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A Conversation with BookSense.com's Len Vlahos

Shelf Awareness -- November 15, 2006

BookSense.com is often mentioned on this siteseeing tour. In addition to highlighting bookstores that use the service, I've occasionally directed readers to the ABA's Bookweb.org site for basic information. (There, I just did it again.)

During the past few months, I've also fielded numerous questions and comments (positive as well as negative) about the BookSense.com model. I'll be sharing some of those with you soon. There seems to be much to discuss about this important topic.

Many independent bookstores have chosen to use BookSense.com; many have chosen not to use the service, or to use it and then stop using it. In each case, I wondered why. So I thought I would ask. In fact, this upcoming series of columns might be considered an extended Why?

I will begin by going directly to the source: Len Vlahos, director of BookSense.com (aka "the man behind the curtain" in Wizard of Oz parlance). He answered my initial questions in depth and with a minimum of hype, so I thought I should let him speak for himself here, in Q&A format.

Our lengthy exchange will appear over three issues of Shelf Awareness, and then it will be your turn. I'd love to hear from you. Perhaps a conversation will develop.

Conversation is good.

I'll try to be a cordial host.


Robert Gray: I'll ask a big, impossible question first. What do you see as the future for independent bookselling online?

Len Vlahos: Well, that certainly IS a big question. It's my belief that the Internet has become an integral part of commerce in the U.S., and that a Web site is a requirement for retailers to conduct business in the 21st century. For independent bookstores, those Web sites have so far been very effective marketing tools, though less effective sales tools. I think this is likely to change. As broadband access continues to become more commonplace and as consumers become more and more accustomed to shopping online, people will start to look beyond the few top merchants to complete transactions.
In addition, technology costs are dropping. This allows BookSense.com and other providers of independent bookstores Web sites to offer tools to put booksellers on more even footing with corporate retailers.

I'm also a believer in Chris Anderson's Long Tail Theory, which holds that the cumulative sales of products that sell in ones and twos can be as powerful as the cumulative sales of the handful of blockbusters each season. I think this bodes well for independent stores, as we tend to live more in the long tail, while the big boxes live more in the land of the bestseller.

RG: What are the primary advantages for a bookstore that has a BookSense.com Web site?

LV: BookSense.com provides members with the ability to have a full-service, e-commerce-enabled, content-rich Web site at far below market costs. Participating stores present their customers nearly three million titles (courtesy of Ingram's excellent iPage database), a very good search engine (more on that in answer to another question [later], user-friendly (and flexible) commerce tools (i.e., a good shopping cart) and a ton of store-generated content.
We have worked to increase the flexibility of the BookSense.com product, better allowing booksellers to express the unique nature of the bricks-and-mortar store online. For example, booksellers can set their own shipping and pricing policies; they decide which payment methods to accept; they can identify their own in-store inventory levels for items in the database; they can enable and manage their own affiliate program, tracking sales from other Web sites; they have access to individual and detailed traffic reports; and more. The sites are also integrated with the BookSense.com Gift Card program and with Constant Contact.
We provide a robust suite of user-friendly content management tools. Booksellers can upload their events, recommendations, store histories, etc.--virtually any sort of content. The tools require no special knowledge of computers, computer code or even HTML (though knowing a bit of HTML helps).
Through Ingram, we provide consumer direct fulfillment services. Books will ship from Ingram direct to the bookstore's customer, with the store's name on the box and packing slip. As far as the customer knows, the store made the shipment.

We provide excellent customer service from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and monitor site stability and performance 24/7/365.

Finally, the advantage of a Web site in general (and we feel strongly that BookSense.com is the best option available) is an important piece of a store's integrated marketing effort.


In Part II of this conversation, we discuss the primary disadvantages of BookSense.com and why booksellers do or do not sign on for the service.


Flaunting Regionality on Bookstore Web Sites

Shelf Awareness -- November 2, 2006

During foliage season, so many buses clog Vermont's country roads that you might imagine we had public transportation up here. Alas, no. On the other hand, there is one thing Vermont does have, and that's regionality.

If hospitality, the subject of my last column, is a gracious retail welcome, regionality is an irresistible invitation. And here's rule number one when you find yourself blessed with a high dose of regionality: If you've got it, flaunt it, especially online.

