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Wednesday
Apr012009

April 1 Update: Smashmouth Bookselling for Hard Times

I'm not sure if this qualifies as a cool idea of the day, but Craig Wilkins of Best of All Possible Bookshops has an intriguing new concept for increasing sales at the retail level--smashmouth, trash-talking, in-your-face handselling.

Wilkins said he realized last summer, as the economy began to slide, that his problem as a bookseller was "the damned readers. They weren't listening to me and even when they came to the bookshop, they often slipped out with no purchase."

Instead of the traditional, cooperative, conversational, low-impact approach to bookselling, he began taking the fight directly to his opposition. "Essentially, I make them eat their words," Wilkins said. "We don't let them out of the bookstore until they've bought books."

And if his customers think they can avoid all this by simply not coming to the shop, Wilkins has a little news flash for them. "I know where they live and I have a van," he said, touting the advantages of an up-to-date mailing list. "We go to their houses just like Amazon does and make them buy books, but with the added incentive of actually being there in person so they have to look us in the eye to say no rather than simply moving a cursor over to a toolbar and switching to the Desperate Housewives website."

For booksellers considering this approach, Wilkins cautioned that the most important step is game preparation and execution--the Xs and Os. "You must have your head in the contest at all times," he advised, "looking for weaknesses, ready to adjust to the flow and not get caught by surprise. So many things can happen during a sales transaction, but a gifted smashmouth bookseller will always be ready to move and hit, move and hit, reacting again and again to the changing momentum of a confrontation with an underachieving opponent . . . um, customer."

I was fortunate enough to be in his bookstore during one of these smashmouth handselling sessions recently. A customer entered, and instead of the traditional greeting ("Good morning; may I help?"), Wilkins moved aggressively from behind the counter and rushed the newcomer with an all-out blitz, reaching his foe as the customer plucked a copy of Snow by Orhan Pamuk from a Staff Picks display.

"You don't deserve that book!" Wilkins screamed, snatching it away.

"Why not?" the customer asked timidly, looking for an escape route. But Wilkins had him cornered.

"You aren't smart enough, pal."

"Sure I am."

"Yeah? Prove it! What was the best translation of a Pamuk novel before this one?"

"Um, Black Book?"

"Wrroonngg!" (Wilkins imitated the sound of a harsh buzzer)

"Oh, My Name Is Red?"

"Too late."

"But I want to read this book. I do!"

Now that Wilkins had his opponent caught up in the game, he went for the literary kill. Holding Snow just beyond the customer's reach, he said, "If you want to read this, you're going to have to buy five books by midlist authors, too."

"Why?"

"Because I said so and because if you're smart enough to read Pamuk, you're too smart to ignore these other books. Deal?"

"Deal." There was surrender in the customer's eyes, but also, oddly, pleasure. Was that the thrill of defeat?

Wilkins observed that while bookstore sales have slumped nationwide during the recession, his have actually held steady. Not one to be complacent, however, he recently sent out a threatening e-mail newsletter warning that if he doesn't see an uptick of at least 10% by the end of April, he will be making more house calls.

I asked Wilkins if he had any words of wisdom for prospective smashmouth booksellers, and he shared his basic, primal philosophy: "Your opponents read their books one page at a time just like you do. The best narrative defense is a good narrative offense. Our backs are to the shelf. We have to take this one book at a time. Reading isn't everything; it's the only thing."

Friday
Mar272009

Handling Bad Times in BookWorld

As a relatively innocent victim of St. Patrick's Day inspiration, I was compelled last week to lobby for Brian Moore's mostly OP novels. By the way, for those who asked, Catholics (Loyola Press, $12.95, 9780829423334/0829423338) and The Black Robe (Plume, $15, 9780452278653/0452278651) are still available.

But this walkabout did leave some unfinished business regarding our earlier discussion on just how much indie booksellers should tell customers about bad times in BookWorld.

In response to the first column in that series, in which I shared Linda Ramsdell's letter to her customers about controlling inventory during the slower winter season, Diane Van Tassel, owner of Bay Books, Concord and San Ramon, Calif, observed that this made her consider "how my customers think about these expensive books. For many readers, the latest book by a favorite author is such a wonderful treat, but they complain that the book is too heavy (tough when it falls on you when you fall asleep in bed) and that it costs too much, especially if they inhale it in one day. So even though there are a few people who will brave the cost of the hardcover, most will wait until it comes out in paperback.

