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A Conversation with Len Vlahos, Part 3

Shelf Awareness -- November 17, 2006

Our discussion concludes (or pauses) with an overview of Booksense.com's search engine and a quick peek at some Web sites that Len Vlahos, director of BookSense.com, considers interesting variations on the theme.


Robert Gray: How would you rate the search engine for BookSense,com? What does it do well? What could it do better? I don't know whether you want to compare or contrast it directly with Amazon's, but I do know a lot of frontline booksellers still covertly use Amazon to answer customer questions on the sales floor quickly.
Len Vlahos: O.K., I'm probably a bit biased, but our search engine is really, really, really, really good. This past January we did a major overhaul and upgrade to the search engine, which, we believe, put our members on more equal footing with their competitors. And at the very least, our search engine is clearly, we believe, the best available to independent booksellers.
We made four crucial changes to our search engine:
a. The search results are now ordered by a combination of matching the search term to items in the database, Book Sense Bestseller sales and on-order quantities from Ingram. It used to be that you'd type "John Adams" into the keyword search and get nothing but books by authors named John Adams. Now the McCullough paperback comes out on top. Likewise a search on the keyword "kite" now displays the trade paper of Kite Runner first, and the rest of the books in the list (Curious George Flies a Kite, etc.) are all relevant results. This system allows us to anticipate what the customer might be looking for with a much greater degree of accuracy. I encourage you to visit independent bookseller Web sites NOT powered by BookSense.com and try these two searches, or any other search term you can dream up. We're confident that our results are far and away the best. (We even score pretty well against the corporate search engines.)
b. We license our book data from Ingram. Specifically, we use iPage (both iPage Active and iPage Extended). This database is truly remarkable for the breadth, depth and quality of the data. The problem is sometimes there's too much data. So with the new search engine, we've given stores the ability optionally to exclude books by inventory status. For example, a bookseller can exclude from search results all Out of Print and/or Special Order books. This allows each store to tailor the selection displayed in the search results to that store's liking. Some stores are excluding some categories; others are including all. The important thing for BookSense.com, with the search or anything else, is that the product be more flexible to meet the varying needs of our very independent members.
c. We've added "stemming." This means that different versions of the same root word will find the right result. Search for "Easter Rise" and you'll get "Easter Rising" even though it's not really a match.
d. The search is faster and more stable than it's ever been before.

To your specific point about frontline booksellers covertly using Amazon.com to answer customer questions, that has definitely been true in the past, but we are anecdotally hearing it's changing for stores with BookSense.com Web sites, largely because our search is so much better than it used to be.
RG: You showcase four Booksense Web sites (Tattered Cover, etc.) on your site as examples of what can be done with the template. Are there other pages you'd highlight as exemplary? Anything wild? Innovative?    
LV: Village Books' staff picks page is one of the prettiest uses of the template I've seen. St. Helen's Bookshop is the exclusive home of signed Chuck Palahniuk books, which has been a huge financial boon to the store. (Through the sale of signed-Chuck books alone, they pay for their Web site). Alabama Booksmith has a very interesting signed first editions program. Vroman's Bookstore has created both a MySpace page and a Blog (and link to both from their home page).


Like most conversations, this one is incomplete (perhaps a better word is unfinished), but I hope it gives you a general sense of what the Booksense.com approach and philosophy currently entail. You can visit Booksense.com's site for more information. And we'll keep talking. You can send questions and comments to fresheyesnow@yahoo.com. I will share them with readers in upcoming columns.

As has been shown here during the past five months, many bookstores use Booksense.com's service. Many do not. I've highlighted alternatives in the past, and will continue to do so. If you've seen one you love, please let me know.

Ultimately all of this leads to the Big Question, posed some time ago by Pink Floyd:

Is there anybody out there?

Oh, yes.

The follow-up, and more important, question is: How do we let them know that there is somebody (aka bookstores) "in here."


A Conversation with Len Vlahos, Part 2

Shelf Awareness -- November 16, 2006

Yesterday we spoke with Len Vlahos, director of Booksense.com, about the present, and future, role of bookstore Web sites, as well as the relative merits of Booksense.com Web sites in particular. This time we ask him about the dark side.

Robert Gray: What are the disadvantages in using Booksense.com?

