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Looking Backward at BEA NYC

Shelf Awareness: Thursday,  May 10, 2007

The printing department . . . is bound to print all that is offered it, but prints it only on condition that the author defray the first cost out of his credit. He must pay for the privilege of the public ear, and if he has any message worth hearing we consider that he will be glad to do it.

In Edward Bellamy's classic utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, Julian West wakes up from a 113-year snooze to discover that the future of books is POD self-publishing for the masses:

In art, for example, as in literature, the people are the sole judges.

From the 19th century, Bellamy couldn't envision BookExpo America, which reminds us every spring that a promising future always trumps a muddled present. But the future is more than just idle speculation in our business; it is the water in which we swim. We routinely read in the future--manuscripts, catalogs, ARCs--and at BookExpo, the full utopian vision is on display. Books that will be published next fall have not failed yet; first-time authors are always promising; any book might grow up to be a bestseller.

The past is largely absent from BookExpo, except in the shadows of the remainder pavilion. History matters, however, so I've decided to wander back a bit and see what the future looked like in 2002 and 2005, the last two times BookExpo hit "the city."

In the April 29, 2002 edition of the New York Times, David Kirkpatrick wrote of the "noisy literary circus where scores of publishers and hundreds of authors desperately compete for attention" in "the Super Bowl of book promotion, where publishers battle to influence what stores promote and what customers ultimately read." Kirkpatrick flogged the circus analogy once more, if justifiably this time, in highlighting book promotional appearances by tightrope walker Phillippe Petit and magician David Blaine.

A bittersweet note (the past is often less forgiving than the future) was sounded in sharp comments from the late Roger Straus, legendary head of FSG, who spoke of the subtle art of "earnest and repeated testimonials" for a new book. "Your jaw aches after a while, like smiling when it is not funny," he said, and wondered aloud if Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides would repeat the success of FSG's previous hit, The Corrections: "How many novels about hermaphrodites do you see every day?"

Flash forward three years. Edward Wyatt opened his article for the June 2, 2005 edition of the Times by addressing time travel directly: "The publishing industry is notoriously gloomy when it comes to looking into the future: business is perpetually in decline, a result of huge author advances and shrinking numbers of readers."

He then countered his opening by acknowledging that optimism was present at BEA, as it always has been, even if the reasons change from year to year. "Sales of general-interest books are thriving, in sharp contrast to recent downturns in other communications and media businesses," he wrote. Reasons for the upturn included the success of "religious-themed books like The Purpose-Driven Life and the 'Left Behind' series of novels, as well as a new breed of mega-best-selling novels, some with religious overtones, like The Da Vinci Code and The Five People You Meet in Heaven."

The primary voice of optimism in the article belonged to Barnes & Noble's Steve Riggio, who found positive signs in increased sales for mass-market outlets. "If you look at the book business over the last decade, you don't really see years of double-digit growth, but you don't see years of significant decline, either," he said. "It's a steady, stable business."

On June 6, Wyatt wrote of Oprah Winfrey's announcement during the show that three William Faulkner novels would be her summer book club selection. Richard Howorth, Oxford, Miss., mayor and owner of Square Books, expressed considerable pessimism: "The good news is more people are going to be reading Faulkner. The bad news is more people are going to be buying condos in Oxford."

Edward Bellamy predicted a 21st century publishing industry that had freed itself from the shackles of hype, greed and uncertainty, writing that "the universally high level of education nowadays gives the popular verdict a conclusiveness on the real merit of literary work which in your day it was as far as possible from having. . . . Every author has precisely the same facilities for bringing his work before the popular tribunal."

Now what fun would that be? Let the circus begin.


The Bookloft & the Art of the Hyperlink

Shelf Awareness--Wednesday, May 2, 2007

There are plenty of bookstore websites on the Internet and innumerable hyperlinks, but the link to the Bookloft's intriguing Thomas Pynchon Beer Bet is my current favorite. It needs an update (inquiring minds want real-time scoring as the deadline looms), but it also illustrates how a bookstore's online presence can be at once serious business and pure entertainment.

Even when we're just entertaining ourselves.

Any visit to a bookstore's website begins on the front porch--the home page. A good porch invites people to stop by and pull up a chair, but that's not enough to keep them around. You have to build a house, room opening upon room, behind that porch so visitors can enter and spend time . . . and money.

The Bookloft's website lets you know just how big its virtual house is with the first words you see on the home page: "Welcome! See that search bar just above? Through that portal you can find all the books in print in the USA!" And just in case you don't find your book in print, the BerkshireBooks.com link nearby takes care of out-of-print alternatives.

