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Playing the Bookshop Memory Game Online

Shelf Awareness -- January 26, 2007

You must be able to play "the game" to work in a bookshop, and here's the first rule: When a customer has a specific title request, assume (but never let the customer know you assume) that the information provided is flawed. In any three-word title, at least one word will be incorrect; sometimes two; sometimes all three. I've heard titles that were close (Snow on Shingles for Snow Falling on Cedars) and not so close (Peggy Sue and the House of Hair for Patty Jane's House of Curl).

Decoding misinformation is not, however, a problem for a frontline bookseller; it's one of the pleasures. I was reminded of this once more last weekend, when a customer asked me to help find a book her daughter needed for school. She showed me a slip of paper, on which the "title" was written: Robert Fagles. The solution, reached with relative ease after a few questions, turned out to be the Fagles translation of The Iliad.

That's one way the game is played, though she probably could have found the answer eventually using an online bookstore search option.

But what happens when the request defies intellectual and digital gravity? Shortly before Christmas, I fielded a question from a man frantically scanning his scribbled list of gift suggestions for relatives.

"Do you have any books about Osama Barick," he asked.

I knew, even if he didn't yet, that he must be looking for Barack Obama's bestseller The Audacity of Hope. It was an easy leap of logic for me, but would that answer have come as simply online? A lot of time and money is invested in some very powerful search engines, but even high tech logic often meets its match when confronted with the low tech intangibles of consumer bewilderment and impatience.

What if the gentleman had looked for an answer to his relatively simple, if opaque, request at bookstore Web sites? I conducted a quick experiment to find out.

"Osama Barick" yielded no results at Amazon, Borders, Politics & Prose Bookstore, Powell's Books or Tattered Cover's BookSense.com site. Books about Osama Bin Laden came up as hits at Barnes & Noble and the Northshire Bookstore. Even almighty Google was puzzled by this request.

Perhaps the game, an integral part of bricks-and-mortar bookstore customer interaction, has no equivalent online.

There's a wonderful description of the game in Sheridan Hay's The Secret of Lost Things, which will be published in March. In the bookstore where much of the novel's action occurs, the staff is adept at a game called "Who Knows," loudly pooling their varied and idiosyncratic skills to answer unfathomable requests, such as a customer whose "hands might move apart, as if to say 'it's about this thick.' " Hay writes that "the only reliable source of reference was the staff and their collective memory."  

Memory coupled with well-honed instincts. Often, niceties like author or title won't even be part of a demand. Booksellers must decode clues like "a book I heard about on NPR last month" or "a book that was on display last week over there" or "a book with a red cover my friend bought here."

The "red cover" is a classic. George Orwell wrote about it in his 1936 essay, Bookshop Memories: "For example, the dear old lady who 'wants a book for an invalid' (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover."

What booksellers really do, on our own or with colleagues, is play tag-team mnemonics. Customers enter the store with raw materials, garnered from conversations, misremembered ads and half-heard radio interviews. They deliver the clues and want rapid, even magical, revelation of the title. They scatter beads across the counter and ask us to hand them back a necklace . . . immediately.

Do they have the same expectations online? I suspect they give up more quickly there.

If the game is being played well virtually, I'd love to know where and how. I've seen little evidence of it in my bookstore Web siteseeing travels. E-mail, listservs and search engines are useful tools, but they are not really the game.

Imagine a bookstore Web site where the game could be played with the ease and frequency of the sales floor version.


KOMENAR Publishing and Community, Part 2

Shelf Awareness -- January 18, 2007

Charlotte Cook portrays her efforts to launch and sustain KOMENAR Publishing as "my ironwoman experience," drawing upon "a huge catalogue of experience and expectations." She is also inspired by her favorite bookseller, husband Richard, owner of Sunrise Bookshop & Metaphysical Center in Berkeley, Calif. She describes him as a "cosmic bartender . . . people come in and tell him stories about their life, then instead of a drink he gives them a book. Sounds like a community bookseller to me."

Perhaps we're all in the cosmic bartender game, but how can one new, small publisher translate her particular experience, vision, and desire for community into national success?

It ain't easy.

