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Friday
Sep212018

The Question--What Business Are You Really In?

"Good marketing makes a company look smart, but great marketing makes a customer look smart," Terry O'Reilly writes in his book This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the Influence (Chicago Review Press), where he poses what I'll call The Question: "What business are you really in?"

For bookstores, the pat answer is, well, selling books, yet every bookseller I know would make that part of a catalogue of resources along with providing a community center, a safe space for the exchange ideas, title curation and much more. You know the list; it's probably in your mission statement.

But that's not what he's asking. O'Reilly contends that the actual answer is at once more simple and more complex than a list of objectives, services or even ideals. "Don't answer that question too quickly," he advises. "Most people get it wrong. Yet it's the most important marketing question you can ask yourself."

He offers some intriguing examples: Molson isn't in the beer business; it's in the party business. Michelin isn't in the tire business; it's in the safety business. Häagen-Dazs isn't in the ice cream business; it's in the sensual pleasure business. Whitewater rafting companies aren't in the personal transportation business; they're in the personal transformation business. Apple isn't in the computer business; it's in the personal empowerment business. And Nike isn't in the shoe business; it's in the motivation business.

Of course, Nike stands out at the moment because it has dominated sports and news media headlines in recent weeks, thanks to an ad campaign that motivated both sneaker-torching boycotts and ardent support.

Just yesterday, Reuters reported that Nike "has sold out 61% more merchandise since the controversial ad campaign featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick appeared earlier this month." According to research by Thomson Reuters, Nike sold out far more items between September 3 and September 13 than in the 10-day period before the ad came out, "discounted fewer products in the 10-day period after the ad and saw its Colin Kaepernick women's jersey sell out on September 17.... Shares in Nike have rebounded from an initial drop when the first versions of the ad were released, hitting a record high a little over a week later."

It ain't about the shoes. "Nike makes us care because it encourages us to make an important decision," O'Reilly contends, having noted earlier in the book that a "truism of business is that what you sell and what people buy are almost always two different things. Companies look to sell products, and customers look to buy solutions."

International corporate leviathans and indie booksellers may not have a lot in common, but The Question demands a unique response from every business.

"Customers are drawn to a brand--be it a product or a service--for many reasons," according to O'Reilly. "But the most important, overriding reason is how it makes them feel. Price, location, color and so on all rank well below this single criterion.... People make decisions based on emotions, then rationalize that decision with details."

"Successful retailers today do more than sell a great product. They embody values people respect and tell a story customers want to be a part of," the National Retail Foundation reported in showcasing two discussions from its recent Shop.org event in Las Vegas.

A pair of ABA Winter Institute moments came to mind as I thought about The Question.

Daniel Pink at Wi

At the end of his keynote during Wi13 in Memphis last January, Daniel Pink said: "The good news is [pointing to various parts of the audience] you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you and all the people in the back. The good news is people like you. Booksellers. People who care about the life of ideas; people who care about the integrity of the community; people who care about science; people who care about truth. And so, when I am feeling despairing about what's going on in the country, I think about people like you, the booksellers who are out there making a difference in the world, who are bringing ideas to people, who are bringing great stories to people and who are a bulwark against all the bad things that are going on. So, thank you for selling books, and thank you for being the source of good news."

And at Wi12 in Minneapolis, DIESEL: A Bookstore owner John Evans said that "historically bookstores, especially some of the older stores, have a little bit of a conflicted idea about the very idea of branding," yet when he walks "into Three Lives in New York or Watermark Books in Wichita, Kans., or City Lights in San Francisco I have three different experiences. They're particular, specific and expressive of the personalities of the people who work there and their philosophies, policies, procedures, labor practices, visions and display & design choices. This is in addition to what we tend to focus on--selection of books, curation.... This session is taking a more conscious look at the ways in which we, consciously or unconsciously, body forth our values, ideas, visions and personalities in our stores as an entity called the bookstore, as a culture of booksellers, and as a business. This can also be called how we brand ourselves."

The Question is an intriguing exercise. In a word or two, what business are you really in?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3339

Friday
Sep142018

Great Bookshop Expectations

"As I was loitering along the High Street, looking in disconsolately at the shop windows, and thinking what I would buy if I were a gentleman, who should come out of the bookshop but Mr. Wopsle." --Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Last week I considered the mystery of why so few experienced booksellers had applied for an extraordinary tropical resort bookselling gig. Then I saw Isabel Coixet's film adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's novel The Bookshop, which sparked further thoughts about the whole "I've always dreamed of opening a bookstore" fantasy.