"So wouldn't it be a good idea to have one or two copies of the latest hardcover, but mainly have a huge selection of great paperback titles that they would be tempted by instead? And, of course, the knowledge of other alternatives. Basically what I am saying is that customers want the latest Janet Evanovich, at a whopping $25 plus, but can often be just as tempted by a new paperback Sarah Strohmeyer or Nancy Bartholomew which are similar in tone. So the bookstore didn't sell the expensive hardcover but the customer, if they love the series, will come back and buy the whole series--at the $8-$10 range, which will actually bring in more money in the long run because you have given them a new author to collect. This takes homework and study by the bookseller, but the customer is turned on to another author and is thankful that the bookstore is so helpful and friendly."

And Tordis Isselhardt of Images From the Past suggested that "the public doesn't understand what's involved in being an independent publisher any better than it understands what's involved in being an independent bookseller: the choices we make, the choices that aren't ours to make, the risks and the rewards, the cash (and inventory) flow and so much more. Like [booksellers] we deal in ideas rather than packages, and delight as much in sharing the process of bringing an author's story to life and to its readers, as [booksellers] do in expanding and enriching readers' lives with books!"

David Henkes of University Book Store, Bellevue, Wash., responded to my wondering what we tell the indie customer who also loves her Kindle: "We need to thank her first and foremost for embracing the written word. We are still facilitators of everything book related. Whether that book is physical, digital, or audio, we are responsible for selling the idea of a story. I have been browbeating friends and family every time they tell me about a book they just read, and loved, and then proceed to tell me that they purchased on Amazon. I cringe, beat my chest, count to ten, and then discuss the book with them and not dwell on how they obtained it. My personal belief in the its-already-here look at the future of the digital application of books is that it will be another means for a book to live on. The Kindle is a difficult thing to hug, to embrace as words pour forth and envelope you. Yet, it is a means to an end--reading.

"My response might sound rather philosophical as opposed to a concrete sales pitch to win over a client," he continued. "If I focus too much on the business side, I lose sight of why I'm 'in' books in the first place--to facilitate the written word."

Perhaps we'll end by accentuating the positive. Susan Weis of breathe books, Baltimore, Md., happily responded to the big question--"Is 'Doing Great!' the wrong thing to say right now?"--by noting that shortly before reading that column, she had sent her e-mail newsletter, telling "over 4,000 people on my list that we are doing great! And, of course, thanking them. I've heard from a few people who told me they are so happy the store is doing well--relieved really. I think it shows them that they are giving their money to a viable store. Makes them feel good about supporting breathe books."

Sunday
Mar222009

Of Vorpal Blades, Ancient Rites & Missing Authors

In Brian Moore's novel Catholics, a helicopter arrives for the first time on Muck Island, site of a still-functioning monastery built in the 13th century. The flying machine has brought a young priest to the isolated Irish landscape, sent by the Vatican to confront the Abbot about his monks' persistence in celebrating the Mass in Latin despite prohibitions from Rome.

"His vorpal blade went snicker-snack," the Abbot says mischievously, citing Lewis Carroll to mock progress. "It would be a good description of that helicopter out there."

This week has become an odd mixture of vorpal blades, ancient rites and thoughts of lost authors for me. The genesis came on St. Patrick's Day (ancient rites), when I found myself swept up in the Twitterwave (vorpal blades) by posts about everything from green-clad drunken morning revelers to instantaneous reports from SXSW to the momentum building around John Wray's Lowboy as word spread about his bullhorn reading on the L train and people began handselling the novel to one another in 140-character pops (coincidentally, about the number of words on a staff recommend card in a bookshop).

With all that buzz and more heating up my MacBook Pro, what's a book person to do? Well, I turned away from the computer for a moment and glanced at my bookshelves; just another reader transcending worlds.

And there, within reach, were some of Brian Moore's novels: Catholics, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, No Other Life, The Magician's Wife, Lies of Silence, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Colour of Blood, Black Robe, The Doctor's Wife, The Statement.

I stacked the books on my desk. I thought about everything we're discussing, speculating, proselytizing and worrying about in our business; and about this one author--born in Ireland, lived in Canada, died in Malibu, Calif.--whose books are largely out of print, but who matters so much to at least one reader: me.