"We are paying more attention to linking," said the Bookloft's owner Eric Wilska. In addition to offering a series of portals between thebookloft.com and BerkshireBooks.com, the Bookloft creates hyperlinks that encourage visitors to move through and even beyond the website to complementary national or regional sites. 

Nationally, consider the pigeon book.

Wilska has made a concentrated handselling commitment to Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew D. Blechman, a local author. "We're making a big push on the pigeon book," Wilska said, pointing to his own Staff Pick.

The bookstore offers signed copies and free shipping on the title. A series of links promote the book nationally while directing potential buyers back to the Bookloft's website.

A link at the bottom of Wilska's Staff Pick directs you to an interview with the author at the website for The Humane Society of the United States, where a box-link at the end of the interview returns the favor, stating: "Copies of the book signed by the author are available only through Blechman's hometown bookstore, The Bookloft. Because The Bookloft supports HSUS efforts to protect pigeons and all animals, the store is offering signed copies for customers ordering online."

That's not all. "If you go to Andrew's site, he refers people back to the Bookloft," said Wilska. Clicking on a Buy the Book link brings you to a page where Bechman offers his own recommendation to "buy signed copies of Pigeons at the author's hometown independent bookstore."

On the local and regional level, the Bookloft's Community Services link highlights programs for local teachers, insitutions and authors (the latter with a link out to Wilska's book-on-demand company, The Troy Book Makers). Also featured is another link out of the website to an innovative "shop local" program called BerkShares.

Locally, regionally or nationally, the goal for thebookloft.com remains the same--to increase customer interest, loyalty and sales while retaining an independent identity for the bookstore.

Wilska cites a redesigned bookmark that makes a clear statement of the Bookloft's online intentions. He believes this effort will pay major dividends over time. "It will happen," he said. "We had a couple of orders from Michigan recently. Getting an order like that is absolute gravy."

As he continues to search for improvements and opportunities online, Wilska also looks forward to a planned upgrade for the Booksense.com shopping cart. This will permit him to sell sidelines on the website, including his Sticky Fingers Farm maple syrup, which is currently sold in the bookstore and at two local B&Bs whose links are featured the bookstore's home page.

"The changes Booksense.com is making are going to allow non-book items on the site, which is great," said Wilska. "I'm so into that." He added that this could open up many other possibilities for thebookloft.com, including working with some Berkshire region artists and photographers.

Rooms opening upon rooms. The evolution of a dynamic bookstore website hinges on the eternal search for the missing link.  

Oh, and the latest Thomas Pynchon Beer Bet score? Bookloft has sold 32 copies. In a last gasp promotion, manager Mark Ouilette is now offering customers "a coupon good for a beer at our local micro brewery, Barrington Brewery," with each book sold. "Customers get involved with the whole bet story," said Wilska. "Kinda funny. Not looking good for Mark, though."


The Bookloft's Online Sense of Place

Shelf Awareness--Wednesday, April 25

Writers are often praised for evoking a vivid "sense of place" in their works. Seldom, however, is the compliment applied to bookstores, and almost never to bookstore websites.

Let’s change that today by showcasing the Bookloft bookstore in Great Barrington, Mass., which projects a distinct sense of place online. The "place" in question is the Berkshire region of western Massachusetts and the "sense of" originates with the bookstore's owner, Eric Wilska.

The Bookloft's home page tells us that when he isn't in the bookstore, Wilska "can usually be found at the world famous Sticky Fingers Farm, known for the best maple syrup this side of the Mississippi!" As a bookseller, Wilska deftly walks the line between technological sophistication and Berkshire country life.

The Bookloft.com uses a standard Booksense.com template with creative twists and links, some of which we'll explore in more detail next week. A few years ago, Wilska co-authored the bookstore's first website, but "it was just ridiculous." He is pleased with the current setup, even as he considers improvements. 

He gives Booksense.com high marks for what it allows him to do. "I believe they're doing a good job," he said. "For the $225 per month, it's worth it for the content. This has been an expense, but it's also a leap of faith. I believe bookstores that don't have an active website two to five years from now will miss the next generation of readers."   

Still, it's what Wilska and the Bookloft docreate within the Booksense.com template that gives the site its individuality and regional flare. At the top of that list is the beneficial relationship between Bookloft.com and the store's other website, BerkshireBooks.com. "I absolutely believe that the combination of Berkshirebooks.com and the Booksense.com site is key," said Wilska. 

Location, location, location . . . BerkshireBooks.com was created to take advantage of the bookstore's advantageous setting in the heart of the Berkshires, an immensely popular New England destination spot--as anyone driving through Lenox or Stockbridge on a summer afternoon can attest--where thousands of visitors flock every year for outdoor activities as well as a lavish cultural menu that includes world class music, theater, art and literary events.