"The Bookshop is an example of what is called 'a hard sell,' " David Nicholls wrote in his introduction to the 2015 reprint edition of Fitzgerald's novel. "It could make a fine film, but a faithful adaption would have to take on board the author's refusal to provide easy or comforting answers.... Penelope Fitzgerald defies those clichés with glee, and this is precisely what makes her a great novelist. Expectations are constantly denied, explanations withheld."

Expectations, great and otherwise, "are constantly denied." The Bookshop is a bookseller fantasy beatdown. I should have remembered that when I suggested about a year ago that Coixet's upcoming film might eventually "become a viable, 21st-century movie allusion alternative" to that perennial media darling You've Got Mail, which is referenced in 80% of bookstore news coverage. It probably won't, but that's no fault of the excellent film, which takes some liberties with the novel--especially the ending--that I don't begrudge at all.

No book was harmed in the making of this movie. As Neil Gaiman tweeted recently in response to a fan's concerns regarding the upcoming Good Omens adaptation: "The book is the book. The people in your head are your people."

Great bookshop expectations pop up everywhere I look lately. Dutchman Ceisjan Van Heerden just won a Welsh bookshop in a raffle. The Guardian reported that Paul Morris, who opened Bookends in Cardigan four years ago, "wanted to give someone else the chance to realize their dream of running a bookshop. Over the last three months, anyone who spent more than £20 (about $25) was eligible to be entered into a raffle to win it."

Expressing shock at the news, Van Heerden said: "I love books and read a lot and just happened to be in the shop when a TV crew was making a film about Paul's decision to raffle it off and I bought a ticket." He officially takes over Bookends November 5 and is planning to run it with an online friend from Iceland that he's never met but who's moving to west Wales. "It might sound strange, but we are sure we can make it work. It is just an amazing opportunity," Van Heerden added.

What could go wrong? I'm working on that screenplay now. And yet, and yet... the tiny bookshop that could fantasy is not always doomed by delusionally great expectations. Otherwise the dream could not sustain itself.

Consider Volume, which was recently named New Zealand Bookshop of the Year after only 20 months in business. In an op-ed for the Nelson Mail, Ro Cambridge wrote that the Nelson shop is "located on a street with little foot-traffic, and virtually no car parking. It's got hardly any room either, barely any history and does no advertising. On the main street, only a short walk away, there are three other shops selling books.... Volume is small but mighty, and its diminutive size hasn't held it back from taking some giant strides."

Volume is run by co-owners Stella Chrysostomou and Thomas Koed, "a tag-team of only two" who "are paddling furiously below the placid surface of their little bookshop, but there's no evidence of that when you drop in to browse. The shop always feels tranquil and quietly welcoming," Cambridge observed. "Stella and Thomas always have time to talk. You feel truly met, just as you are, and welcomed via the world of books, into dialogue, ideas, understandings, connection. Although there's no dumbing down, there's no condescension either. They built it, and just like the movie, we came."

The Field of Dreams reference is a refreshing alternative to the You've Got Mail analogy. Volume's owners have succeeded "because in part, they made us fall in love with them and their enterprise. We fell in love with them because of their chutzpah, their brains, their style and their deep interest in books and people. We fell in love with their enterprise because it says something about the power of a community of interest, the triumph of small over big, the personal and individual over the impersonality of the mass-marketed. Though we hardly knew that's what we longed for, we fell in love with it when it appeared."

Field of Dreams, she added, "is a strange mix of the utterly prosaic and real, and the utterly magical and mysterious, and yet it works. So does Volume. That magical experience of finding something you never thought possible is possible at Volume. By combining realistic business practices, with their own brand of magic, Stella and Thomas have created something highly unlikely: a tiny but successful bookshop on small one-way street, in a small town, in a small country, 1,000s of miles from anywhere. They built it. And we have come."

