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What Will Indie E-Booksellers Do Now?

Perhaps you've heard that the Google eBookstore debuted this week. It's one of those stories the media in all its incarnations--print, video, digital, whispered rumors in coffee shops--loves to proclaim, then immediately strap down to the nearest table and dissect.

Not being immune to the temptation, I read everything I could and more, perhaps, than I should. As often happens, my thoughts turned to what this means for indie e-booksellers and three questions occurred to me:

  1. How does the Google eBookstore change the game for their shops?
  2. What are their expectations (and/or hopes) in terms of "gain"--financial (e-book sales, sidelines), customer perception, marketing opportunities, etc.?  
  3. How will they handsell e-books (in-store promos as well as online) to convince patrons that an indie bookstore is the best place to buy one (or many)?

When you want answers from indie booksellers, you just have to ask. So I did. This week, some responses to the first question:

Allison Hill of Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif.: "We're really excited about the Google e-books! This puts us in the e-book game in a real way. We don't have any illusions about a dramatic increase in sales, but it does allow us to help our loyal customers support us. Now we can meet all of their content needs in a viable way."

Stephanie Anderson of WORD, Brooklyn, N.Y.: "I think the way we feel here is that the Google eBookstore gets us in the game in a way that we weren't before. Especially in the case of books that we get under the agency model, because now we're on the same playing field as everybody else price-wise, which is a much bigger deal for e-books than physical books. And whereas before the dominant thread in conversations about e-books seemed to be about devices, this launch seems to have partially changed the conversation to being about the books themselves and how they work, thanks to the cloud model. I think that'll really change the way people think about e-books--they're going to want the option to read the same book on their phone, their computer, etc, now that it's available. And we're glad that we're selling e-books that work that way."

Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich.: "We've sold e-books for a couple years, however Google Editions improves our game on several fronts: It greatly increases the number of titles we can sell. It increases the functionality (their ability to work cross platform) of the e-books we sell by leaps and bounds. I believe it strengthens customer confidence in our ability to deliver to current devices and the devices of tomorrow (that should be said with an echo)."
Neil Strandberg of Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, Colo.: "As an IndieBound store, we have been 'in the game' off and on for several years now, though everyone concedes that the customer interface has been awkward and that selling non-agency e-books at MSRP is about as useful as... as... well, it merits consideration as the very definition of useless. As a result, we spent very little time promoting (heck, acknowledging) that we were 'in the game,' e-book-wise. This all having been the case, we are greatly relieved that we now have not only a state-of-the-moment ability to sell e-books but also the media spotlight Google commands to promote our new powers."

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah: "Being an e-bookstore means we have one more tool to do the thing we do best: read and recommend great books. It means we can provide access to the same reading materials at the same price and format as our competitors. So many of our customers have told us how convenient the e-reader is for traveling but they're loyal to us and they're committed to shopping local so they dislike shopping on Amazon. Now they don't have to! They can purchase an e-book and keep dollars in their community."

Lanora Hurley of the Next Chapter Bookshop, Mequon, Wis.: "I don't necessarily see Google eBooks as a 'game changer.' The 'game' for independent bookstores has and always will be to connect readers with good books. We pride ourselves on a knowledgeable well-read staff and superior customer service. To do this, we will always adapt, as we have in the past. Google eBooks is just a new format that will allow us to do what we've always done: provide our customers with access to great books."

Casey Coonerty Protti of Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Calif.: "It gets us in the game. It makes us seem less old-school and more willing to innovate. We have many, many customers that love us for staying true to what we've always been, but we were at risk of losing another subset that didn’t think we could serve new needs of convenience and access. Now we can serve both groups."

Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y.: "At the very least, it gives our customers the impression that we're keeping up with the changes in technology and staying current. It also allows us to offer an alternative to customers who want to read e-books but still want to support us. I still think Kindle has a corner on the market and it will be hard to compete with them, but at least we offer some kind of alternative. It has helped us to feel better prepared and not as frightened of digitalization. Plus, it just makes indie bookstores look cool to be working with Google. Perhaps it makes us seem more legit to techies?"

