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Thursday
May212009

Trying to Keep the Future Ahead of Us

Whenever I ponder the unpredictable nature of our business, the title of a Charles Womack novel that has nothing to do with this subject instinctively pops into my brain--Let’s Put the Future Behind Us. This week, however, we'll blend present and future.

Susan Novotny owns the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., and Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y. She also co-owns POD publisher Troy Book Makers with Eric Wilska of the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass.

"This is the time of the year when university students send me questions for their for year-end papers," Susan observed. After fielding queries from a student recently, she noted that it was "good to see the younger generation take an interest in our angst."

I'll share some of Susan's responses in an upcoming column, but in the spirit of spring and graduation season, I'll introduce the person who contacted her. Katrina Swartz is a graduate student in the Master's of Publishing and Writing program at Emerson College. She interviewed Susan for a paper she wrote in a class called "Bookselling: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow."

Her assignment was to select "one aspect of bookselling and try to forecast what might be coming in the future," Katrina said. "I wanted to look at how a bookstore might turn to other sources of revenue to support itself, and from there decided to focus on print-on-demand, with Troy Book Makers as the primary example. It was the last project in a class that, as the course title suggests, started with a look at the history of bookselling in America, moved to a study of bookselling at present (which included each student shadowing and interviewing a local bookseller for a few hours), and ended with a consideration of what bookstores might be like going forward (which included, in addition to the paper mentioned above, a partner project developing an idea for a bookstore of the future--mission, business model, demographics of the customer base, actual location in the Boston area)."

During the semester, the class examined "several business models booksellers are turning to in order to survive in this environment, such as non-profit or community-supported shops. I found the Troy Book Makers model of bringing in revenue through publishing services particularly interesting because it's self-sustaining. At the same time that we're thinking about the effect electronic content will have on the printed book, this print-on-demand model is emerging, which is an application of technology that still results in ink on paper."

Asked if she'd had any preconceptions before beginning the project, Katrina replied, "I came to my interview with Novotny expecting that their print-on-demand services were really keeping the bookstores in business, and what she actually told me is that the bookstores do not depend on Troy Book Makers for funding, at least not yet. But, what I focused on is that she and Eric Wilska decided their response to a difficult bookselling environment would be to sell another service that would provide some additional revenue. They're thinking creatively about how to sustain their businesses in a time of change.

"I was also struck by her assertion that all this talk of digital books is distracting the big conglomerate publishers from their real asset, their backlists. That's really interesting because when I think of electronic content, I think of the music industry and how difficult it is to control digital files, and the fact that people tend to want to pay less or nothing for digital content. So if more and more books do become digital, what will happen to that core of the publishing and bookselling business, the backlist? The print-on-demand model at Troy Book Makers is attractive because it places value on the physical book and the editorial, design, and production skill that goes into producing a good-quality work, and it suggests the possibility that publishing and bookselling can continue on in a recognizable form."

Katrina is an editorial assistant at the American Journal of Archaeology, so "the question of how technology will continue to affect publishing and bookselling is of interest to me, particularly as a company like Troy Book Makers emerges, serving, in conjunction with the owners' bookshops, as publisher, printer, and bookseller."

And what about the bookstore of the future? "Well, independent bookstores are so varied, it's difficult to make a general statement about them," said Katrina. "Many focus on creating a sense of community that draws customers to the store, particularly by holding events. That is absolutely important, even essential, but the survival of physical bookstores may really take a push to consider possibilities beyond that approach, a combination of community and some other attractive quality or service."

Thursday
May212009

Trying to Keep the Future Ahead of Us

Whenever I ponder the unpredictable nature of our business, the title of a Charles Womack novel that has nothing to do with this subject instinctively pops into my brain--Let’s Put the Future Behind Us. This week, however, we'll blend present and future.

Susan Novotny owns the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., and Market Block Books, Troy, N.Y. She also co-owns POD publisher Troy Book Makers with Eric Wilska of the Bookloft, Great Barrington, Mass.

"This is the time of the year when university students send me questions for their for year-end papers," Susan observed. After fielding queries from a student recently, she noted that it was "good to see the younger generation take an interest in our angst."

I'll share some of Susan's responses in an upcoming column, but in the spirit of spring and graduation season, I'll introduce the person who contacted her. Katrina Swartz is a graduate student in the Master's of Publishing and Writing program at Emerson College. She interviewed Susan for a paper she wrote in a class called "Bookselling: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow."