Bookshop of Dreams, anyone?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3334

Friday
Sep072018

Barefoot Bookselling on a Tropical Island

Imagine you've washed ashore on a tropical island. A castaway. Robinson Crusoe. Imagine palm trees, a gentle breeze, the sound of waves lapping the sand. Imagine you see a distant figure--human, animal, you can't tell at first--approach along the beach, a tiny dot that gradually becomes more defined. Another person! You're not alone! Imagine she is barefoot, dressed in shorts and a brilliant flowered shirt. She waves, comes forward. Help at last! She stops a few feet away and asks: "Do you stock that book with the blue cover that was advertised in the Sunday Times?"

Earlier this month, we highlighted a particularly intoxicating job notice reported by the Guardian: "Wanted: barefoot bibliophile willing to punt Daniel Defoe to rich, modern-day Robinson Crusoes at a luxury desert island resort." Philip Blackwell, founder of Ultimate Library and scion of the British bookstore chain family, was seeking a "Man Friday for possibly the world's most remote bookshop, based in the luxury eco resort of Soneva Fushi in the Maldives." The position is held for three months, and then a new barefoot bookseller takes over.

"The pay is derisory but the fringe benefits unparalleled," Blackwell said. "The role will evolve and it is in part up to you to make the most of this unique opportunity. It's a dream job for many people. If I was 25 again I would do it.... We want someone on the ground who is creative and inspiring and can maybe get more people to share the pleasure of reading, which is what people enjoy doing on holiday."

The ideal candidate will, according to Ultimate Library, "have a passion for books and the ability to engage guests of all ages. They will have excellent written and verbal English skills; a lively tone of voice to write an entertaining blog that captures the exhilarating life of a desert island bookseller, and the skills to host creative writing workshops. They must have the ability to fit in with the distinctive Soneva culture, as well as being an engaging children’s entertainer and storyteller."

Who among us hasn't worked passionately--and for somewhat "derisory" wages--to achieve lofty goals, even without the tropical island perk?

The ad went viral, of course. Thousands of CVs poured in and the application window closed quickly. Fifteen candidates have been shortlisted for the role and a decision will be made soon.

"We have had applicants from 18 to 83 years-old apply," Blackwell later told the Bookseller. "There have been TV directors, someone from the White House press team, journalists, people from Playboy, a German Viscount, a Syrian refugee, a juggler, literary agents, a 72-year-old 'Beach Poet'--actually remarkably few booksellers. The applications themselves have ranged from YouTube clips, people sending pictures in not wearing very much, people holding signs, there have been some very creative people apply.

"I think the job grabbed people's attention at a quiet news time, perhaps when they were dreaming about going on holiday. It has been picked up in the press all around the world, from the U.S., Mexico, Portugal, Italy--this morning there was a piece on the radio station in Perth (Australia). Unfortunately following the volume of interest, we have now closed the position for applications.... It has been entertaining but there has been a cost--we are a small company of 17 people and the interest nearly overwhelmed all our systems."

When the Guardian checked back, Blackwell said the experience has "been a bit like standing under a fire hydrant for the last week--we've had an extraordinary response.... We've even had the odd actual bookseller. I think people have been at their desks dreaming of sun, sea and sand, and suddenly there's this opportunity to have it for longer than a week.... I think we will hire someone for their potential, rather than necessarily their experience. This is very much a take it to the people kind of job."

So... let's all calm down for a moment and think about this, especially a pair of Blackwell's slightly bemused asides: "remarkably few booksellers" applied and they "even had the odd actual bookseller" expressing interest.

Why would experienced booksellers, of all people, be the exception? I suspect it's because bookshops and tropical islands have something in common. They seem like untroubled utopias from the outside, especially compared to the day-to-day grind so many people face. Travel guides often showcase the portion of an island that fits the ideal. Most destinations are more complex than that. And if you don't work in a bookstore, you see what you want to see--a bookseller reading quietly at the counter, a cat sleeping nearby, and every now and again a little bell tinkles over the door as a fascinating stranger, a lover of books, enters. These are perfectly understandable illusions, if viewed through the appropriate lens. We've all experienced versions of them. Nobody highlights island politics or inventory control. It's bad for the imagination.

