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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."


The Ideal Bookstore Web Site? A Work-in-Progress

Shelf Awareness -- September 7, 2006

As I write this column in early September, I'm also listening to Julian Barnes read from Arthur & George at the Tattered Cover Bookstore on July 10. I mention this not to laud my multitasking ability, nor to reveal deep secrets about time travel, but to recommend Authors on Tour: Podcasts of Authors and Their Books, a feature that adds considerable luster to an otherwise standard Booksense.com template.

According to Neil Strandberg, Tattered Cover's manager of operations, "The ideal Web site will be able to keep pace with changing technologies and services, even when the future of such ideas is murky or their current return on investment disappointing."

While he admits that this online ideal is still beyond the reach of most bookstores, including Tattered Cover, he believes a Web presence is "indispensable" for independents. Strandberg has given the online book world considerable thought, as you'll discover in my next two columns. This time, I'll share his views on Tattered Cover's work with Booksense.com's Web site service.

It's an important topic. During my siteseeing tour this year, I've encountered a range of opinions about the effectiveness of the Booksense.com approach. Strandberg's take, based upon experience as well as reflection, is an excellent starting point for this discussion.

Tattered Cover is the first example cited on Booksense.com's Q&A page. Strandberg says that the bookstore maintained its own Web site for several years, but switched to the Booksense.com template to keep pace with ever-changing technology and customer expectations: "Booksense.com offered, in our view, the best selection of functions and services for the resources available to us. This 'math' remains true now."

He adds that while the store's Web site helps sustain relationships with customers for whom the current offerings (event schedules, browsing options, etc.) are satisfactory, "I must simultaneously acknowledge that I have responded to many customers who have hoped for something different, 'better,' from a store with Tattered Cover's reputation. Also, the fact that our online ordering growth does not mirror national trends speaks for itself with respect to the kinds of relationships our site is sustaining--or not."

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of the Booksense.com option? According to Strandberg, "One advantage relates to the cost to Tattered Cover, be that the cost of labor, equipment, R&D, software, troubleshooting or the like. Doing this on our own simply became impossible to sustain. Other stores, of course, have selected other providers. Booksite comes immediately to mind, but this point leads me to another great advantage: Len Vlahos and the BookSense.com crew. They are fantastically responsive, sharp and helpful. They 'get' our needs, can quickly connect the dots between service goals and technical abilities, and can translate a rapidly evolving jargon-laden conversation into plain English."  

Strandberg acknowledges, however, the limited range of options available "to completely personalize the Web site and thereby reproduce online whatever is valuable about the in-store experience. Our internal arguments regarding this point center on frustrated desires to make the Web site as special and unique as any of the physical stores, and to offer all our products and services."  

He knows that BookSense.com must please a diverse (dare we say fiercely independent?) bookstore community and is inevitably "pushed by users with high expectations and pulled by others whose requirements are more basic. We frequently work with Booksense.com to identify new goals for the Tattered Cover--and all template users--and simultaneously recognize that these ideas will be placed in a queue that BookSense.com prioritizes according to its resources and the demands of other stores."   

While there is no such thing as an ideal bookstore Web site, Strandberg does have a dream site and his inspiration is Powells.com, which "has done a wonderful job of capitalizing on its core mission, selling books competitively while expanding its customer relationship via the Web. In fact, a Web site visitor can engage with books, digital media, Powell's staff, the stores, authors and aspects of the literary community in ways that the in-store customer could never experience. As a result, and this is my goal for Book Sense and the Tattered Cover, the in-store and online relationship both complement and expand upon each other. Neither is the pale shadow of the other, each promises to satisfy the ever-evolving spectrum of consumer interests."

"Ever-evolving" precludes arrival. The quest continues. More from Neil Strandberg next time.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)


What's the Vision for Your Web site?

Shelf Awareness -- August 22, 2006

When I visit bookshops on this site-seeing trek, I ask myself a simple question: What is the vision here?

Richard Goldman and Mary Alice Gorman, owners of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa., have a vision for their Web site that Richard calls "the Google vs. IMDB effect. If you're looking for something about the nesting habits of robins, you go to Google; if you're looking for the name of the actor who played the homicide detective in The Thin Man, you don't go to Google; you go to IMDB.com. In a small way, I think we've become the IMDB of mystery readers--they go to us first to answer a question. Once they are on the site, we have the opportunity to make sales."

In a previous column, I cited a report that 30% of this bookshop's revenues come from online sales. Pennsylvania is its primary source for Internet business; New York, California, and Florida round out the top four. In addition to providing an extraordinary array of useful information for mystery readers, it has a discount program, sends weekly e-mails featuring 20% off a selected title and offers free shipping on orders over $45.