Vermont's raison d'être in the state's post-dairy-farm incarnation is to flaunt its regionality. You can read about it in Vermont Life or Vermont Magazine or even in Archer Mayor's mystery novels. You can buy it in myriad forms and flavors from companies like the Vermont Country Store or Maple Grove Farms or Cabot Creamery or Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. You can even anthropomorphize it or visit its grave. (As Mr. Frost wrote, "The living come with grassy tread/ To read the gravestones on the hill.")

Vermont sells, even online. Bookstores are no exception to that rule. Misty Valley Books, Village Square Booksellers and Northshire Bookstore are among many that have found their own ways of tapping into regionality. Their Web sites say, emphatically, "You're not in Kansas anymore." (Note: If you want to be in Kansas, the KU Bookstores site leaves no doubt as to its regional identity.)

In contemporary America, regionality can be hard to come by on the ground, thanks to shopping malls, strip malls and, more recently, "lifestyle centers" (open malls landscaped to look like quaint village streets, but more closely resembling Hollywood studio back lots).

The Internet, however, makes regionality much easier to depict. Online, for better or worse, we are what we pretend to be. Despite this creative edge, many bookshop Web sites seem to be masquerading as nondescript strip mall storefronts. The bricks and mortar versions of these sites may be unusual and marvelous places, but you'd never guess this when visiting them online.

It doesn't have to be that way. I thought it might be fun this time to invite you aboard my virtual tour bus for a whirlwind visit to a few bookstore Web sites that do flaunt their regionality.

For example, if we cruise the northeastern seacoast, we can visit Harbor Books in Connecticut, Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha's Vineyard, Kennebunk Book Port and Sherman's Books & Stationery in Maine. We can even find our way inland to the River's End Bookstore on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Out west, the Well Red Coyote has a beautiful site that evokes, to put it bluntly, both sense of place and breadth of product line. And how can you not feel at home with the Front Street Books logo featuring a cowboy with his feet resting on a stack of books? The Montana Book & Toy Company also uses graphics and color effectively to regionalize its site.

Consider the stark and startling home page photograph at Iconoclast Books or the effective simplicity of text and image at Plains Trading Company Bookstore.

If we head to Mississippi, we encounter a post-Katrina revival at Pass Christian Books and the quiet southern charm of Square Books. By the way, I've noticed that photographs of bookshop storefronts are ubiquitous online (as are photos of sleeping cats), but the photos that draw me in are those, like Square Books, that give me a sense of the town or neighborhood where the shop is located, rather than an out-of-date shot of its window displays.

Where are you? That is the question.

Does it help to live in a scenic country setting when projecting a bookshop's regionality online? Probably, though Book Soup offers Sunset Strip regionality, Three Lives & Co. offers Greenwich Village regionality, and Urban Think! Bookstore offers downtown Orlando regionality.

And if you have a Booksense.com Web site, you can still regionalize effectively within the template. Witness what's being done by Cook Inlet Book Company in Alaska, Millrace Bookshop in the Gristmill in Connecticut, Riverwalk Books and Liberty Bay Books in Washington, Changing Hands Bookstore in Arizona or Nantucket Bookworks "on the island."

Foliage season is now over in the bricks-and-mortar version of my state, but the illusion of Vermont autumn lingers on, thanks to the online magic of regionality. Unless your bookstore is on Three Mile Island, there is some aspect of your locale that is worth highlighting on the Web to give visitors a sense of your place.


Bookstore Web Sites & the Art of Hospitality

Shelf Awareness -- October 18, 2006

Valerie Koehler wants to improve her Web site. The owner of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., told me so herself when we met at the MPIBA Show in Denver last month. We spoke at length that day and the conversation has continued. As she explores new ways to cultivate her online presence, Koehler has agreed to share some of her experiences--both good and bad--with us occasionally.

Blue Willow's current Web site is a nice place to visit. Working within the limitations of a Booksense.com template, Koehler manages to convey a personal and hospitable image for her store. The site includes a generous selection of monthly new offerings, Koehler's Letter from the Messy Desk and a wide-ranging, up-to-date Staff Picks section.

According to Koehler, the toughest challenge is "carving out the time to work on it daily. And I'm not talking about actually writing the language; just looking at it and working with my Web master. My immediate goal is to keep the site fresh and relevant. This is not as easy as it might sound. I employ a wonderful person who is very detail oriented, a quick learner and a huge web surfer. But the site must reflect our personality, and that personality must come from me. So I need to 'feed' her this information. It helps when she spends time at the shop so she can work with me on the 'feel' part of the site. But all small business owners are busy and we need to carve out this time."