Lisa Baudoin of Books & Company, Oconomowoc, Wis. (with whom I began this conversation in October at the MBA trade show in St. Paul, Minn.): "Although we have been promoting e-books both on our website and through conversations with our customers, the Google e-book and storage system makes the promotion and conversation much easier. Instead of selling multiple formats, we can sell one that applies to multiple devices. It allows my booksellers to simplify the message and focus on what we do best: recommend good books and guide customers through the myriad of choices that are out there. The agency model levels the field and changes the conversation. It is no longer about price, but about the value of service and the quality of experience that independent bookstores provide consumers."

More indie e-bookseller reactions next week--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1349.


Letting Books Speak for Themselves

This happened to me a couple of years ago, not long after I'd "stopped being a bookseller," as if that were possible. I was in a bookstore I hadn't visited before, standing near the sports section and looking at golf titles. A guy wearing a New York Giants team jacket tried to shove me aside in his quest for a book about improving his short game.

A veteran book browser, I anticipated the move and braced myself in a subtle, holding-my-ground, way. He bounced off, stumbling just a bit before recovering his balance. Full contact book browsing.

He didn't say, "Excuse me." I wasn't surprised about that. I was, however, stunned when he held up a book and asked, "Is this on sale?"
"I don’t know," I replied, still irritated.
"You should know your stock. Is it or isn't it a sale book?"
"I told you I don't know. I don't work here."
He eyed me suspiciously, then conceded, "Oh.... You look like you do."    

Maybe I always will. Ah, well.

Poring over all the post-Black Friday news earlier this week reminded me of that case of mistaken retail identity. At the time, my first reaction had been a certain mischievous pleasure in the realization that I did not have to be polite anymore. After years of biting my tongue in potentially confrontational situations, here was an opportunity to, well, seek revenge.

That I didn't is perhaps testimony to the fact that I'm occasionally able to resist behaving like the 12-year-old boy that always lurks within me during such moments. More likely, however, the reason was that I'll always be a bookseller and spent a long time learning how to turn confrontation into conversation, customer irritations into handselling opportunities.

Now I regret that I didn't try to sell him a book.

There is, however, understandable pleasure in imagining what you would like to say to certain customers on bad bookselling days.

Here I invoke the ghost of George Orwell, who wrote, "When I worked in a second-hand bookshop--so easily pictured, if you don't work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios--the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one.... Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop."

I'll raise the stakes with one of my recent guilty pleasures--reading the unauthorized Barnes & Noble Bookseller Breakroom blog. A recent thread responded to the prompt, "Dear Barnes & Noble customer..." with such gems as: "If you're in a book store, you should be smart enough to find the bathroom yourself.... It's this way because I work for idiots.... We don't keep moving sections to annoy you, we do it so some corporate people can justify their jobs.... It's not my job to explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction to an adult.... I would have had that book in stock if I only knew you were coming."

And yes, every bookseller faces customers this time of year who say, "Can you recommend a book for my uncle?" You ask logically what kinds of books he likes and inevitably get the reply: "Oh, he doesn't like to read." But you find just the right book for them anyway, and ask if they'd like it gift-wrapped.

It is not easy for a frontline bookseller to resist the Grinch/Scrooge Syndrome, but the best booksellers do so every day. I've seen them in action, and their reward comes when magic happens.

This week Arsen Kashkashian, head book buyer at Boulder Bookstore, shared a Black Friday story that is at once unique and absolutely familiar to gifted handsellers everywhere.

Take a moment to read his post at Kash's Book Corner. I'll wait...

Welcome back.

According to Orwell, "the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them."

He was wrong. A great bookseller doesn't have to tell lies about books. A great bookseller is an interpreter who sometimes lets the books speak for themselves--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1343.


Giving Thanks for Black Friday November

Time is meaningless. For that I give thanks. While occupying a front-row seat as wary retailers and always excitable media outlets gear up for the biggest retail weekend of the year, I'm also immersed in the newly released Autobiography of Mark Twain, a book whose century-long embargo must be humbling to our contemporary publisher embargoes.