On Twitter, I typed: "I must do this before midnight: I officially declare St. Patrick's Day 2009 to be 'Bring All the Novels by Brian Moore Back into Print Day.'" Random House sales rep Ann Kingman immediately retweeted, adding an enthusiastic second "(Yes, yes!)."

I spun the Twitter vorpal blades again, posting a quotation from The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: "As he spoke, she heard America, eager America, where men talk business as others talk love."

Brian Moore was now in the Twitterstream, though I was aware, as the digital ancients say, that you can never step into the same Twitterstream twice.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Moore for the Dos Passos Review's Rediscovering Writers series. I mentioned that in the bookshop where I worked, I would often suggest one of the few novels still in print then (The Statement, The Magician's Wife) to customers looking for something "new." Without exception, as if part of a well-rehearsed chorus, my customers responded: Who?

Graham Greene once called Moore "my favorite living novelist." When Moore died in 1999, Tom Christie wrote an elegy in LA Weekly that began, "The most accomplished and least fashionable writer in Los Angeles died last week." In the Times Literary Supplement, Hermione Lee wrote that Moore's best quality also "prevented him from being as famous as he deserved, that he was always disappearing into his books, that he never wrote the same book twice."

I won't presume to call myself Brian Moore's ideal reader, but I do what I can to find him the audience he deserves. It isn't easy. Of his 20-plus novels, only a handful are still in print in the U.S. and that is a shame. Moore's narrative voice is crisp and disciplined. He finds a story's center and holds fiercely to it. What he doesn't reveal often reveals everything.

I love the speed of conversation on Twitter, the ability to share ideas and observations, pick up a thread and run with it or, in John Wray's case, give a deserving writer an instantaneous, word-of-mouth spike.

What are you reading . . . now!?

But I also need to savor the other ceremony: the turning away from my MacBook and iPod Touch screens to scan those bookshelves behind my desk; to remember, and suggest to you, that Brian Moore's novels should all be in print. On Twitter, I also left another quotation, a bookseller's lament: "They're all such great readers, Miss Hearne thought, it's a pity they don't like the same books as I do."

Friday
Mar132009

Is 'Doing Great!' the Wrong Thing to Say Now?

That's the question we asked last week. Aaron Curtis, Quartermaster of the buying office at Books & Books, Miami, Fla., observes that owner Mitchell Kaplan "has always been a 'business is booming' kind of guy. The trick for us in the buying office has been to educate customers without sounding desperate. So often, businesses and schools approach me saying they want to support our local business, not realizing that support means money. After providing specifics on discount and pricing of the title(s) the customer wants, here's the 'speech' I use":

We will never be able to compete with Amazon (or perhaps I should say, very rarely) when it comes to pricing. Huge companies like Amazon can offer deeper discounts because their buying power enables them to leverage better discounts from the publishers. Also, their overhead is significantly lower than ours. Our community profile says high end, but we are David in a sea of Goliaths.

On the plus side, the lion's share of Books & Books sales revenue goes back into the local economy, not to corporate headquarters or distant suppliers. We help make Miami a unique place, rather than a chain bookstore that can be found in any city in America, or an internet retailer 3,400 miles away. We live here, we work here, and your purchase will help keep us here. As long as the community thinks of us, we can continue to employ locally, as well as donate time, money, and books to local charities, hospitals, hospices, and low-income schools . . . and schedule great authors, of course. Let me know when you're ready to order the books.

Curtis adds that he empathizes with Fred Powell's story about explaining how the industry works to his book group. "I had a similar experience," he says. "One of our members belongs to another book group that has been meeting at Books & Books for 14 years. I was very frank with our group. I explained how consignment and returns frustrated our ability to keep titles in stock, and how publishers have become very unforgiving lately. She took this back to her other group, and sales from them have increased dramatically, both in the store and through our website."

Ultimately, Curtis believes, "Now is not the time for a stiff upper lip. Now is the time to let our loyal customers know we are suffering with them, and how much we appreciate their business."