"The book industry is an injured enterprise," says Charlotte. "Just the fact that so much is consignment business startles me. The bolstering cry that 'you can always return it' means that product choices can be only for the moment. And of course discounts to readers mean little room to cover costs and therefore stay in business . . . and suggest that a book's content or long-term value isn't worth full price."

Concerned that she will sound like "another whiny publisher," Charlotte insists that she is just "trying to figure this out. The alternative or small publisher is held suspect. I don't know why. I can say that our experience has led to the following joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from a small publisher. Now when you laugh--and it isn't an 'if,' is it?--it's because you identify with the chicken. But I don't. That reaction doesn't make sense to me."

Charlotte cites her experience with My Half of the Sky by Jan McBurney-Lin, which garnered an August 2006 Book Sense Pick, as symptomatic. "We rejoiced at our good fortune, then everything sort of stopped there. Instead of books going onto shelves and through the hands of booksellers into the grip of readers, we saw digital images of the art work show up as if books were within reach of a reader. But the title was only available by special order. The outcome: an increase of maybe 800 books with a quick set of sales. Nice, but booksellers within the Book Sense community were more passive than active, leaving us with a profound sense of disappointment, not only in sales but for all the work we have done to be part of the non-chain bookseller renaissance."

What had her expectations been? "We thought each Book Sense bookseller would carry a copy or two of the title and place the book in a prominent display. We thought that each bookseller would at least acquaint him- or herself with the title and why it received attention. We thought that books getting Book Sense attention would give us a bit of buzz. We thought more booksellers from outside the regional areas we targeted at trade shows would discover our book(s). Our smallest expectation also met with disappointment--that we had ended the need to prove we were not a subsidy publisher."

Building credibility one bookshop at a time is a hard road. One strategy KOMENAR employs is a Starter Kit, sending at least one complimentary copy of each title to booksellers. According to Charlotte, "The string attached is that, when those books sell, the bookseller places an order to replace them. We use the honor system, and it's a great deal for all. We've had good performance from this."

Charlotte believes that community building for small publishers must be multi-tiered. She calls the work of ABA and Book Sense "valuable and necessary," and is quick to point out "how grateful we are to these wonderful people," but stresses the absolutely critical role of regional associations, which "tackle issues of community all the time. They push and shove--in the nicest ways--issues of business practices, relationship, and competition out into the open. KOMENAR's staff has been critiqued and introduced, teased and soothed, and much more by some of those people and always with an eye for this publishing house and that bookseller to do better. We have never felt injured or patronized."

According to Charlotte, KOMENAR's strategy is to "push ahead, focusing on people who share our passion: reading compelling fiction." Following that path, she will continue to look the industry in the eye: "I question what I see. What I choose to question and how has often been taken as hard opinion. Not so. People who know me know that my expressions of frustration are me on my way to a solution or some humor." The stuff, perhaps, of dreams and community.


New Island Community for Readers Like 'You'

Shelf Awareness -- January 10, 2007

First, let me offer my belated congratulations to You for being named Time magazine's Person of the Year. You deserve it. You outdid yourself online in 2006, turning remote islands like YouTube, MySpace and Wikipedia into virtual continents. You even went literal with the island metaphor by moving to Second Life and recreating Yourself in Your own image.

Second person singular is always in caps in YourWorld, and 2007 looks even brighter for You. One small question remains for us, however: Will the publishing industry survive the age of You? As booksellers, our (lower case) heads can't help but spin. Dare we "close the books" on 2006? Will anyone open them again?

Book communities continue to develop online in any number of interesting ways, but the odds of building a book-focused Web site that becomes a YouTube or MySpace are probably equivalent to those of buying a lottery ticket with your morning coffee and winning $20 million (disclaimer: all estimates calculated by former English major and thus subject to professional derision).

If we build it, will You come?

If we don't, will You even notice?

As I read the hype about Time magazine's Year of You, I was also having an extended e-mail conversation with Charlotte Cook, president of Komenar Publishing, a small house whose second title, My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin, garnered a Book Sense Pick last year from Keri Holmes of the Kaleidescope bookstore in Hampton, Iowa.

We discussed at length the online as well as offline world of books, and the word "community" kept surfacing in various contexts. I'll share some of her thoughts with you in the next two columns here, but we are also joining Charlotte for the soft launch this week of the Habitual Reader, a new online community.