In 1906, Twain called Thanksgiving Day "a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for--annually, not oftener--if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently the Lord's side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments. The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exist--the Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with Heaven, with the thanks due. But, from old habit, Thanksgiving Day has remained with us...."

As I read that passage last weekend, I couldn't resist wondering what Twain would have thought of the retail battleground that now surrounds the holiday--the swarming masses of shoppers trampling one another to capture bargains; the panic-driven expansion of Black Friday's borders to what some are already labeling Black November; the rise of the online retail firestorm that is Cyber Monday.

Many years ago, I worked in the grocery industry, which has its own version of Black Friday on the day before Thanksgiving, when those same shopping hordes that will engulf malls and big box stores 48 hours later pillage supermarkets for provisions. Thanksgiving week can be, after all, a long and even bitter campaign. As far as I know, that day has never been honored with a proper name. How about Ravenous Wednesday?

I'm sure Twain would have been appalled, and yet mischievously pleased, by all this timeless human misbehavior and its limitless possibilities for satire.

Now we have a new holiday within the holiday: Small Business Saturday. The name is refreshingly low-key. The mission, as explained by sponsor American Express, is straightforward: "First there was Black Friday, then Cyber Monday. This year, November 27th is the first ever Small Business Saturday, a day to support the local businesses that create jobs, boost the economy and preserve neighborhoods around the country. Small Business Saturday is a national movement to drive shoppers to local merchants across the U.S. More than a dozen advocacy, public and private organizations have already joined American Express OPEN, the company’s small business unit, in declaring the Saturday after Thanksgiving as Small Business Saturday. Join the movement, spread the word!" SBS's Facebook page is approaching a million "likes."

While any promotion that calls attention to supporting local businesses is a victory (see Plaid Friday), SBS won't necessarily be perceived as a "win, win" for everyone. In a blog post titled "Small Business Saturday? No, Shop Local Everyday!" Aaron's Books, Lititz, Pa., declined to support the campaign and questioned AmEx's motivations, noting: "It is being sponsored by American Express for the sole purpose of getting people to use their AmEx card for shopping... and guess what... a vast majority of 'small' business CAN'T ACCEPT AMEX. American Express has a business model that has fees so outrageous that most small retailers can not afford to take the card... that $20 book you'd be buying from us with the AmEx would actually end up costing us money in order to pay the processing fees, machine rental, plus our cost for having the book."

We'd love to hear what you think of the Small Business Saturday effort, before or after it happens.

I wonder if the Sunday after Thanksgiving is feeling neglected now. Somewhere out there, at Black Friday HQ, possibilities are surely being considered for next year. May I suggest a day devoted to e-books--E-Sunday or Digital Sunday or, depending upon who wins a current skirmish, iSunday. The nature of marketing abhors an advertising vacuum.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1338.


Indie Publishing & Dramatic Conclusions

Our story thus far... Once upon a time (September 23 at the MPIBA trade show in Denver, to be precise), there was a heated discussion during the panel, "Independent Publishers & Independent Booksellers, Can We Talk?"

And they all lived happily ever after.

The end.

Well, no, not quite. Tales of suspense, with complex plots and passionate characters, do not lend themselves to tidy, redemptive endings. For the past few weeks, we've heard from a variety of people with a stake in the future of independent publishing. No one harbored delusions we would solve anything here. Just talking shop.
Shortly before Halloween, I spoke of hearing voices, and that's how I'd like to close this series, with some last--if not final--thoughts from a few of the people I started the conversation with in Denver... a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

"It’s easier for people-who-would-write to make their work available to people-who-would-read-what-others-write," observed Fred Ramey, co-publisher of Unbridled Books, "As a result, more people are writing. But of course, this does not imply that more people are reading. I’m not at all sure to what extent the growth of self-publishing in all its forms will impact the behaviors of that steady percentage of people who would read; certainly some of them will find some books that have risen from the self-publishing authors’ faith in their own work. That’s wonderful. I picked up a self-published book I much admire in a small Colorado mountain town recently--a perfect-bound POD title. Good reading can come from this. People will connect.
"If traditional publishing dissolves from these pressures, as so many folks are asserting, I believe it will reform itself in ways that are not unfamiliar, because people still will read. It doesn’t strike me that the continued existence of houses in the position of 'publisher' will be a matter of 'professionalism' in presentation or business practice. It strikes me that the basis for the business of publishing is, as it always was, a confident assertion of value. The best publishers in this and in the new Bookworld are and will be the publishers who publish what is good--entertaining, well turned, involving, accurate, informative, moving, rewarding--to read."