When you visit the Bookloft's main website, you'll notice a colorful banner for Bershirebooks.com occupying prime territory in the top right corner of the home page. If you click Read More, you stay within the Booksense.com site and link to a page with local titles available exclusively from the Bookloft. If, however, you click BerkshireBooks.com, you leave the Booksense.com site and link directly to the bookstore's regional showcase, where an array of titles and products are offered.

Let's say you click the link for Berkshire Regional histories, and suppose the book that catches your eye is Ghosts of Old Berkshire by Willard Douglas Coxey, which is described here as a "fascinating facsimile paperback edition of the original 1934 book. Full of curious early Berkshire tales, myths and traditions visualized in story form."

Should you decide to purchase the title and click on the cover, you are linked back to the Booksense.com site and given the option to add this esoteric, long out-of-print title to your shopping cart.

The ease with which a customer can move between the websites--taking advantage of regional sense of place at BerkshireBooks.com and the convenience of a Booksense.com shopping cart--has become a powerful online sales tool for the Bookloft, but there is another aspect of this transaction that is particularly appealing to Wilska.

While BerkshireBooks.com offers in-print books of regional interest and searches for hard-to-find titles, a more recent innovation allows Wilska to produce some of the public domain titles he sells here thanks to Troy Book Makers, a print-on-demand venture Wilska owns in partnership with Susan Novotny of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza.

"We've sold 97 copies of Ghosts of Old Berkshire at $10.95 since last November," he said. "I paid $1.50 each to produce them. You give me 30 or 40 of those little niche books, and I print them, and that's real profit."

Did somebody say Long Tail Theory? Actually, Erik Wilska is happy to bring the subject up, noting that his efforts to find profitability through books like Ghosts of Old Berkshire "is a way of using that whole Long Tail thing. I love the Long Tail theory."

Next week we’ll explore Bookloft.com's subtle mastery of the Art of the Portal.


Wizards & Poets in My E-mailbag

Shelf Awareness -- Tuesday, April 17

Perhaps my e-mailbag runneth over this month simply because Potter and Poetry have distinct, magical qualities, which elicit thoughtful and passionate reactions. People--readers, booksellers, writers, publishers--care about the two Ps and say so. Reason enough to highlight a few noteworthy responses to the recent Harry Potter and National Poetry Month columns.  

Jeffrey Inscho, marketing manager for Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh, Pa., wrote that "we’re launching an online/real world scavenger hunt website (Harry Potter Pittsburgh, countdown tracker up now) on June 1. The final clue that participants receive will be an invitation to reserve their copy at JBB, which gains them VIP treatment at our HP7 party. We anticipate this to be a really beneficial tool, framing JBB Pittsburgh as the Pittsburgh HP7 authority."

Virginia Duffey reported that Page One Bookstore in Albuquerque, N.M., is "selling vouchers at 20% off the full retail price of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, advertising our traditionally big release-eve party, and a stub from the voucher will be entered into a drawing for great prizes like an iPod Shuffle, Dragon-head wizard staff, Alivan wands and other Harry Potter-related gift items. The only way one can be entered in the drawing is to buy their HPVII from us."

According to Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, Windows a bookshop in Monroe, La., "is selling the book at full price (as always) and working on another great Harry Potter Pajama Party. We've also started a Hogwarts Study Group, which is meeting one time for each of the first six books to thoroughly examine the question 'Severus Snape: Hero or Villain?' None of our study group members have read the Mugglenet book about what might happen in Book 7."

Is there any bookstore that can resist Harry's siren song? "We won't be stocking this last Harry Potter and neither did we stock any of the previous titles," wrote Sherri Israels of Watermark Books on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. "The best reaction to this 'fray' is to stay out of it completely. We don't have to deal with the vagaries of supply and demand on these ludicrously over-hyped 'entertainment items.' We just keep on selling good books to intelligent readers day after day. (Our store is a Harry Potter-free zone, much appreciated by our clientele.)"


"And life is, I am sure, made of poetry," Jorge Luis Borges contended in This Craft of Verse. "Poetry is not alien--poetry is, as we shall see, lurking round the corner. It may spring on us at any moment."

Penguin rep Meredith Vajda lauded the Poetry Month efforts of Mary Shadoff, bookseller/buyer at University Bookstore in Seattle, Wash., who has "spearheaded their celebration of poetry for the last eight or nine years, maybe longer. Each year, Mary solicits favorite poems from other booksellers at the main store . . . and puts together a chapbook that is used as a giveaway to customers and as the centerpiece of their in-store displays. Penguin has supported this project with co-op advertising for the last four or five years. . . . There is also an evening during the month where local poets read and there’s an open mic time for the public. Mary is a hero to her bookselling associates (and to me!) for the time and effort it takes to pull this together."