"Our idealism strikes again!" Charlotte says. "Nick Ponticello, our manager of operations, has pointed out that the hottest Web sites are those that create community. We want the Habitual Reader Web site to give voice to those among us who spend $$$$ every month on books and then actually read those books. The centerpiece of the site will be Profiles of Habitual Readers with suggested reading lists; a Jeff Foxworthy-like contest about who is a Habitual Reader; Homegrown Reviews; Survivor: Book Island; a list of Once Was Enough titles; and even a 'nominate your favorite bookseller' option."

Charlotte came to publishing after working in a variety of fields, including "libraries, bookstores, large retail operations (worker bee to management) and high tech (small and large companies)." She can expound upon the wonders of literary fiction as well as the lures and pitfalls of technophilia: "When I was in high tech, I learned two things: 1) There's bleeding edge, leading edge and ridiculous. Ridiculous was being high on the technology but forgetting what your business was. We also called it 'rapture of the deep'; 2) Every technology takes several introductions to find its true value in the marketplace."

Her husband, Richard, owns Sunrise Bookshop & Metaphysical Center in Berkeley, Calif. "We started Sunrise more than 30 years ago," Charlotte says, "and have been part of the independent booksellers' world this whole time. We have supported all things for indies and are longtime members of NCIBA."

Sunrise does not have a Web site. According to Richard, "We have on several occasions begun a Web site for the bookstore, but it requires a good deal of work, ongoing attention and commitment, and so far little evidence that it would repay such effort. My thoughts are subject to change on this issue."

Despite her interest in online experimentation and community building, Charlotte concurs with her husband's resistance to online retailing. Komenar Publishing does not sell books on its Web site: "We staunchly believe in community bookstores. I buy on the Web only when I know exactly what I want and can't find it locally. What the Web does is provide us with a much cheaper venue for realizing marketing and publicity needs."  

The Habitual Reader goes live this week as a work in progress with limited content but unlimited hopes.

Will You join this particular book community? Anything is possible, but everything is worth a shot.

Check in next week for an update as well as some of Charlotte's thoughts about living the life of a small publisher in a world where the stakes are anything but virtual.


Perception Is Nine-Tenths of the Law Online

Shelf Awareness -- January 3, 2007

What are you optimistic about? Why?

This is the "Edge Annual Question--2007" (well, two questions, but who's counting?). If you visit the Edge World Question Center, you will find 160 responses from "a who's who of interesting and important world-class thinkers." Select Walter Isaacson and you will learn something about the gentle art of reverse psychology as he turns current paranoia regarding publishing's future into a mischievous fable.

"I am very optimistic about print as a technology," says Isaacson. "Words on paper are a wonderful information storage, retrieval, distribution, and consumer product. . . . Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 400 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures onto pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the Internet."

In my first column for Shelf Awareness last June, I began with a simple statement that was deliberately provocative: "Most independent bookstore Web sites are a waste of time and money, and about as useful as a weathered motel on an abandoned highway." I didn't necessarily believe that, and said as much in the following paragraph. Now, however, I might add that I've found some of those weathered motels to be more effective than their neon-lit competitors.

In 2006, I visited and revisited most bookstore Web sites in the U.S., looking for tips, tactics and trouble. As 2007 begins, I'm less inclined to make overriding statements about the relative profitability or futility of indies online. Like Mr. Isaacson, I've found that perception matters; that any story about bookstores must include plot twists like individual expectations, resources and priorities.

So if I were asked "What are you optimistic about?" in terms of online indie bookselling for 2007, I would cite the range of online experimentation I've encountered rather than the quantity or quality of sites overall. I'm optimistic about the energy and thought that so many booksellers put into their sites. And I'm especially optimistic about the adaptability of booksellers who set sail online and, if their initial voyage isn't a success, try another route rather than abandoning ship.

In that regard, I was thinking this week about a particular bookshop that adapted by simplifying rather than giving up.  

Last summer, as I prepared to attend the MPIBA trade show in Denver, I communicated with Nicole Magistro of the Bookworm of Edwards in Edwards, Colo., who had recently confronted the maddening puzzle of what sufficient "online presence" should mean for her particular situation.