Teresa Funke, author and president of Teresa Funke & Co., responded to my question regarding whether "we need some new titles for the different types of authors out there now, especially now that anyone can 'publish' a book. On the one hand, I wonder why our industry should be different from the other arts. I know people who only play the local bars and call themselves 'musicians,' which is the same name someone uses who travels and plays to large audiences. I know painters who sell their paintings out of their house only and painters who exhibit in multiple galleries and each calls herself 'an artist.'  

"The publishing industry is changing. Unlike a painter, who can sell her paintings anywhere she wants, a writer used to be stuck with only one solution to see her work in print--she had to get a traditional publisher. Now she, like the painter or the musician, can produce and sell her work anywhere. It's true that the term 'self-published' has gained a negative connotation, though, but I think those writers who go beyond and start their own presses are showing their commitment to treating their book as a business and it is a step up from self-publishing. For me, I'm proud to be called an independent publisher. I think it says it all."

Arielle Eckstut, agent and the co-author of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It... Successfully! (Workman), offered some practical questions that writers considering the self-/indie publishing route should ask themselves:

Is there a product like mine already out there? If so, how is mine different? Being able to compare and contrast your book with other successful products will be one of the keys to actually getting onto bookstore shelves.

Is there an audience for a product like mine? If so, how big is this audience? Where are they? An audience of 10,000 people may seem like a lot until you try to sell them a book. In order to reach any significant sales level--say 5,000 copies of more--you're going to need big numbers. The only exception here are die-hard enthusiasts of short-tail subjects.

Can I produce this product on my own and still make it the best professional product possible? Or do I need to hire other experts to help? For example, if you're self-publishing, you must hire an editor/copyeditor. We got sent a book recently. On the first page, in the acknowledgement section, it said, "I'd like to thank my morther." We found it very hard to take that book seriously.

Can I sell this product on my own? Where does my audience shop? How do they shop? How can I reach them? Who can help me reach my audience? There's no point trying to sell your book to bookstores if your audience lives and buys solely on the Internet, or in flower stores, or at conventions.

How will I garner publicity for my product? Will I need to hire a publicist? It's getting harder and harder to attract the media's attention because there are fewer and fewer outlets.

Can I create professional packaging for my product? If you aren't a professional graphic designer, you're probably kidding yourself if you think you can. For those who are honest, you're most certainly going to need to hire someone not only to design your cover, but also to design the interior of your book.  

Finally, in an age where chaos sometimes seems just on the verge of reigning supreme in the book trade, Nancy Mills--publisher of Pie in the Sky Publishing and president of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association--envisioned a more cohesive future: "Writers, publishers, booksellers and independent publishers, up until just a year or so ago, were all working independently, frequently divisively and with contempt for each other. The lines have been blurred so, now, more than ever before, it’s critical that each component work together. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts so it is my opinion that, finally, we can all play together, nicely, as opposed to separately and divisively. What benefits one, benefits all and working together, harmoniously instead of contentiously, will make the entire industry better, stronger and more vital."

The end.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1335.


Indie Booksellers & Publishers: It's About the Book

Earlier this year, when Kathy Patrick, owner of Beauty and the Book, Jefferson, Tex., read and loved My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change, a self-published book by Sam Bracken and Echo Garrett, she did not hesitate to take the next logical step and dye her hair orange.

Well, no, the story is not that simple, though Kathy's passion for this book is a classic example of how, in our ongoing discussion about independent publishers and independent booksellers, we might pause to remember that sometimes it really does come down to the book.   