Her assignment was to select "one aspect of bookselling and try to forecast what might be coming in the future," Katrina said. "I wanted to look at how a bookstore might turn to other sources of revenue to support itself, and from there decided to focus on print-on-demand, with Troy Book Makers as the primary example. It was the last project in a class that, as the course title suggests, started with a look at the history of bookselling in America, moved to a study of bookselling at present (which included each student shadowing and interviewing a local bookseller for a few hours), and ended with a consideration of what bookstores might be like going forward (which included, in addition to the paper mentioned above, a partner project developing an idea for a bookstore of the future--mission, business model, demographics of the customer base, actual location in the Boston area)."

During the semester, the class examined "several business models booksellers are turning to in order to survive in this environment, such as non-profit or community-supported shops. I found the Troy Book Makers model of bringing in revenue through publishing services particularly interesting because it's self-sustaining. At the same time that we're thinking about the effect electronic content will have on the printed book, this print-on-demand model is emerging, which is an application of technology that still results in ink on paper."

Asked if she'd had any preconceptions before beginning the project, Katrina replied, "I came to my interview with Novotny expecting that their print-on-demand services were really keeping the bookstores in business, and what she actually told me is that the bookstores do not depend on Troy Book Makers for funding, at least not yet. But, what I focused on is that she and Eric Wilska decided their response to a difficult bookselling environment would be to sell another service that would provide some additional revenue. They're thinking creatively about how to sustain their businesses in a time of change.

"I was also struck by her assertion that all this talk of digital books is distracting the big conglomerate publishers from their real asset, their backlists. That's really interesting because when I think of electronic content, I think of the music industry and how difficult it is to control digital files, and the fact that people tend to want to pay less or nothing for digital content. So if more and more books do become digital, what will happen to that core of the publishing and bookselling business, the backlist? The print-on-demand model at Troy Book Makers is attractive because it places value on the physical book and the editorial, design, and production skill that goes into producing a good-quality work, and it suggests the possibility that publishing and bookselling can continue on in a recognizable form."

Katrina is an editorial assistant at the American Journal of Archaeology, so "the question of how technology will continue to affect publishing and bookselling is of interest to me, particularly as a company like Troy Book Makers emerges, serving, in conjunction with the owners' bookshops, as publisher, printer, and bookseller."

And what about the bookstore of the future? "Well, independent bookstores are so varied, it's difficult to make a general statement about them," said Katrina. "Many focus on creating a sense of community that draws customers to the store, particularly by holding events. That is absolutely important, even essential, but the survival of physical bookstores may really take a push to consider possibilities beyond that approach, a combination of community and some other attractive quality or service."

Friday
May152009

Care & Feeding of the Local Author Event

As BEA approaches, a bookseller's thoughts turn to . . . author events. I've had several conversations recently about the changing landscape of this particular book world ceremony, but it gets more complicated when the subject turns to local authors, especially those who choose to self-publish.

You know the prime questions:

  1. How do you put fannies in the seats?
  2. How do you get people to buy the damn book?
  3. How do you avoid losing money on the deal?

So this topic was already sautéing in my brain-pan when I received an e-mail from Pamela Grath--owner of Dog Ears Books, a small shop in Northport, Mich.--in which she confessed that her approach has gradually altered to a more collaborative effort.

"It began when a friend insisted, over all my protestations, that she would provide the refreshments for her husband's book signing reception," said Grath. "I wasn't sure I liked the idea at first. It seemed to me that it was my business and that my business should be financially able to provide everything for store events, but my friend really wanted to do this. Reluctantly, I agreed. She did food and flowers. We worked together on invitations. I handled publicity. The party was lovely and sold a lot of books."

Since then, Grath has hosted several collaborative events. A local author's son and daughter-in-law offered to share responsibility for refreshments; a husband and wife who co-authored a book published by a small local press provided their own refreshments, flowers andpostcard invitations, while Grath took care of publicity and e-mail invitations.

Grath observed that this has caused her to "come around in my thinking to realize that this collaboration is a good thing. The cost savings to the bookstore when authors or family members provide refreshments is only the beginning of a series of advantages for all concerned--author, bookseller, families and community. Having invested psychologically in the event, the author and family are keen to beat the bushes and get people to the bookstore. They don't just show up with a pen, waiting to sign books. Each event is a family as well as a literary event, a celebration party, and so far, these parties have been very successful, both in terms of attendance and sales."

Not all of her events can be handled this way, of course. Grath stressed that "it wouldn't do to insist that a famous or out-of-town author the bookseller had not even met bring their own punch and cookies. The development I'm describing grows naturally out of 'Buy Local' campaigns and sentiments. Local authors--logical supporters of local bookstores but not always tapped as a resource--seem especially eager to show support in tangible ways when they and their work also receive appreciation and support. Community bonds are strengthened in ways that I had to see to believe."