The reward, however, comes from "opening it up and seeing the changes and thinking, 'Wow, that's us.' "
"Hospitality" seems an appropriate and important word to use here. In this industry, we tend to flog "service" a bit too often in describing our mission, but that's not necessarily our best game.

Danny Meyer, legendary restaurateur and owner of Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and other eateries in New York City and author of Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, was asked to define hospitality in a recent USA Today interview: "Service can be measured based on how well a product was technically delivered. Hospitality can be measured based upon how the recipient of that service felt. Hospitality exists when something happens for you, not to you. It exists when you believe the other person is on your side. Service is truly a monologue. Hospitality has to be a dialogue."

Bluewillowbookshop.com already exemplifies such hospitality to a degree. Koehler makes it as personal as she can, using "pictures, letters, and fresh commentary that sounds like us. It's easy to cut and paste the words from the publisher. It is much harder to write reviews that reflect our personal views. Give me an opening to talk to people and I can sell books and inspire my staff to do the same."

People visit her Web site now primarily for information about events, for staff recommendations and, "a distant third," to shop for books. When customers mention the site to her, it tends to be for "everything from coming in and telling us they are buying a book that we reviewed on our site to calling us to ask about a date correction. One person said I don't look anything like my picture."

Although Blue Willow does not sell many books online, Koehler would like to alter that. She is particularly interested in finding a way to build Web connections between potential customers and her best handsellers: "Long-range goals would be to increase sales on the site and to develop relationships--with our existing and new customers who are unable to visit us physically--that will result in sales that otherwise would be lost to our competitors." If done well, handselling conversations online can reap both sales and hospitality benefits. Setting up an at once secure yet welcoming structure in which to accomplish this is the challenge.

Koehler seems ready to take it on. She is not satisfied with a good Web site. She wants a better one and has dedicated herself to the messy, evolutionary process of replicating the hospitable aura of Blue Willow Bookshop in an online environment.

"We are attempting to keep the relationships alive with our wonderful front line booksellers and their customers," she says. "We cannot say I just want to sell books. We have to engage in the business of retailing and today that includes online."--


'Dead Trees' and 'Fiber-Based Books'

Shelf Awareness -- September 28, 2006

On my flight home from the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Denver, Colo., I read the following in Brendan I. Koerner's introduction to an intriguing new anthology, The Best of Technology Writing: "The best tech writing is also frequently read online, rather than in the pages of magazines or newspapers--publications often jokingly referred to as 'dead trees.' "

Technology was the prevailing theme of MPIBA's Thursday programs, which featured panels 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 panel, someone used the term "fiber-based books." It was meant to be a throwaway line, but the audience laughed uneasily and other panelists briefly smacked it around like a badminton birdie.

Dead trees.

Fiber-based books.

Fasten your seat belts, folks. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Most of the panelists at the MPIBA show were (how do I say this diplomatically?) not representing the MySpace generation, yet their attitude toward technology was generally curious, engaged and resourceful.

Dave Weich of Powell's Books made the wisest statement of the weekend: "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."

The Essential Technologies panel dealt with bricks-and-mortar as well as Web site issues, and the point was made more than once that the two cannot be separated. If you have a Web site, it is your virtual bookstore and may be the first impression that many potential customers have of your business. It must be taken seriously as a venue for customer interaction.  


"What's changing in the world in the last decade or so is that there is less emphasis on product and more on customer," said Len Vlahos, director of Booksense.com and director of education at the ABA. "People use the Internet as they used to use the phone book." He added that booksellers have to be more conscious of their Web presence, making it an integral, rather than tangential, component of their bookshop: "It is rare when you walk into a store to see any evidence of a Web site."

Liz Sullivan of BookPeople in Austin, Tex., suggested that with a strong Web presence, "you can actually get rid of your Yellow Pages advertising." She was also one of many industry professionals recommending the e-mail marketing service Constant Contact, calling it "the only one that didn't take days to figure out."

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 are 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."

Andy Nettell of Arches Book Company in Moab, Utah, who described himself as a representative of "the frustrated user group of bookstore owners," also praised Constant Contact: "It makes your store look very professional."  