Mystery Lovers Bookshop is always seeking new avenues for Internet outreach. Mary Alice traces the evolution of this strategy back to 1990, when Richard developed a system that "tracks all sales so customers can check for dupes, generates mailing lists by author, shows series chronology and makes life so easy for me, the user from Hell. We've never found any system out there that can top ours or we would have updated by now."

The online version of Mystery Lovers Bookshop made its debut in 1995 and went through several incarnations over the next six years. Richard admits that those early variations were "strictly an advertising/promotion site," but by 2001 the bookstore faced increasing competition from superstores in its region. About 15% of its sales had been coming from phone and mail orders, so the next move seemed obvious. "With increasing difficulty facing us in the in-store business, we realized we had to have an e-commerce Web site if we wanted to attract more mail order customers. In October 2001, we launched the new Web site, which was an immediate success."

In 2003, the store began using Google AdWords to drive traffic to the site. According to Richard, "This has been amazingly successful. We now average about $50 a month in pay-per-click charges, which generate thousands of dollars in sales. Traffic-wise, here's an example: In February of 2004, we had 22,000 unique visitors, 780 a day; in February of 2006, we had 51,000 unique visitors, 1,833 a day; and in June of 2006, we had 71,000 unique visitors, 2,320 a day."

Mary Alice adds that the store works with online communities (blogs, list servers, groups, etc.) to drive traffic to the Web site, and has become more aggressive about getting authors to link directly to it.

Fresh content is always king, and Richard commits about 25 hours per month to his role as webmaster. "The update of the Web site is crucial to success; you constantly need new content to get people to keep coming back."

Continuing to adapt to the changing world online, Mystery Lovers Bookshop has begun an ambitious redesign of the site. According to Richard, "We felt the site was usable but a bit of a mess. The bottom line is that we're not converting enough visitors to buyers." To counter this, the store is working on a complete overhaul that will include a new, more efficient shopping cart as well as significant improvements in navigation and usability.

Ultimately, however, the key to online success for Mystery Lovers Bookshop is more than just improved shopping carts and navigation. It's the personal dialogue between handsellers and readers, a conversation that can be profitable even when it is virtual.

"Aside from the site content, our handselling and customer service with online customers is absolutely the key," says Richard. "Our responses to orders are very personal and idiosyncratic; they reflect the personality of the staff person who responds."

Richard doesn't prescribe the Mystery Lovers Bookshop strategy as a panacea. "Every bookseller is in a different situation. We were driven to the web by the continuing falloff of traffic in the store as a result of the chain store expansion. The Web gives us a way to project the personality and uniqueness of the store over a much wider area."

There's a word for that--vision.


Bookstore Siteseeing: Unexpected Ruins

Shelf Awareness -- July 27, 2006

I'm often tempted by virtual detours on this trip and found one I couldn't resist in last Friday's edition of Shelf Awareness. When I learned that Tuttle Antiquarian Books was closing after 174 years in business, I followed a link to the Rutland Herald article, which reported: " 'The reason for closing was the effects of the Internet.' Jon Mayo said Wednesday while watching workers load books onto a truck bound for Maine. 'We think that's what did us in.' "

I will mourn this bookstore's passing, and I understand Mayo's fatalism about the chaotic used book industry. A funeral is a time for eulogy rather than autopsy. On the other hand, exploring ways to be competitive and creative online is the essence of our site-seeing journey here, and there is a lesson in this loss.
I lived in Rutland from 1973 until 1997, so I knew the bookshop well. Tuttle Antiquarian Books wasn't a particularly welcoming place, though I tolerated its laissez-faire attitude toward customer service. I didn't mind being left alone to explore room upon musty room of book-laden shelves, and I will be in their debt forever because I discovered the wonders of Asian literature and art in that quaint Vermont bookshop.

Charles Tuttle, who died in 1993, was serving as an American soldier in Tokyo after World War II when he fell in love with Japanese culture. He made it his life's mission to introduce this world to American readers. In addition to their extensive used book inventory, Tuttle Antiquarian Books displayed and sold an array of new titles from Tuttle Publishing, which still exists as an imprint of Periplus Publishing Group.

One of many books I bought new there was Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart Holmes and Chimyo Horioka (1973). As I write these words, that copy is on my desk, open to page 25 and a reproduction of "Bare Willows and Distant Mountains." On the facing page, a commentary begins, "How remote from the everyday world this landscape seems!"

I felt the same way about Tuttle Antiquarian Books, and yet it was in those isolated Vermont rooms that I discovered an even more remote world. Call it a low-tech precursor to the global village.

I haven't visited the bookshop for more than a decade, so its demise is like the sudden death of a long-neglected uncle. I feel a little guilty, but in this case it is balanced (yin and yang, a concept I first learned reading Tuttle publications) with a dose of frustration.