"Picture finding yourself on the idyllic shores of a desert island in the Maldives, your profession; bookseller. Your role is to help enliven guests' holidays with well-chosen books that will entertain, educate and inspire them. Is there a more enviable job opportunity than this? We think not!" Just imagine... It is, after all, a key part of our job description.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3329

Friday
Aug312018

'Ambs' vs. 'Small Heroics' on Labor Day

When I saw the term "Amazon FC" in a headline recently, my first thought was: "Oh God, Bezos just purchased and renamed the Seattle Sounders Major League Soccer franchise (think Toronto FC, LA FC, NYC FC). What could be more absurd than that?

photo: Scott Lewis/Flickr

Well, maybe this TechCrunch headline: "What is this weird Twitter army of Amazon drones cheerfully defending warehouse work?" And this lede: "Here is a strange little online community to puzzle at. Amazon has developed an unnerving, Stepford-like presence on Twitter in the form of several accounts of definitely real on-the-floor workers who regurgitate talking points and assure the world that all is right in the company's infamously punishing warehouse jobs."

As Labor Day Weekend approached, I became more than a little addicted to the 14 or so Amazon FC Ambassador Twitter accounts, which launched a couple of weeks ago and are written by non-bot fulfillment center workers (though not, strictly speaking, "on the floor" now since they work full-time on social media duties) with buoyant attitudes regarding their jobs and employer.

TechCrunch pointed out that Amazon FC Ambassadors also share strikingly similar bio structures on their accounts: "(Job titles) @(warehouse shorthand location). (Duration) Amazonian. (2- or 3-item list of things they like.)"

I've been following @AmazonFCPhil ("Stower and ambassador @ BFI4. 2 year Amazonian. Photography, running and cycling. Kent, WA."). He seems cheerful enough, with a helpful, Alexa-like tone that only occasionally wavers into "WE ARE BEING TREATED WELL!" hostage video phrasing territory. He's not a big fan of punctuation, but, hey, it's the Twitterverse after all. A Phil sampling:

"Hello! I work at an Amazon warehouse in WA and I can assure you that they are treating me well! I have great benefits, like the people I work with and can go to the bathroom when needed"

"Hello! Cant comment on others situation but in my facility in WA, I am treated well -- My safety/well being are a top priority for my managers. The building is clean and I have great benefits including full medical insurance from day 1, 401K, stock and more"

"Hello! As learning ambassadors, we arent paid xtra for our social media role. We were offered the role and we accepted. It gives us a voice to express our own experiences. Eventually, we'll roll off and other ambs will replace us with a fresh view on their own experiences"

Ambs...

An Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch that FC ambassadors "are employees who have experience working in our fulfillment centers. It's important that we do a good job of educating people about the actual environment inside our fulfillment centers, and the FC ambassador program is a big part of that along with the fulfillment center tours we provide."

Yahoo Finance's Krystal Hu tweeted: "Believe it or not, Amazon workers are doing this 'voluntarily'. Workers who choose to be 'ambassadors' don't get extra pay--they usually get a day off, an Amazon gift card and some time away from packing boxes. A former ambassador describes it as 'the kiss asses of the dept' to me."

In an update, Hu noted: "Clarification: Amazon says FC ambassadors who tweet are different from the warehouse ambassadors my previous tweet refers to. Amazon now has 14 FC ambassadors, who have switched from warehouse work to this full-time role to do social media for Amazon while getting the same pay."

I don't want to be cynical, but this Amazon FC Ambassador hyper-enthusiasm ("yes we are totally noraml and not bots and we are totally happy working for an amazing company.") is creepy. Not for a second did I think those words came from "the floor."

I spent much of the first half of my life working jobs not unlike those warehouse gigs--at a marble mill, in supermarkets, on delivery trucks. I was born and bred to be a laborer. I can't outgrow or outrun that genetic code. Don't want to. I've seen my ancestors, like ghosts, in grainy old Vermont marble mill and quarry photos with their weary expressions and mute accusations--"What are you looking at us for? We've got work to do."

Work is not a cult. It's... work.

In a 1988 Paris Review interview, the late, great poet Philip Levine recalled: "I worked for Cadillac, in their transmission factory, and for Chevrolet. You could recite poems aloud in there. The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear."

It will come as no surprise that I don't believe a word @AmazonFCPhil and his fellow ambassadors tweet. Work is more complicated than their Twittervangelism proclaims.

Levine observed that Detroit in the late '80s was a city where "nothing grandly heroic is taking place... Nothing epic. Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn't give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It's the truly heroic.... They've survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay."

Meet the new boss...

At least Bezos hasn't bought the Seattle Sounders. Happy Labor Day!

