About FEN
FEN Elsewhere
Buy Books
Looking Backward
Shelf Awareness for Readers
Powered by Squarespace


Just Say No to Robot Booksellers

I blame Joe Queenan for sending me down the robot bookselling rabbit hole this week. "Are We Really Ready for Robot Salespeople?" was his column's headline in the Wall Street Journal recently. "Are there areas where robotic personnel would be a welcome addition to the U.S. economy?" he wrote. "Sure. Robots could easily replace bookstore clerks, dental hygienists, bouncers and college-admissions officers."

"Bookstore clerks" might be robot-replaceable, but not great indie booksellers, whose unpredictable book/author obsessions, evangelistic prime directive ("You must read this!") and emotional ties to their local communities do not necessarily lend themselves to seamless robotic replication.

On the other hand, I'd have to concede that managing robot "bookstore clerks" might be less complicated (until the inevitable robot uprising) than managing indie booksellers, which can seem more like herding bookstore cats. For example, bookstore clerk/robots could easily be programmed to wear a store uniform, while anyone who's ever been in a staff meeting debating the potential introduction of name badges knows all about fierce, if relatively quiet, bookseller uprisings.

That said, our robotic retail future appears to be at hand. Lowe's has unleashed OSHbots, which will "be able to communicate with customers in multiple languages and remotely connect with expert employees... to answer specific project questions." And "food giant" Nestle is deploying "1,000 'emotional' humanoids as sales clerks across its Japanese stores. We are sure that our customers will enjoy shopping and being entertained by robots."

Then there are Amazon's robots and Echos and drones, oh my! From Tuesday's New York Times: "In a promotional video, Echo had aspects of both Mary Poppins and HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with perhaps a touch of The Matrix."

Earlier this year, a designer envisioned the bookstore of the future as "niche, retro, social, inky, bibulous, but with only a few books to buy off the shelf. The idea is that you make your own, with the help of floating robots--choosing the paper, ink, font, leather, even gold leaf--on antique presses and binders."
John Forsyth, chair of the Australian bookstore chain Dymocks, told the Financial Review "the potential for robotics is massive, but that will take us some time to identify." He wasn't referring specifically to booksellers, but still.
As is often the case with future worlds, the warning signs have been around for years. From the digital/robotic archives of the New York Times:

1983: At the New York Is Book Country Fair, "McGraw-Hill Bookstore will have a computer activated by touching its screen. Omni magazine will welcome guests with a robot." And at the American Booksellers Convention in Dallas, booksellers lined up to hug "a red robot who not only walks but also talks a blue streak.... a visible reminder that computers are now an important part of American book publishing and bookselling."

1980: At the ABA meeting in Chicago, a "specter is haunting publishing.... What will bidding goodbye to Gutenberg lead to? The 'paperless' book, say the futurists. And what will the old-fashioned publishers, editors and authors be creating for their new hardware? Answer: not books but 'software' to feed the electronic robots."

1977: The ABA show in San Francisco featured "a five-foot-tall robot selling The Encyclopedia of How It Works... The robot's electric voice asked, 'Would you like to know how I work?' And gave back the answer: 'Get mommy to buy my book.' "

1930: "A grotesque figure" spoke during the ABA's dinner. "Two glassy eyes, one green and one red, stared from its flat face.... A row of little bulbs where the collarbone should have been were illuminated a grid-glow tube in the thorax flashed. Then this mechanical man began to speak.... Televox asked, almost coyly, 'I wonder if there are any questions.' 'What is your favorite book,' asked J.P. McEvoy, the toastmaster. 'My favorite book," responded Televox. "is Is Sex Necessary?"

Where will robotic handselling ultimately lead us as a civilization? You've seen that movie. As film trailer voice-overs like to say, "In a world where..."

Imagine robots working for a few years as bookstore clerks until they finish their novels and become robot authors. Far-fetched? Last month, organizers of Japan's Hoshi Prize for science fiction "decided to open up entries to aliens and computers," hoping that next year's competition "will see stories created by artificial intelligences going up against those written by humans, with judges to be unaware of who--or what--wrote an entry until the winner is chosen."

Are they already among us? Just ask yourself this: Would a human mind consciously link these four professions: "bookstore clerks, dental hygienists, bouncers and college-admissions officers"? Or did a robot "easily replace" Joe Queenan? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2386.


Regional Education Panels: 'Ideas that Work'

"This is the one time we all get to legally plagiarize and steal from our colleagues," said moderator Andy Nettle of Back of Beyond Books, Moab, Utah, in 2011 at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show, during an education session titled "Best Thing I Did this Year." I've attended several variations on this theme of sharing great bookseller ideas, retail and otherwise, over the years, and always come away from them impressed by the braided spirits of creativity and partnership they represent.