So, what do our customers really know and when did they know it? That's a good question, too. Another bookseller e-mailed me the following message--received from a customer who travels to his area frequently enough to care about his bookshop--suggesting this might be "a representative 21st century customer":

"I admit it. I love bookstores," the note begins, "love the cafe atmosphere, too. Especially love independent stores where there are lists and signs telling me what the staff recommends. I could live in a bookstore. I read a lot--used to buy books a lot too. Now here's the real painful admission. I bought a Kindle. I love my Kindle--it's perfect for those books I just don't want to own forever. The ones I'd read and just give away anyway. Do I feel guilty? Hell yes. So guilty that I buy all my daughter's birthday party presents at my independent store now; I make sure I never purchase a knitting book or cookbook from Amazon. You can't buy those on a Kindle--they don't make sense. I'm guilty though because I've stopped buying fiction. And I was a big time fiction buyer before--sometimes 5-6 books a week."

She goes on to say that she does still buy some fiction because of staff recommendations or author events, but adds, "I don't know what this says other than bookstores that aren't also 'destinations' are not going to make it. What makes me go to my indie bookstore now? Coffee and lunch with friends, author events, toys for parties and when I have a must-have knitting or cookbook. Though I have to tell you in these tough times it's very hard not to purchase those on Amazon, too, since I have an Amazon Visa and get $25 gift certificates every few months as a perk. I try to save those for groceries or clothes though. So you see I mean well, but the Kindle is just so damn good."

She knows the challenges indies face, as well as the benefits we offer, and yet . . .

What do we tell her? What should we ask her?

Friday
Mar062009

'Time to Open Up the Back Room a Bit'

Sometimes you just have to tell 'em what's what. Fred Powell of Main Street Books, Frostburg, Md., thinks Linda Ramsdell's note to her Galaxy Bookshop customers explaining how she's controlling inventory during the economic downturn "really summed up what I have been doing at work for the past two months and put that work into a one-paragraph explanation that I can use for both my customers and my staff."

Although Powell believes small bookstores have always had to focus upon inventory control and cash flow, "this has been a time of getting smarter, a time to really read each title on every shelf, a time to find and promote your strengths as a bookseller and a time to get your 'house in order.' Survival of the fittest never seemed more real to me than it does right now (Belated Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!)."

Even armed with this hard-earned knowledge, however, he suspects that his customers are not always fully aware of the challenges he faces: "They think that the books are always in the store (and paid for!), and all they have to do is browse and enjoy. I think it is time to open up the back room a bit and let the customers know how we operate our businesses. By educating our customers, we also educate ourselves."

When I ask Powell if he thinks such discussions might be easier now that so many customers face painful economic pressure in their own lives, he replies, "Are they prepared? No. Do many care? No. The customer just wants the store open and stocked. Should the customer care? Yes. I think we will need to have more closings of every kind of business before people start to notice. There is still too much comfort for the average person in today's world. It will take a few more failures and stock losses to get folks to notice what is happening in their own communities."

That said, he does see the potential for opening new lines of communication. "In my store, at least, there is always a sharing of stories," he says, adding that since he has shared many personal stories with his customers over the years, "I should be sharing the current bookstore story as well. My book group asked me in our last meeting if I would take some time in a future gathering and tell them how the book industry works. Surprised me that they were so interested, but I was complimented at the same time. I think they wanted to know where my store stood in all that they are reading about the much-publicized lay-offs and downsizings of the major publishers. Maybe there is a longing for the return of the pot-bellied stove and the peanut shells on the floor of the local merchants of days ago."

So how do you resist the temptation to opt for the stiff upper lip, even if the boat is taking on water? Fred recalls that his father, a small businessman, used to tell him that whenever people asked how business was, he should "always answer in a positive fashion--'Doing Great!'--even if the business was not doing great. He felt it was not in the business' best interest to let folks know that your business was suffering. I have used that model for my business as well, but have been thinking recently that the residents of my small town need to know all is not well in the book world and the economy in general and that their support is needed. If the money is getting tighter, then customers need to make informed purchasing decisions and they should know that their dollars are supporting folks right in their neighborhood."

During the high-flying, if illusory, economic thrill ride of the 1990s and early 2000s, indie booksellers were already struggling to stay in business and compete. Did our customers, especially those earning big money and watching their property values escalate, make assumptions about the bookselling world? Since indies had an involuntary head start on the challenging business climate, were we canaries in the coal mine?

"Hasn't that always been true of small business," Powell suggests. "We incubate the idea, grow it, have it taken away by corporations (who tire of it and drop it) while we keep the idea going in some form all along. As the economy rises (when?), many of the small businesses will still be there, doing what they have always done. There will be a new canary in a new cage hanging behind the cash register."

Is "Doing Great!" the wrong thing to say right now?