Len Vlahos: There are no disadvantages! Just kidding.
The product is templated, so of course the look and feel is somewhat restrictive in that booksellers must work within the framework of the template. We did add a new template at BEA this year, so we now have two main families of templates (each with multiple color choices and backgrounds). Here's an example of each: Fountain Bookstore and Village Books.

That said, there is a non-templated solution we refer to as a "self-authored site" or SAS. In this case a bookseller develops, maintains and hosts the front-end and integrates our back-end tools--database, search engine, shopping cart, etc. Here are a few examples of stores using an SAS solution: Cody's Books, Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Elliott Bay Book Co.

In addition to being templated, another current shortcoming is that we don't yet handle non-book product (DVD, music, toys, used books, apparel, etc.) in any significant way. However, in preparing for the ISBN-13, we're well positioned to add non-book modules in the future. It's on our development to-do list, but we don't yet have an ETA.
RG: Some bookstores have been loyal BookSense.com stores for a long time. Others have been with you for a period and then left. Still others opted from the outset to use alternatives to build and sustain their Web sites. Having observed these patterns and talked to your clients for some time now, do you have a sense of why booksellers stay with you, leave or never join in the first place?
LV: I think the booksellers who STAY with us do so for a few reasons:
a. The product is very good for the price. It provides a way for booksellers to promote their stores, promote their events and allow their customers to search for and buy books. This is all available at below-market cost. If a bookseller were to try to build a comparable system on their own, it would be much more expensive. (As noted earlier, having a presence online--BookSense.com or otherwise--is becoming a reality and requirement of 21st century retailing.)
b. We're continually improving and upgrading the product in response to user requests. We spend a lot of time talking with, and, more important, listening to our users. Most of the innovation and technical change in the BookSense.com product has been the direct result of bookseller feedback. We hold a users group meeting at BEA every year, and we convene the BookSense.com Users Council (a group of volunteer booksellers providing advice and feedback) at least once a year.
c. Our customer service is excellent. Our team is very quick and thorough in responding to member questions and concerns.

Most often members LEAVE the program because they perceive the cost to be high: BookSense.com costs $225 a month ($245 if you're uploading your inventory), and we know that's not an insignificant sum, particularly for smaller-volume stores. Some of those stores come to the program with an expectation that they're going to pay for their Web site directly through online sales. When that happens, it's the exception, not the rule. We try help our members understand that the Web site is at least as much a marketing tool as it is a sales tool, and not to enter this arena with unrealistic expectations. In addition, we know that a lot of transactions that may start online (with a book search or event list), are completed in the bricks-and-mortar store.
As to why booksellers NEVER join at all, there are probably a few reasons. First, you need to be an ABA member, a storefront retailer and a participant in the Book Sense marketing program. I also think the notion of having to manage a Web site can seem overwhelming. There are only so many hours in the day and we definitely appreciate how many of those hours are quickly filled with the myriad tasks facing booksellers. (A lot of us, myself included, are former booksellers.) What we've tried to do with BookSense.com is make the management of a site as simple as possible, hopefully shrinking the demand on a bookseller's time, but that message is not always easy to communicate.
RG: Many booksellers who tell me they became disenchanted with the service cite the monthly fees versus online sales as a prime reason for leaving. Were their expectations unreasonable? What can or should an indie expect from a BookSense.com site as far as selling titles online is concerned? And if they aren't selling books, what do you tell them to convince them to stay with the plan?
LV: I think I've answered the money/sales questions, but would like to make two other quick points here:
a. ABA doesn't try to "convince" members to stay with the program if it's clearly not to the benefit of the member. We're a not-for-profit association, and our mission is to promote and protect the interests of our independent bookstore members. If BookSense.com isn't working as a solution, we advise our members to drop it, and have, on occasion steered them toward other solutions.
b. That said, it's hard to evaluate the success or failure of a Web site (as either a marketing or sales tool) if that site hasn't been properly promoted, so we do encourage our members to market their Web sites adequately. Often I find myself in a great bookstore with a great Web site (BookSense.com or otherwise) and see no evidence that a Web site exists. We've been preaching this message at our educational sessions, and I think it's starting to take root; I'm hearing of more stores including the store's URL on store signs, window posters, etc.


In Part 3, we'll discuss the Booksense.com search engine and Len Vlahos will share examples of some of his favorite bookstore variations on the Booksense.com theme



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."--