Jessilynn Norcross

"The object of this morning is to collectively share ideas. Some of the best ideas can come from the person sitting next to you," Jessilynn Norcross, co-owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., said last month to open the Heartland Fall Forum's education plenary session "Ideas That Work (and Those That Don't): "Bring one thing that worked for you as a bookseller over the past year and one thing that didn't and we'll share in our common missteps and success!"

She began the conversation by sharing her initial skepticism earlier this year when her husband and co-owner, Matt Norcross, was lobbying for the bookstore to sell vinyl records and turntables. "Finally, I said, 'How big was this investment going to be?' " she recalled. "It ended up completely taking off.... Our town currently doesn't have a music store. We identified a need." The bookstore is even getting into vinyl early Christmas spirit this week. She cited Baker & Taylor for vinyl and Deerpark Distributors for turntables as the bookstore's primary sources, adding that the margin is healthy in this category.

Many of the "ideas that worked" shared by booksellers involved online marketing. A quick poll of the audience found that more than half had an active Twitter account, a fact that would have seemed unlikely, if not downright startling, just a few years ago. Among the online ideas shared:

  • Text marketing for store event reminders.
  • Using a social media company (SnapRetail and Boutique Window were noted as options). One bookseller praised this alternative for "doing your social media for you because I don't have a social media person on staff."
  • Posting photos of booksellers with their staff picks and links to the authors' Facebook or Twitter pages (and don't forget to put those magic symbols # and @ to good use). 
  • Promoting through photos of local "celebrities." A bookstore posted a pic of their UPS delivery guy posing for a bookish mugshot during Banned Books Week.

Strategies for dealing with the never-cresting wave of ARCs sent to bookstores generated many suggestions, including the seasonally appropriate idea that booksellers could wrap ARCs during the holiday season (even better, wrap them in Indiebound flyers) and offer them to customers as gifts. Other suggestions:

  • Always "brand" the ARCs you're giving out with a self-inking store stamp.
  • When someone buys a title from the staff picks display, give them a wrapped ARC.
  • Develop ARC reading groups in local schools, or solicit reviews from students to showcase on social media.
  • Use ARCs on Blind Date With a Book displays as giveaways.

Speaking of Blind Date with a Book, Norcross observed that the promotion, which "a lot of stores started doing for Valentine's Day, has really been a big, big hit," quickly evolving into a year-round promotional option for many bookstores.

Jill Miner of Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, Mich., noted that she has an official store typeface for all signage, and uses inexpensive picture frames to showcase "the important things we want to communicate. If it's not frameworthy, scraps of paper won't do."

Reading groups came up several times during the session. I particularly liked the idea of short-run, pop-up book clubs such as the Summer Reading Rainbow, which Left Bank Books, St. Louis, Mo., created around Rainbow Rowell's works last summer ("It's going to have a beginning, middle and end," said Left Bank's Jarek Steele.). And Nicola's Books, Ann Arbor, Mich., has hosted "Book in a Bar" and "Noir at the Bar" events. "It's a great way to find a niche that you're into and get a book club going," said Lynn Riehl. "The publisher is your partner in this and they want you to be successful."

At the end of this session, one question remained unanswered: What were the ideas that didn't work? Maybe it's a positive sign that success, rather than failure, was on everyone's minds at HFF. And maybe the best takeaway from this fall's regional bookseller shows would be that so many great ideas are working and, as Andy Nettle advised, available to "legally plagiarize." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2381.


Age-Appropriate Reading

When Simon and Garfunkel were considering old friends sitting on their park bench like bookends in 1968, I was 18 and devouring Graham Greene's The Quiet American for the first of many times.

We return to certain authors as to a familiar hearth (and like fire, the best can sear as well as warm us). Greene is one of those writers for me, as are Walker Percy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joan Didion, Thomas Merton, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

And May Sarton. I first read The House by the Sea when I was in my early 30s. She seemed to be speaking to me directly. Now the voice living in those pages and I are about the same age ("I can't stop doing what I have always done, trying to sort out and shape experience."). Her power is undiminished.

New editions by kindred reading spirits are like renewed conversations with old friends:

I met John Berryman's poetry in a college class, where His Toy, His Dream, His Rest was a required text ("I always wanted to be old. I wanted to say/ 'O I haven't read that for fifteen years' "). To mark the centenary of his birth, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has just published The Heart Is Strange: New Selected Poems, and is reissuing 77 Dream Songs, Berryman's Sonnets, and The Dream Songs.

Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry & Gary Snyder (Counterpoint) welcomes me back to Snyder's world, which I entered in 1971 when I bought Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems for $1.50.

Donald Hall's Essays After Eighty (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Dec. 2) is an eloquent and bracing reminder of just how essential this man's voice and hard-won perspective have been in my life.

I was Romeo's age when I first encountered Shakespeare; now I'm closer to Lear's. If I'm any wiser (the jury is still out), it's only because of a select group of age-appropriate writers who continue to guide me on this journey. --Published in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Regional Education Panels: Turning 'No' into 'Yes'


"Getting Out of Your Own Way--Turning 'No' into 'Yes.' " wins my unofficial award for best educational programming session title of the year. Held during the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show in Denver, the panel featured Julie Wernersbach of BookPeople, Austin, Tex.; Katie Rothery of the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo.; and Jeremy Ellis of Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.

"No" is a word indie booksellers try to avoid as much as possible. It isn't just about the pain of a customer rejecting your best handselling technique for a book you love. In fact, that's a moment when "no" is simply a catalyst to introduce alternative titles in a never-ending quest for the exquisite response: "That sounds amazing. I'll try it!"

Jeremy Ellis, Katie Rothery and Julie Wenersbach

Specific book requests are another issue altogether. Consider the moment of retail tension when a customer asks for a particular title (or uses words, sounds and even gestures to approximate the particular title). The ideal, of course, is to be able to say, "Yes, we have that in stock." But this is a numbers game, and more often than not booksellers have to find a way to magically transform a cold "no" into something resembling a soothing, hopeful "yes."

Rothery observed that one key to this is "coming up with creative ways to say yes. They don't have to know that you're jumping through hoops," and Ellis noted that Brazos "has a solve-the-customer's-problem policy."

"It's all about the language," Wernersbach agreed, suggesting, for example, that after checking distributor inventory in the computer for a book not on your shelf, a bookseller could say, " 'We have it in our warehouse,' making it sound like you actually have it in your universe."

Another option--"The book is on its way."--was recommended by Ellis, who added that it is not an ethical issue to leave the supplier's precise geographic location out of the conversation, since "the ethics of the bookstore are to keep the business alive and vibrant."

If the customer is still hesitant to order, Rothery suggested telling them: "You're not obliged to buy it."

Whatever your strategy, being concise and direct is the key, according to Ellis: "The more words you put into that conversation from the first request, the farther away you get from the solution."

Out-of-print titles present another dilemma, especially in an age when Amazon has gobbled up many of the traditional OP sources like Bookfinder and AbeBooks. Rothery noted that one way of saying "yes" in this case is redirecting customers to Powell's or Alibris, while Ellis said he tries to order OP books when possible.  

And how do booksellers turn "no" into "yes" for the ever-increasing wave of self-published authors at their door requesting shelf space and events? This question drew a roomful of empathetic nods, as well as several comments about the importance of having a program in place and following strict guidelines. Arsen Kashkashian's pioneering Boulder Book Store consignment policy was mentioned as a model many have adopted or adapted. Rothery noted: "We want to support self-published authors, but we limit it to Rocky Mountain authors."

Sometimes, of course, "no" can be an inside job, showing up in discussions among bookstore staff members. This can be especially true when new ideas are presented for consideration. Tattered Cover "is just trying to get rid of 'no' from our vocabulary," Rothery observed.

When he arrived at Brazos three years ago, Ellis said, "I didn't pay attention to the history of 'No, it's always been this way.' " He cited as an example the traditionally low sales figures during summer months and his proposal to "take the idea of summer and market it as we did Christmas." Utilizing postcards, children's programming and more, including a Summer of Proust celebration that featured the Brazos Book Group reading Swann's Way, the strategy resulted in a "huge boom for our summer business."

Wernersbach mentioned two recent initiatives at BookPeople that met with some early resistance. One was National Bookstore Day for the BookPeople Nation: "I got a lot of no's initially at the store, but I said, I'm just going to try it and everybody got on board." The other idea was inspired by the "Trust Fall" promotion created earlier this year by Jill Hendrix of Fiction Addiction, Greenville, S.C. For its variation on the theme, BookPeople chose Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. "Seeing our buyer's enthusiasm, we all got into it," Wernersbach said, adding: "A lot of saying yes in what I do is saying it might fail, but that's okay."

Despite all best efforts, sometimes you do just have to say "no," but Ellis counseled: "I say no to a lot of things, if it's not who we are. This is about knowing who you are, and saying yes to the things that will reflect who you are." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2376.