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3325

Friday
Aug242018

The Stories Alan Rabinowitz Could Tell

During the 1980s, I was working as an editor for a windsurfing trade magazine when I was dispatched, just before high season, to cover a World Cup tour event on the island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. One night, I went out to a local café with another journalist and an intense photographer who'd just arrived that afternoon from Belize, where he'd spent an extensive amount of time in the jungle with a man named Alan Rabinowitz. He had so many stories to tell he was nearly breathless, and gradually an American zoologist I'd never heard of became a larger-than-life character in an adventure tale. As soon as I returned home, I read Rabinowitz's first book, Jaguar: One Man's Struggle to Establish the First Jaguar Preserve.

Everything is a story. Earlier this month, I was on vacation when Rabinowitz died. He was only 64 years old. Had I been working and aware of the news, I'd have written a Shelf Awareness obituary note to mark the passing of this explorer, wildlife conservationist and writer. But time passed before I finally learned of his death and somehow that prompted further exploration.

Who was Alan Rabinowitz?

His legacy may not be common knowledge, but it is epic in its way. The New York Times reported that Rabinowitz "established the world's first jaguar preserve, in Belize, and a vast tiger preserve in Myanmar. His radio telemetry research on the Asiatic leopard, Asian leopard cats and Asian civets at a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand helped determine how much space each species needed to live and reproduce and led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.... In northern Myanmar, for example, he discovered a previously unknown species of deer, the leaf muntjac, and in the Himalayas he met the last known Mongoloid pygmies in the world, called the Taron."

Rabinowitz also co-founded Panthera, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting the world's wild cat species. "He raised a lot of consciousness on behalf of wildlife, not just big cats," said George Schaller, the legendary--Peter Matthiessen was with him on the expedition that inspired The Snow Leopard--wildlife conservationist who originally invited Rabinowitz to study jaguars in Belize. "He made people realize that these are beautiful animals and that they, and their habitats, are threatened and you have to fight for them."

The Times also noted that during his life, Rabinowitz "became a prolific storyteller, describing his work in many scientific articles and books," including Beyond the Last Village: A Journey of Discovery in Asia's Forbidden Wilderness; Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed; An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar; and his children's book A Boy and a Jaguar.

This "prolific storyteller" was born with a debilitating stutter, and ultimately became a Stuttering Foundation spokesperson and board member. "Animals were the only things I could talk to as a child," he recalled. "Animals listened and let me pour my heart out. At some point in my youth I clearly remember realizing that animals were like me, even the most powerful ones I'd read about or seen on television--they had no voice, they were often misunderstood, and they wanted nothing more than to live their life as best they could apart from the world of people."

Of his 2014 children's picture book, A Boy and a Jaguar, Rabinowitz told NPR: "I wanted to go back inside and pull that child back out which has always been in there. But that child is a broken child, or at least a child who thought he was broken. And that was painful. I remember crying as I wrote this book. It's even painful now reading my own story because I never wished any young person to go through anything like that, that much pain."

This week I listened to Rabinowitz tell stories in a pair of old segments for NPR's The Moth Radio Hour. Artistic director Catherine Burns has said that one of her favorite Moth stories features him: "When people hear a story it makes you reflect on something in your own life and maybe gives you the courage to make the change you need to make. It's thrilling. Someone heard his story, quit her advertising job and moved to Africa to try and save baby gorillas. She's been doing that for the last 10 years."

I also listened to him share stories with Krista Tippett because On Being recently paid tribute by rebroadcasting a 2010 interview. Speaking of his cancer diagnosis, Rabinowitz had said: "I always thought I could fight everything. I really believed anything I wanted to do, I could overcome.... Now, just as I was starting to get a bit tired and actually considering slowing down, now I'm told that I have cancer. And what that's done is, that put away all thoughts of slowing down, all thoughts of being tired, and it's another wake-up call. Why me? Why not me? And why isn't it a good thing? Now I'll accomplish more. Now I will never, never wake up a day and sit back and thinking, 'This is enough.' All I ever do is think of the things that I haven't done yet and that still need doing. So it's a good thing."

And now he's gone. I keep thinking about that Guadeloupe café on a hot night three decades ago, drinking beer and listening to those Rabinowitz-fueled jaguar tales bursting from a photographer who'd only just begun to decompress. That's a story to remember.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3320