Elaine Bleakney, National Poetry Month coordinator for the Academy of American Poets, noted the efforts of Michael A. Mart, "an independent bookseller from Long Island and one of the poetfans we selected after a nationwide search for individuals engaging with poetry in their daily lives. After 34 years of selling books in Port Jefferson, N.Y., Mart developed poetryvlog, a website to support video streams of poetry readings."

And Shawn Wathen of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Mont., said he "just wanted to contribute to the discussion on poetry. It must, especially in the U.S., be a labor of love and responsibility. When I think of its lack of widespread support, Czeslaw Milosz's preface to A Treatise on Poetry springs immediately to mind." He sent me the poem, which ends: "Novels and essays serve but will not last. / One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose." You should find the rest of the poem and read it for yourself.

And maybe a little prose can be your April mantra. Consider this excerpt from David Markson's recently published The Last Novel: "I've had it with those cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy the book. Growled Kenneth Rexroth."


National Poetry Month Meets Icarus

Shelf Awareness -- Friday, April 13

As I made my broomstick flight in search of Harry Potter #7 promotional activity last week, I gradually became aware that something was missing from many of the bookstore websites I visited.

National Poetry Month.

That realization has bothered me, so this week I traded in my HP7 broomstick for muse wings (not made of wax, I hope) and set off on a new bookstore websiteseeing quest.

"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away," Auden writes in "Musee des Beaux Arts." He explores a painting in which the everyday world grinds along, oblivious to a tiny splash in the ocean that is the only evidence of "Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky." It is easy to be oblivious; easier than flying; easier than poetry. In financially-strapped bookstores, where shelf space and inventory turns are eternal subjects of heated debate, April reminds us just how difficult some merchandising choices can be.

For many readers--and all poets--poetry is a necessity. For most bookstores, a serious commitment to poetry is optional. A comprehensive poetry section in a general interest bookstore is a conscious and costly statement. The section is not likely to earn its keep and will have to be subsidized by increased sales in other categories. It's not an economic loss leader in the classic Harry Potter sense. Perhaps another term is needed. Cultural loss leader?

Poetry Month reminds us that poetry is still a retail labor of love. Over the years, I've met Poetry Month evangelists and detractors among booksellers, readers and writers. Even some poets I know have expressed mixed feelings about the concept, wondering why poetry has to be trotted out like an orphan up for adoption once a year. Why isn't it irresistible? The answer is that it is an orphan for most readers. 

At one end of the April celebration spectrum is the Academy of American Poets, which spearheaded the original concept more than a decade ago. Somewhere in the middle you'll find the ABA and its 2007 Book Sense Picks Top 10 Poetry list. At the other end of the spectrum are the cynics--represented here by a classic Onion article--and the vast number of people who simply don't care. 

Booksellers fall into place at various points along the spectrum, which prompts certain questions. Is promoting Poetry Month with events and displays a bookstore's option or responsibility? Does it take a devoted poetry reader on staff to drive creative, energetic participation? When, where and how often will art trump inventory turns, even if only for 30 days?

During this week's website exploration, I looked for bookstores that were showing signs of Poetry Month life. Most were not. Fortunately, I did find some that were and here's a selection: 

Schuler Books sponsored a Poetry Month haiku contest that drew nearly 300 entries. John Shupe composed the winning entry: Crisp paper pages, / Stiff-spined binding slowly yields, / New book, old pleasure.

McNally Robinson NYC is offering an impressive and ambitious April poetry events schedule. Books Inc. also has an intriguing Thursdays in Verse event, "The Most Powerful Thing in the World." Jack Hirschman moderates a discussion with poets W.S. Di Piero, Wanda Coleman and Daphne Gottlieb.

As would be expected, poetry readings are the most popular bookstore option for Poetry Month, though I found fewer of them on event schedules nationwide than I thought I might. Looking Glass Bookstore features a strong schedule, as does Tattered Cover, Amherst Books, Bear Pond Books and Big Blue Marble.

Customer interaction is encouraged at Galaxy Bookshop, where patrons who are willing to stop in and give a dramatic reading of a poem receive 20% off the purchase of any book. At Olsson's Books & Records, one night a week this month has been set aside for customer readings of their favorite poems. Bookends will hold a poetry writing workshop.

Some Booksense.com stores took advantage of the option to link to the Top 10 Poetry Picks, but Milestone Books found a creative way to blend Book Sense Picks with the Academy of American Poets offerings to create a Poetry Month page.

Perhaps many bookstores are participating in ways that their websites do not reflect, and it's unfair to invoke the myth of Icarus. You have to wonder, though.  

On the other hand, in his poem "Failing and Flying," Jack Gilbert reminds us, "Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew." Maybe the wonder is that Poetry Month still flies.