Regional Education Sessions: Sidelines Buzz 

"The only thing you deserve is the chance to do the work," Kate DiCamillo said a few weeks ago at the Heartland Fall Forum, co-hosted by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association. As I mentioned recently, I've been encouraged by the trend in bookseller educational programming to focus more on doing the work--on getting better rather than just getting by.

"That is exactly what we are trying to do," said GLIBA executive director Deb Leonard. "Both boards are creative and focused, and we want to continue to give our members the kind of education that helps our stores adapt to the evolving challenges of bookselling in the 21st century. We listen to the feedback we get from our booksellers, and try to incorporate their suggestions for the next year."

Eric Heidemann, Cecile Fehsenfeld, Kelly Estep & Jessilynn Norcross

In upcoming columns, I'll share a few things I heard and learned at education sessions this fall, beginning with a Sidelines Buzz Panel at HFF. Moderator Jessilynn Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., was joined by Eric Heidemann of Fujii & Associates, Cecile Fehsenfeld of Schuler Books (with stores in Grand Rapids, Lansing & Okemos, Mich.) and Kelly Estep of Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ken.

Norcross suggested there are three priorities to consider when dealing with sidelines in a bookshop: available space, the passion to sell certain items and whether you have particular customers in mind for them.

"Don't be afraid to try something new," advised Fehsenfeld, who admitted the decision to diversify had not been an easy one for her. "We'd always been purists. My staff had to argue with me to put greeting cards in 30 years ago." Ultimately, however, "It actually has been a positive and not a negative, which I was afraid of." She backed up her opinion by noting that she was wearing earrings, a necklace and scarf that are all fair trade products carried by her store: "Fair trade happens to be huge for us. It's most gratifying."

"Zen Display" at Schuler Books

To source useful information on sidelines, Norcross recommended Giftware News., adding: "It's also important to see what's happening on the West Coast. There are a lot of companies that are based out there." She noted that McLean & Eakin "tries not to carry things that are going to be carried downtown or near us." When ordering from sidelines vendors, she said "meeting minimum orders may be optional. All you have to do is ask.... Offer to pay up front to get lower minimums. And co-op is often available; they just don't call it that." Most of all, she counseled, "Ask your customers, 'Would you buy this?' "

"If you like something, try it. The bottom line is your staff has to be passionate about it," Heidemann said, adding that vendors "love doing sample request orders." He also noted that "pictures are worth dollars," encouraging booksellers to send display photos to their sales reps.

Regarding price points, Norcross suggested "looking at the product before you look at the pricing. How much would you pay for it if you were the customer?" Estep agreed: "I choose to price my sidelines when they come in and I look at them." Fehsenfeld noted that her standard markup is 120%, and Norcross added: "You can always lower your price. You can never raise your price."

When the conversation turned to displaying merchandise, Fehsenfeld cited the standard 80-20 rule, but added this reservation: "While 20% of your product is going to produce 80% of your sales, you still have to have enough items to make the display look good."

Bird display at Carmichael's

Be creative, Estep advised, noting that sales of Sterling bird kits at Carmichael's spiked only after she created a front window display featuring already-assembled birds perched on a limb: "I think we've sold 60 boxes now." Heidemann called this "the difference that four birds can make in sales," and reiterated: "Don't eat that cost. Ask for a sample."

Schuler's display of Crabtree & Evelyn products "sells really, really, well," as do $3 chocolates placed near the cash registers, Fehsenfeld said, offering high praise as well for the store's cross-promotional "Zen display," which "has been up for three years and we just keep changing products."

Discussing shelf life for sidelines, Fehsenfeld observed that "when something gets to be six months old and hasn't sold, it isn't going anywhere." While the store watches inventory turn carefully, "the more product we add, it seems like our turns slip a little." Norcross cautioned, however, that "the turn for a gift item is not the same as for a book. It will be high on Chapstick or glasses, but the higher-priced items, you want to give more of a grace period."

Staircase puzzle display at McLean & Eakin

And, in an election year, Heidemann noted that with more communities instituting plastic bag bans, sales of products like Envirosax and ChicoBags are increasing: "Sometimes politics provides opportunity."

Booksellers talking to each other. What a concept. Carrie Obry, MIBA's executive director, told me that total attendance (exhibitors, attendees, and authors) at HFF this year was 882, up from 748 in 2013 (Chicago) and 770 in 2012 (Minneapolis). Notably, attendees numbered 408, a substantial increase from last year's 304 and 373 in 2012. More is better, especially during the education sessions involving booksellers with a wide range of experience, challenges and solutions. I learn something every time. Class will be in session again next week. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2371.