At the Digital Media Formats panel, the discussion ranged well beyond the confines of the topic, as if digital downloads were merely the shark's fin poking above the surface of still-impenetrable waters.  

Dave Weich of Powell's Books shared a wealth of information about that bookstore's focus on adapting to new opportunities while preserving the best aspects of customer service. "We've sold e-books for six years or so for Adobe Reader, Microsoft Reader, Palm Reader," he said. "They account for about 1% of our sales." He expects that figure to rise dramatically when the long-anticipated--but still unrealized--development of a first-rate reading device occurs. "People are committed to their device, not to their desktop computer," he continued. "Eventually there is going to be an iPod for books; that's when e-books will explode."

Still, e-books and digital downloads are just a part of what successful bookstore Web sites can provide. Weich offered two suggestions for raising bookstores' Web site game. First, don't assume you must always hire expensive techies to guide you through the virtual jungle: "Try to nurture the people on your staff who already have an interest in this stuff." And second, never forget that a very traditional, "fiber-based" question still applies to the digital book world: "What makes the relationship between your customer and your store meaningful?"--


Failing Better with Bookstore Web Sites

Shelf Awareness -- September 14, 2006

"No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."--Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho

Beckett's existential strategy might serve as a realistic mantra for indie booksellers who want to create and sustain an online presence. Running a race with no finish line is the exhausting, absurd and inevitable way of life on the Web.

"Given how quickly change can happen, one must maintain some level of fluency, some level of competency, to permit the rapid adoption of new services and products," says Tattered Cover's manager of operations Neil Strandberg. In my last column, he shared his thoughts about using the Booksense.com template. This time he talks about both the challenge and the necessity for indie booksellers to stay up to speed on the info superhighway.

Strandberg has what he terms his "soapbox" speech about Internet commitment: "I may be making this up, but I get a sense that there are some within the indie community who argue in favor of a kind of 'opt out' business model: that we've lost the battle to keep up and should instead find refuge in standing outside of--indeed, in opposition to--these technologies and the changes they are bringing to consumer ideas about reading books (now known as content, I hear). This may work in some settings, perhaps where the store is small, the local fabric strong and the community insulated. For the rest of us, we have no choice but to break our backs trying to keep up, identifying and adopting our own innovations in a marketplace where we are perpetually disadvantaged. Having a Web site, even one that doesn't do all that you dream, is still part of staying in the game."

It's a game in which the rules change second by second. No one "keeps up" anymore; we just try to avoid being left behind. I've noticed that the bookshop Web sites I enjoy visiting most seem to be virtual representations of the people who inhabit the bricks-and-mortar stores rather than efficient, alien, cyborg annexes. That's why the online bookstores that move to the top of my siteseeing list are the ones offering current blogs (Elizabeth Frengel and Joe Murphy at Olsson's) or direct e-mail access to booksellers (Rainy Day Books) or podcasts of author events or anything else that humanizes a site and promotes some level of interactivity.

Call it organic mind over digital matter.

No one says this is easy, and most indie bookstores do not start from a position of strength when it comes to this competition. The virtual playing field is anything but level. Strandberg touches on this in what he terms a "truth" about the Internet challenge, which is "the cost of keeping up with the Joneses. And not just online shopping but also the varieties of digital content that one way or another have their origins in traditional print reading and in which a bookstore has a stake. The stock market has subsidized the rapid progress of industry goliaths and neither the ABA nor its members have had the benefit of this enormous gift of cash and consumer/investor attention. As we are all well aware, consumers are continually being trained by Internet change leaders and have less patience for the rest of us."

While there is no magic bullet solution, the human touch and openness to trial and error must always play key roles in drawing readers to your site. Imagination and persistence are as crucial to success as technological innovation. Even that word "success" can be defined in so many ways--increasing online books sales, widening a bookstore's geographic reach, developing profitable e-mail communication links between frontline booksellers and their customers.

Don't be satisfied with the status quo. Strandberg isn't. When I express my surprise, given Tattered Cover's reputation as a great handselling store, that there is no Staff Picks page (a staple for most bookstore Web sites) on TC's site, he replies that it is an unfortunate but by no means permanent situation: "In the past, we've had a difficult time maintaining it in a useful way. It has proved more difficult than one might at first suspect to get the staff engaged and keep the selections current. We're going to make another run at it again later this year."

Beckett as webmaster. Repeat after me: "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."