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Hard Lessons, New Hope for Aliens & Alibis

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On December 31, 2006, Deb Andolino and Gary McCammon closed the doors of Aliens & Alibis Books. While her faith in bookselling remains strong as she works to build an online business, Andolino is frank about why faith alone wasn't enough.

She says the strengths of her bricks-and-mortar operation included appearance, great handselling and a carefully selected inventory. She tried to stock "as many titles as we could from the smaller presses and highlight some of the midlist authors from the major presses. Our customers liked our ability to recommend new authors based on what the customer had read before. The store looked good. We used oak bookcases and had a couple of comfortable recliners. We tried not to use the bottom shelf of the bookcases so customers didn't have to sit on the floor to see what books we had there."

She admits, however, that lack of business acumen proved to be a major liability: "We should have gone to some classes to learn more about inventories, budgets, etc. Unfortunately, a love of books is not enough; you also have to have a solid grounding in finance. I wish I knew then what I know now, which is the cry of any failed business person."

Andolino regrets "not listening to my 'inner voice.' That little voice kept telling me we were in trouble, but I ignored it for a long time. I told myself that we were so good we couldn't fail. And arrogance was a factor because we were the only store of its kind in the Southeast. I listen in my mind to some of the things I said and shudder."

She advises anyone planning to open a bookstore to "get the best grounding you can in business and finance if you don't have it already. Plan to have at least three times what you currently have in savings to tide you over the rough times."

Despite her rocky ride, Andolino's optimism for the bookselling life is undiminished: "If you can, go ahead and do it. So many people say, 'I've always wanted to open a bookstore but . . . .' Gary and I can say, 'When we opened our bookstore . . .' and remember all the people we met--customers and authors. The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA) is especially supportive, as are the science fiction booksellers."

Andolino hopes that over time she can establish a strong bookseller's presence online: "We haven't had a large number of buyers yet, but the ones who do buy are either getting the collectibles or new books. I think the new book buyers are not close to an independent mystery or science fiction dealer. There aren't a lot of us out there either as regular stores or Internet stores."

To attract that targeted readership, "Web Maven" Kim Malo says she designed the Aliens & Alibis website so that "maximum accessibility" takes precedence "over pretty but often annoying bells and whistles. I'm not a big fan of a lot of Flash, JavaScript, etc. Too many of those sites look like a web designer trying to justify their fee rather than something to benefit the person browsing the site. I have a high speed connection and I still sit there tapping my fingers as some sites' dozens of images load, having to wait too long just so I can navigate their site . . . or, as is often the case, not waiting."

Malo's design goal for Aliens & Alibis was to create a site that was "clean and accessible, not requiring too many clicks to find things. I've added a bunch of appropriate terms in the metaheaders to get the site picked up on searches. Listing the books on the pages where they are crawlable--particularly rare collectibles--is a way of getting people to the site through their searches for books and authors."

Andolino believes that her bookstore can have a successful future online. "I would like for Aliens & Alibis to become known for good quality, collectible books," she says. "I also would like our newsletter to be considered a good source for new and midlist authors to talk about their books. They need all the publicity that they can get. Beyond that, we are just taking things as they come. Who knows what technology will show up in the next few years that might change our direction? I've learned it's not wise to set anything in stone."--


Bookstore Moves from Bricks to Bytes

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, May 16

The story of Aliens & Alibis Books in Columbia, S.C., is equal parts cautionary tale and tribute to entrepreneurial spirit, spiced with a generous dose of passionate bookselling.

The short version of the story goes something like this: In May of 2005, Deb Andolino and Gary McCammon opened Aliens & Alibis. "It was the result of my son's and my passion for reading," said Andolino, "and the frustration at not being able to find many books by the authors we like to read. Gary is the science fiction and fantasy guru and I am an avid reader of mysteries with some fantasy thrown in."

Their shop was located in a northeast Columbia shopping mall that "the owners were planning to bring back to life. Unfortunately their CPR for the mall didn't work."

A year later, the bookstore moved to a main road in southeast Columbia. There was more traffic, but it sped by at 60 mph. "Since we were set back from the road, it was difficult to see us at that speed," said Andolino. By the end of the year, "we weren't even coming close to breaking even." They closed last December.

That's the short story, but it is not the end.

Aliens & Alibis Books is still in business online, an ever-evolving venture and adventure for Andolino.

"After we closed the doors, we decided to keep our website active," she said. "We currently send out a newsletter every two or three weeks, listing new books and allowing a forum for new authors to talk about their books. We've had very good feedback about that. We also have an online inventory that includes collectible mysteries, such as early Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Dell Mapbacks and those wonderful Gothics--the ones with the pictures of the terrified woman standing in front of a mysterious mansion. Business is a little slow but is building--and our expenses are a lot less."

Her initial attempt at a website debuted in May 2005. "At first I thought that I would be able to create a website," said Andolino, who had spent more than 20 years as a computer programmer. "I neglected to remember that there is a big difference between a large, mainframe computer and PCs."

Fortunately, she found her ideal "Web Maven" in Kim Malo: "We were incredibly lucky to find Kim, who also does the web site for CrimeThruTime," said Andolino.

According to Malo, "Deb had posted to the CTT list about looking to get some pages online back in May 2005 and I volunteered to help. We had a basic website up about two weeks later. Just some pages of photographs of the cats, contact info and some links--basically the online equivalent of a birth announcement paired with a business card."

Inventory/shopping cart options were added later. Malo said the first step "was creating tables of inventory that were browsable, but also adding a site search function--no actual shopping cart yet, but instructions and a form to let people e-mail to buy. That got the bookstore up so it might appear on Google searches and to give people an idea of what Deb had, while allowing us breathing space to work out details about shopping cart (which one, how to handle shipping costs, etc). That was around January 2006."

A PayPal shopping cart and Constant Contact newsletters were integrated a few months later. "Constant Contact allows me to monitor whether the newsletter is being read," said Andolino. "I periodically post a request to email lists such as CrimeThruTime and DorothyL to remind authors to send me information to put in the newsletter. We usually get a few additional contacts at that time. Most of my e-mails have the website URL at the end in a .sig file--just to remind people that we're still around."

What is life like as an online bookseller? "I can sell books in my pajamas," Andolino joked, but quickly added, "Unfortunately we are not selling enough for me to do it as a full-time job. There are those pesky things like mortgage payments, phone bills, etc., that need to be paid."

If the online bookstore is a part-time effort thus far, Andolino doesn't regret the road she has traveled to this point: "It was a rough ride, but we met some awesome authors and a lot of great customers. Gary and I agreed that we would do it again--even knowing the outcome."

Next week, we'll explore the bricks-and-mortar lessons learned and virtual strategies being applied at Aliens & Alibis.


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.