Kathy loves books and authors and readers. Talk with her for a minute and you know that if you know anything. Even a partial list of her accomplishments in the book world is impressive: the Pulpwood Queens Book Club, which now has 400 chapters nationwide; her book The Pulpwood Queen's Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life; and her now legendary Girlfriend Weekend, an annual convention hosted by the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys book clubs.

I forgot to ask Kathy whether she plays poker, but if she does I suspect she goes "all in" with every hand because that's how she handsells the books she adopts. Traditional publisher? Independent publisher? Self-publisher? Kathy's response is the same: Show me the book.

My Orange Duffel Bag is a perfect example. When co-author Echo Garret sent her a copy, Kathy quickly realized it was "exactly the kind of book that I want to get into the hands of readers, an incredible story but more important, Sam Bracken is doing something proactive to help homeless teens and those aging out of foster care. As the youth group leader for my church, children are as close to my heart as authors, books, reading and literacy. I am a firm believer that if we treat our children as our most precious gifts, this world would become a much better place."

Echo recalls the beginning this way: "We had a pilot program with the state of Georgia to train 25 foster youth on the principles in the book, and it had been tested in a school in Roswell as well. We printed 5,000 books in our first print run, and got our first shipment in May. I happened to see a write-up about how influential Kathy Patrick is in the book world, so I wrote her an e-mail, said a prayer and put a book in FedEx to her. By the time I got back from the FedEx box, she’d already written back, saying that our book sounded like exactly the kind of book she looks for.

"The next night she called me and told me she was making our book her November pick. We talked for an hour, and I explained that we were self-publishing because we didn’t neatly fit into the traditional realm. Nobody knew what to do with us. But we knew where we were heading. The more I told her about our crazy journey to trying to get My Orange Duffel Bag published, the more engaged she became. I told her that we’d invested a ton of our money and time and love and life into this project. For us, it’s a passion. We’re creating a movement to help spark literacy and positive change for kids that most of our society overlooks. When she understood that we needed help selling the book fast to pay for our printing bill, she declared that she’d dye her hair orange if we sold 1,000 books in that first month. We did and she did. Kathy was the first one I sent our full vision to. She believed in us from the beginning. Having our vision validated by someone as influential as Kathy gave us great courage that we were on the right path. Now we’ve almost sold out of our first printing, and we’ve ordered 10,000 more books. We’re on a rocket ride and the momentum is building fast."

Kathy launched her national campaign for My Orange Duffel Bag on her Facebook page. "It was kind of a crazy promotion," she said. "We sold like 326 copies the first day and made our goal after a week and a half. I was just a walking billboard for the book. I didn't even know the power of Facebook until then."

Echo noted that while their agent had shopped the project to major publishers and found considerable interest, "each wanted to turn it into something very different from what our vision was." Kathy said she also called some publishers, but did not have much luck "because they didn't know what it was. Is it a book? Is it a journal? Is it a diary? Whatever it is, it's a tremendous story. I just know that every time people read it they call me."

Kathy's orange hair may have faded, but the orange book lives on, which pleases her. "I'm a big believer that a book is not a six-week commodity. Who made up that rule? I question everything. People either think I'm an amazing innovator or a pain in the rump."

She also shared a story that occurred this week, which sums up nicely what indie booksellers can do when they choose to make a book their own: "A judge and his wife stopped by who had heard about me through their Methodist Church in Canton, Tex. I took my youth group to help repair homes and paint houses as part of U.M. ARMY project there. Anyway, they stayed for two hours and when they left, they had decided to purchase My Orange Duffel Bag for all their Christmas presents. As they were getting ready to leave, this judge handed me his card and told me that if I do indeed start my own Pulpwood Queen Publishing endeavor, give him one week, and I will have all the investors I need. I am in awe of the wonderful places books take me, so it just energizes my batteries and my endeavors to help authors, their books, literacy and reading efforts. Thank you Echo and Sam for letting me be a part of your book and it's message. I have done nothing more than share a great read and it just proves to me sharing a good book is a gift that keeps on giving."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1329.