According to the Herald, Mayo, who began working at Tuttle in 1957 and became co-owner five years ago, felt that "consumer buying and selling habits had changed to the point where Tuttle couldn't compete with eBay, Amazon and everyone else in between." (Many booksellers, large as well as small, utilize ebay and Amazon to enhance their used book sales, but this factor was not addressed in the article.) Mayo added that "it's impossible to compete with someone who can sell their books from their living room."

That the current owner of Tuttle Antiquarian Books viewed the Internet as an enemy rather than a tool is worth considering, especially in light of Charles Tuttle's undeniable pedigree as a publishing industry visionary.

For years, I thought the reason there was so little interaction between staff and customers at Tuttle Antiquarian Books must be because their business was conducted primarily through mail order. I imagined them nurturing worldwide customer relationships--the 84 Charing Cross Road effect. I would have assumed that a mailing list like Tuttle's, built decade upon decade, positioned them to make a profitable transition to the Web.
I would have been wrong.

Tuttle's Web page is now its headstone.

What if, instead of being gradually swept aside by the "long tail" of Internet used book dealers selling out of their living rooms, Tuttle Antiquarian Books (and many other bookshops, for that matter) had approached the Web with the same innovative vision that Charles Tuttle exhibited when he found himself seduced by Japanese culture in postwar Tokyo?

Many years ago, I met Mr. Tuttle on a golf course and I thanked him personally for the new world he had given me.

I'm still grateful, but a little sadder


Return Trips: Online Customers Can Go Home Again

Shelf Awareness -- July 18, 2006

We all have favorite travel destinations we "discovered" at some point, and to which we return whenever we can. The urge to go back applies even more to Web siteseeing because it's so easy--no long lines, no traffic jams, no lost luggage, no screaming kids (headphones help).  

Why do people visit certain Web sites day after day? Why do you? Why do customers visit certain bookstore Web sites regularly? Why don't they?

In response to my first column for Shelf Awareness, a reader disagreed with this statement: "Presumably, the sites weren't built for current patrons, nor are they there to lure readers into the bricks-and-mortar store." He said a lot of regular customers used his site "as an additional way to stay in touch, and to help them plan visits to the store--both in terms of checking times/dates of events and also to search for books using our online db before driving here to buy the books in person."

I agree, but--if I may paraphrase Miss Peggy Lee--"Is that all there is . . . to a bookstore Web site?" Event schedules and title research are important services, but they're modest goals. You can drive a Ferrari to the supermarket for groceries. Is that the best use of its potential?
Some Web sites do try harder. The July 6 issue of Shelf Awareness reported that at Mystery Lovers Bookshop, "30% of store revenues come from online sales." While the site itself isn't visually striking, it is absolutely packed with useful information for mystery fans, and offers a range of incentives to purchase books online, including discounts and free shipping. I'm currently interviewing owners Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman. I'll share their thoughts on the topic with you in an upcoming tour stop.

I'll also tell you about Pass Christian Bookstore, which was leveled during Hurricane Katrina and has survived the perilous transition period by functioning aggressively and passionately as an online operation. Author Carolyn Haines called my attention to this effort and suggested I contact owner Scott Naugle. "They've built a great e-mail list," she said, "and stay in touch with their clients in that way, until a new storefront can go up." Scott and I are now discussing his online strategy ("Our Web site has kept us in business," he wrote), and I'll share his thoughts with you soon.  

Ultimately, it's all about return trips. We travel to certain places for many reasons, but we go back out of loyalty and a desire to replicate a pleasurable experience. It doesn't have to be complicated.  

For years, my morning ritual has included a cup of coffee and a visit to Arts & Letters Daily. The site is simplicity itself visually, and hasn't changed much in all the time I've been going there. Each morning, new links are posted for three articles, culled from all over the Web. There always seems to be something worth reading.

So I return every day.

On the other hand, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an intricate, beautiful Web site. Even though I'm a bricks-and-mortar member (if a long-distance one here in Vermont), I seldom visited online until they began posting "Today's Featured Work of Art from the Permanent Collection" on their home page. That relatively simple addition, fresh each morning, has altered my relationship with the museum.

So I return every day.

"By and by I got this idea of a travelling bookstore," Christopher Morley wrote nearly a century ago in Parnassus on Wheels. "I had always been a lover of books, and in the days when I boarded out among the farmers I used to read aloud to them. After my mother died I built the wagon to suit my own ideas, bought a stock of books from a big second-hand store in Baltimore, and set out."

Back then, the notion of a bookshop that went to where the readers were wasn't revolutionary. Traveling salesmen of all descriptions plied their trades from house to house, farm to farm. Maybe a little Parnassus spirit is worth considering again. For different reasons, Mystery Lovers Bookshop and Pass Christian Books have found ways to build their online wagons and "set out." Both are on my "Favorites" list.--