Bookworm had been a BookSense.com store, but Magistro opted for a simpler template with more modest goals: "We do not sell books through our current site, and it is much cheaper to run/maintain than a BookSense site. Right now we pay about $10 per month. I would love to find a way to sell more stock online, but of course that requires savvy staff to maintain it. If you are a bookseller with a small staff and a brick and mortar store, there is not much time to devote to it at all."  

Although Amazon was "far and away our biggest competitor," Magistro felt that when her customers did shop online, discount was the primary reason and that was an area where she could not compete. On the other hand, she was optimistic about the growth of traffic at her new site, due largely to increased e-mail marketing campaigns. I've heard from many booksellers that direct e-mail communication has proven to be a successful way to generate more Web site hits.

That makes sense. E-mails tell your customers stories about your bookstore, and we're in the business of selling stories for a living. If perception is nine-tenths of the law online, then maybe Walter Isaacson's print culture fable hints at a potent tool for online retail survival. Can we tell stories that sell stories?

In 2007, I'll look for stories about bookstore Internet marketing techniques. Some of these will be fresh tales you've never heard before, while others will be classics with a new twist.

I'll find happy endings where I can.  

What are you optimistic about in terms of online bookselling in 2007?


Reading & the 'True Spirit' of the Holidays

Shelf Awareness -- December 21, 2006

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

I think the idea for this final column of 2006 occurred to me sometime last week at the bookstore, as I gift-wrapped yet another copy of the new CD by controversial singer/songwriter Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens). The ecumenical irony of this particular Christmas present was hard to ignore. Did it signify a coming together of disparate faiths and political ideologies in the true spirit of the season or was it simply consumer obliviousness? I'm still not sure, and I'm afraid to ask.

The search for the "true spirit" of the holiday season is not an easy task, and is perhaps made even more complicated because the reader in me tends to identify with the boy by the feeble fire, while the person whose livelihood depends upon selling books can't help feeling just a little sympathy for old Ebenezer counting out his coins.

As a longtime bookseller, I've grown accustomed to experiencing the holiday season as an ongoing drama of comparing daily sales figures to last year's numbers and obsessing over re-ordering strategies.

This is at once an exhilarating and intimidating time of the year. Some days "bah, humbug" doesn't seem like an overreaction to unpredictable weather, late deliveries or demanding customers. Wise and prescient ghosts of past, present and future seldom visit us with neat, plot twisting solutions to our multilayered dilemmas.

So how do we remember in such times that this mad world we've chosen to live and work in is still primarily about something as simple and complex as putting the right words together so that someone will read them?

When I was a kid, the words "true spirit of Christmas" were wrapped up beautifully in the stories I read and heard, stories from Dickens as well as the nuns at school. These tales reminded urchins like me that the holidays were about more than tinsel and toys, and I suspect I will always feel an emotional tug for young Scrooge reading by the feeble fire as well as Nativity scenes. I'm sure you have your own variations on that theme.

And if you are reading these words, chances are that you read as I read, to sift the world's cacophony into understandable (on good days, at least) measures.

We read to live. We read to find our way in the world. We read this time of year to encounter, if we can, the true spirit of the holiday season. That spirit is not always apparent, nor where you'd think it might be. For example, I found it this week while reading in unexpected places. Why these small gems brought the holiday spirit to me I'm not sure, but somehow reading them mattered:

I read about the Iraqi soccer team (a 20-man squad that includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds) winning a Silver Medal at the Asian games in Qatar last weekend.

I read that Beliefnet, a comprehensive Web site exploring a multitude of faiths, named the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., as its Most Inspiring Person of 2006.

I read this in Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal for Christmas day, 1839: "All life is a compromise. We are haunted by an ambition of a celestial greatness and baulked of it by all manner of paltry impediments."  

I found some of the true spirit in this NASA photo of shuttle astronauts dangling precariously in the air high above the big blue marble, "haunted by an ambition of a celestial greatness."

My wish is that you find the true spirit this holiday season, too, wherever you happen to read it.

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

The capital letters and the exclamation point belong to that old rascal Mr. Dickens. Feel free to edit and paraphrase to suit your own needs and beliefs.

I wish you great reading in 2007