Events featuring local and/or self-published authors come with their own set of "handle with care" instructions. "It wouldn't work for me to host an event every week of the season for just any self-published book," said Grath. "I have to restrict the number of events, so as not to wear out our small public with constant demands to buy books, and it's critical to my reputation that the books I choose to support with in-store events are those I feel are worth their cover price."

As with many aspects of publishing, saying yes is easy; saying no is the tricky bit. "In the beginning I said yes to everything much too easily," Grath said. "I guess in general I've become more comfortable being honest with authors--and there are other, non-bookstore venues available."

How Grath says no "varies with the author and the book. In some cases, I let them know that what they have would be a very hard sell, local audience or no, but they can leave books on consignment. I think my latest realization--that I have to limit the number of events I mount in any given season--will help take some of the sting off rejection. I hope so. Another part of it is that most people understand that I'm in this to make a living, while that was not generally their motivation in writing their books."

Grath shared a detailed e-mail she sends to local writers who have inquired about a possible event. In addition to asking very specific questions to build a local publicity campaign, she ends with a bookseller's vow: "I look forward to reading your book at my earliest opportunity!"

Friday
May082009

The Book Circus Is Coming to Town!

Ladies and Gentlemen! Children of all ages! Welcome to the greatest book show on earth! A weekend of thrills! A weekend of reading fun! A weekend at BookExpo America in New York City!

This year's edition of our industry's annual Big Top extravaganza will take place May 29-31 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, perched beside the glittering waters of the Hudson River, otherwise known as the auxiliary runway for U.S. Airways Flight 1549. (We recommend LaGuardia, Newark or JFK airports as preferred arrival venues.)

But unlike Ringling Bros., BEA's circus won't be limited to three rings. There will be dozens, spreading in concentric arcs from a nucleus on the convention floor throughout the city, encompassing hotels, restaurants, bars and more. Business will mix seamlessly with pleasure and the workday will run from dawn to dawn.

So welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends . . . until Sunday.

BookExpo really does have a little something for everyone--ringmasters and stagehands, high-wire artists and tightrope walkers (financially, anyway), clowns happy and sad, literary lions and tigers and bears.

Oh my!

But what about that big ol' mean-looking pachyderm lurking in the corner? Could it be the future of publishing? A rogue elephant in the center ring? Maybe if we're lucky, we can nudge it into the spotlight and make it stand on its hind legs for a few days, balance precariously on a huge ball, hoist a publicist into the air with its trunk. Maybe, just maybe, it will think we're the ones in control.

Are you going to the book circus this year? We'd love to hear about your strategies and memories.

I love BEA. I'm a trade show junkie. My first book event was the 1993 ABA show in Miami. I attended Booksellers School there and had my initial glimpse of center ring--the exhibition floor.

At some point that weekend--as I attended a lush, downtown rooftop garden launch party for Oprah Winfrey's autobiography (a book that never hit the presses, as it turned out) and a suitably spooky dinner for Anne Rice at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables; or as I walked on Miami Beach wearing a suit and carrying my shoes in socks, like a beached mobster--it occurred to me that this was a pretty damn good perk for a frontline bookseller from Vermont.

Sixteen years later, I'll resist the temptation to imagine Bookocalypse Now. The economy stinks. The publishing industry may not be underwater, but it's definitely paddling real hard on the surface. Booksellers have to measure every penny spent and their decisions about attending or not attending BEA are more challenging than ever. And how can one not speculate about a virtual BEA for E-books in the "distant" future, held exclusively on Twitter and Facebook? Okay, we can resist that last one for awhile.

But just a couple of weeks from now, the circus will come to town. There are logical, businesslike, serious reasons for me to attend BookExpo, but I never forget why I really want to be there. BEA is the bookseller's Big Top extraordinaire--all those energetic attendees and performing exhibitors. (Watch me pull a bestseller out of my hat!)

When I was a full-time bookseller, my prime directive at BEA was to find the unexpected book, the one that might never cross my desk otherwise. Finding that unexpected book(s) was pure pleasure, and good business.

It almost doesn't matter how many years I've been going to this thing or what the current state of the industry might be; BEA always makes me feel that the coming year will be a good one. I used to leave the show wanting to hit the ground (aka the bookstore's sales floor) running and sell the hell out of the autumn list.

Inspired.

For a registered member of the International Society for Cynics and Fatalists, that's one amazing side effect. As we approach this year's BookExpo, fending off the logical realization that our collective heads may be in the collective lions' mouths, the reader and bookseller in me still expects inspiration to happen there.

