we host an author, we close the store and sell tickets to the event to including wine and appetizers (from our cafe). Because this format naturally lends itself to conversation and a cocktail party style gathering, our guests usually don't mind that we start a few minutes late. They get a chance to nibble on some yummy treats, catch up with friends and even mingle with the author before we start the show."

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan., hosts more than 300 offsite events a year, so timing is an almost daily concern for Roger Doeren: "Flexibility is favorable over rigidity. We target our author event start times usually at 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m., depending on the venue. Either way, we allow time for our attendees and our authors to comfortably settle in before we officially start our presentation. Sometimes a combination of crowd management, security, traffic and weather can cause slight delays (10 to 15 minutes) in our attendees and authors arriving and settling in on time. We make informative and repetitive announcements for about 30 minutes before our start time so that the arriving attendees are made aware of our upcoming author events, our community partners, our thanks and other details."

So, variations on the five-minute rule are apparently in effect coast-to-coast, but Matt Norcross suggested another events dilemma question: "Do any booksellers have a polite way to wrap up/cut off an author who could go on talking all night? I loathe this (cutting people off) and more often than not let people ramble far too long." Any suggestions?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1277.


Love in the Time of Indie Bookstores

Dating may be hard, but it pales in comparison to the implications and complications of merging two book collections. Now that's really taking a relationship to a new level.

There's been a flurry of media attention recently surrounding the online book-dating site alikewise (Shelf Awareness, August 20, 2010), but it has a successful bricks-and-mortar predecessor in Between the Covers: A Matchmaking Service for Book Lovers, which was started more than a year ago by indie bookstore WORD, Brooklyn, N.Y. Positive response to the idea has since inspired WORD-sponsored singles mixers for readers and even a literary "prom."

Apparently, not everyone is a fan. "Bookshelves Give Daters Yet Another Way to Be Judgmental" was the headline of a recent Jezebel.com post that took a potshot at the notion of literary matchmaking in general and Between the Covers in particular.

For WORD manager Stephanie Anderson, however, the concept is simply a logical extension of the Greenpoint bookstore's community outreach efforts. The matchmaking board, like WORD's ambitious events schedule (which, effective today, will be headed by occasional Shelf Awareness contributor Jenn Northington as the new events manager), is simply another way to bring readers together in an increasingly unbookish world.

"If you've lived in New York for three days, you know that meeting people here is not easy," said Anderson, adding that the original idea for Between the Covers came to her and WORD's owner Christine Onorati one day when they realized that they "knew all of our customers, but we forget that they don't know each other."

Anderson said that on the board, "people seem to represent extremes of themselves, but it seems to me that the 'likes' are just as--if not more--important than the 'dislikes.' And since conversations are the best way to get to know people, I think the point of our board is to help people find those conversations. We've already hosted two singles mixers this year in an attempt to foster them."

Two enthusiastic supporters of the board's matchmaking potential, as well as the way it reflects what indie bookstores can mean to communities, are Russ Marshalek and Marley Magaziner, who met "on the board" and now live together.

Marshalek praised the bookstore's "massive community work," and called Between the Covers "a brilliant idea, and a move that is only enhanced by sites like alikewise, which fail (in my opinion) to instigate the real-world interaction that WORD does with its quarterly events. Judging someone based on what they read is brilliant--you're going to judge anyway--why not judge someone on a book they've put 14 hours of their life into? I love the fact that Marley and I both read Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms back-to-back within a few weeks of one another. I found them incredible. She found them cold and empty. We discussed it over dinner. That's what a good relationship is, no? But, again, I think the only real story here is the work WORD Brooklyn is doing, continuing to remind us why independent bookstores are vital community centers."

Magaziner likes "the idea that my--now our--local bookstore was a catalyst in our relationship. By the time of WORD's first in-real-life mixer, we were officially boyfriend and girlfriend, which meant I was breaking it off with the kids I met on the Internet to be with the guy who found me through the WORD board. Real life trumps the Internet! When Russ and I moved in together and merged our libraries, we found that we had exactly three of the same books. For two people who consider themselves big readers, and who were drawn to each other based on literary taste, having just three crossovers is pretty striking. The point is, together we have a serious library. We're readers.
"While everyone seems to be whining about the death of the local independent bookstore, WORD has managed to appeal to that facet of our personalities to engage us in a greater community. WORD has managed to latch onto the hyper-local marketing trend--match up people who like books and who visit at the same local bookstore frequently enough to keep an eye on a singles board. To me, it's less important what a person likes, but that a person likes reading. What a person does in his or her free time is a huge window into personality and the specifics of that are important."

For Anderson, the matchmaking board and singles mixers are a natural part of the bookshop's overall effort to bring the community together to talk books, meet one other and maybe even buy a tome or three. It's just what an indie bookstore does. Oh, and then there's WORD's summer basketball league for book lovers, but for that you'll have to pass a test. Question #4: "Name a poet. Any poet."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1273.