I'll wander the aisles at BookExpo like a fisherman on the riverbank looking for the flash of something--a jacket, a title, a familiar author's name--that tells me I should pause and cast a line here, or here, or there.

But fishing is a quiet sport, and we're talking Big Top here (or "Over the Top," as Ringling Bros. modestly claims). So, tell me, are you running away to join the circus, too?

Friday
May012009

Buy Indie Day--A Movement in 140 Characters

"And can you, can you imagine 50 people a day, I said 50 people a day walking in, singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out? And friends they may think it's a movement. And that's what it is . . ."--Arlo Guthrie, Alice's Restaurant

Fighting back is all about character, and sometimes 140 characters are just enough to get started. Today is Buy Indie Day, which was igniteded by author Joseph Finder and subsequently powered by word-of-mouth on Twitter and Facebook.

Many other people have kept the momentum going, including Kevin Guilfoile, who blogged about Buy Indie Day early last month, and began compiling a list of writers that will be celebrating at bookshops today.

I've been following Buy Indie Day's (also #buyindieday) Twitter trail since it began. Will what happens today change consumer buying patterns? Will it become Buy Indie Week or Buy Indie Month or Buy Indie Infinity & Beyond? Who knows? But a statement is being made, and it's just been fun to watch the enthusiasm build.

Here's a sampling from the past couple of days (all typos forgiven because they conform to the unofficial Twitter stylebook):

Some folks who got off to an early start yesterday:

  • @BrooksSigler I think I might be purchasing things a bit early for Buy Indie Day, but it'll be like Buy Indie Eve.
  • @VillageBksBham Tomorrow is International Buy Indie Day. Why not start early?
  • @permanentpaper In an early start to #buyindieday, I found this lovely bookstore in Evanston Via Indiebound iPhone app!!!

Some bookstores who are in the game:

  • @mysterybooks Friday, May 1--it's BUY INDIE DAY!--AND our lovely friends Mary & Carol Higgins Clark will be on the Today Show, too!
  • @LilMissBookBug Tomorrow--Buy Indie Day--Shop at Chapters & save 10% when you mention you're shopping Indie
  • @kingsenglish May 1 is Buy Indie Day. Mention it tomorrow at the register and get 10% off!
  • @AaronsBooks Even though we are an indie, we'll buy a few from fellow tweeters & send gifts to friends & family, spreading indie love :).
  • @ibnyc Tomorrow, May 1, is Buy Indie Day: Where will you be buying indie?
  • @Suejustbooks Visit The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn tomorrow to celebrate Buy Indie Day! For Couples Night Out--Books paired with wines--great way to celebrate!
  • @ClintonBooks: Tomorrow is International Buy Indie Day. Support Indies and keep your home-town strong.
  • @FlyingPigBooks Friday, May 1, is Buy Indie Day! Make it a revolution: Pass it on.
  • @KenyonBookstore #buyindieday is Friday. Come visit the Bookstore for a book, or a t-shirt, or an ice cream! Scan our sale merchandise--some great bargains.

And some indie love from the book world:

  • @Blairpublisher Buy one book (at least) at an independent bookstore near you tomorrow, May 1, and make a mass statement about the importance of indies!
  • @ConsortiumBooks: Tomorrow is Buy Indie Day! Support your local indie bookstore with a new book purchase!
  • @timetoread International Buy Indie Day is Tomorrow!! Celebrate by buying at least one book at your local Indie--like any of us can stop at just one . . .
  • @Clerisy_Kara Tomorrow is International Buy Indie Day. Support Indies and keep your home-town strong. Buy at full retail price!
  • @Joe_Wallace my #buyindieday commitment is to buy a book by as many authors I follow here as I can afford . . . at my town's indie bookstore.
  • @thebookmaven: Can't wait for #buyindieday tomorrow . . . plan to buy the new Anne Michaels, LOWBOY, A FORTUNATE AGE, and more. Much more!
  • @KatMeyer @wordbrooklyn + even tho I bought indie already this week, i am compelled 2 do so again tomorrow (and tonight too!)
  • @literaticat (Actually, who am I kidding? EVERY day is Buy Indie Day. I'll have to buy a STACK o' books on May 1!)
  • @Urrealism Indie Day, 5/1: Cindy and I will be at Anderson's in Naperville buyin' stuff! Come over and let's shop. I'll buy you a Starbucks later.

I will also be hitting the road to buy books at a couple of indies today, renouncing my usual staff discount. That's my longtime bookseller's small gesture of support--paying full retail.

And can you imagine 50 people a day, I said 50 people a day walking into an indie bookstore, buying a book and walking out? Friends, they may think it’s a movement.