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Author Events: Timing is the Key

Perhaps there is an alternate universe, imagined in a lost story by Jorge Luis Borges, where author events are never constricted by time--a land where readings stretch to infinity, no books need be sold and no one in the audience ever, ever gets restless or leaves early.

Unfortunately, for booksellers hosting author events, infinity isn't an option. It takes delicate choreography to get people into their seats at a reasonable time (the five-minute rule), introduce the author, listen to the reading while watching the clock, spark a Q&A session if necessary, escort the author to a signing table and, ideally, sell some books.

Last week, Matt Norcross of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., asked an interesting question: "Do any booksellers have a polite way to wrap up/cut off an author who could go on talking all night? I loathe this (cutting people off) and more often than not let people ramble far to long."

An early warning system helps, suggested Mandy King of Boulder Book Store, Boulder, Colo. "We always tell our publicists and authors in the confirmation e-mail that the event should last no longer than 45 minutes, including Q&A. Then, when the author arrives at our store, our event host gently reminds them of this policy. We tell the author that there is a direct correlation between low book sales and events that last longer than 45 minutes. The nudge about book sales usually is enough to make sure the author keeps their presentation within the time limit. It's not a foolproof method, but it works 99% of the time. The other 1%, we jump in with an extra mic during the Q&A and announce that we only have time for one more question."

Cheryl McKeon, formerly of Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash., agreed: "When I hosted, we tried to outline the format to each author before the event, and I'd explain that events 'usually last about an hour, because if people have to leave we don't want them to go before they get to buy a book.' Then, I'd give the 'one more question' signal where the author and the audience could see me--playing the bad cop. If the author was long-winded, he thought the store needed the space, the audience thought the author had a deadline, and nobody was offended. Probably most hosts have some variation on this plan."
Describing himself as "the designated schlepper for off-site events" at the Bookshelf, Cincinnati, Ohio, Charlie Boswell--whose wife, Cary, is one of the bookshop's co-owners--said a "practical suggestion is to remind the authors beforehand that the object is to sell their book, so the Q&A and talk must end at ____, and that you will give them an enormous hint that that time is approaching. If necessary, have a staff person knock over a paperback display to create a noisy diversion, or pinch a baby..."
Shortly before the start of events hosted by the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo., Besse Lynch explains the 30-15-20 format to authors. This includes "30 minutes for the talk including any reading of short passages, 15 minutes of Q&A and 20 minutes of signing. I always point out the clock on the wall in front of the author so that they can pace themselves.

"Of course it never fails that some authors will take the ratio into their own hands. No matter how hard you try to explain that we set the structure for a reason--to entertain our guests and sell books--the author will ultimately do whatever they want, sometimes reading straight from the book for the entire 30 minutes and other times forgoing any sort of presentation at all and heading straight to Q&A. Sometimes I daydream about setting up an author event training course where the author would have to pass a series of practicums and tests before they are sent out on tour... Though ultimately, we never cut off the author; they are the reason we are here."

Donna Paz Kaufman of Paz and Associates said her overall strategy evolved from her experience as a bookseller: "At Davis-Kidd Booksellers and especially in the training field where I often have a tight schedule of guest speakers, I can't let people go on and on. Here's what I've learned from bookstore events and from training mentors:

  1. Tell them in advance how much time they have and let them know you'll give them a five minute warning.
  2. Stand up when it's time for them to wrap-up.
  3. If necessary, begin walking closer to them if they keep going at an uncomfortable and inappropriate length of time.
  4. If they simply don't stop even when they see your cues, keep walking closer and then jump in at the first chance to politely say a kind word about the presentation and say you're sorry you've run out of time. Then you can open things up for questions or invite customers to get their books signed.

"You'll know when to allow an engaging author to go on a little longer," she observed. "You'll also know when customers are getting fidgety. In both cases, you're in charge and others are looking to you to intervene (or not)."

Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., "used to be a booking agent for comedians and the perfect show always leaves the audience a little bit hungry. If an author hits a home run during Q&A, saying something funny, poignant... the perfect ending, whatever, I won't let him ruin it by having the poor schlep answer the same old 'So, what are you reading now?' or 'Are you working on anything new?' or (god help me) 'What is your process?' Bleah!

"I just get up off my stool at the back of the room (or wherever I'm standing) and just walk straight for them clapping and saying 'That was amazing! Thank you so much! If you have any more questions for the author, I'm sure he'd be happy to answer them for you as he signs your book.' That rewards the people who bought a book and shuts down the ones who just came to the event because they love to hear the music of their own voice. You know who I'm talking about. I admit I did actually turn the lights off once.  Sometimes you just have to tell people the old saw: 'You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!' "--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1283.


The Five-minute Rule

New York's commuter trains have the one-minute rule. Booksellers have the five-minute rule. When I hosted events, I could set my watch by the audience members who arrived at 7:05 for a 7 p.m. event. Turns out my experience isn't unique.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn N.Y., said, "We so have a five-minute rule. It's actually a five- to 10-minute rule, which sometimes goes as long as 20. We rarely have people show up en masse until about two minutes after the event is supposed to start, so we give them some time to settle in. One time only we got an annoyed e-mail that we had waited too long to start (which was kind of fair--it was 25 minutes later and the author was drinking wine in the back with her friends and the customer didn't realize she could have joined in the wine drinking rather than waiting in her seat.) But punctual, our Brooklyn audiences are not."

"Five-minute rule for sure," agreed Bookshop Santa Cruz's Casey Coonerty Protti. "Santa Cruz is a last-minute audience as well and we don't want to prematurely cut off browsing for the author event book or anything else. Our start time is 7:30 so people are usually trying to fit in dinner after work and make it to our event. Now, for the huge events that people are lining up way in advance, we usually start more on time.  Also, sometimes authors don't arrive until 7:30 on the dot!"

Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., uses "the five-minute rule because yes, many people run late. We don't have the problem that we had for years now that the freeway is 18 lanes wide--the authors were always the late ones! On the other hand, I start both store bookclubs and storytime on the dot. The attention span of a two-year-old may only be five minutes and I like to finish book club in the evening and go home (especially since I've been here since 9 a.m.)."

The rule is often in effect at Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wis., though Daniel Goldin said he's "been known to start as late as 7:15, depending on other factors. And still I usually get as many as a third of my customers coming to events after they start. I've not had any complaints, though I do have the other rule that the people lose interest after an hour (in that purchases go down and sometimes folks even start walking away), and I suspect they include that five-minute delay in their 60 minutes."

Malaprop's Bookstore, Ashville, N.C., is "not strict on starting," said Linda Barrett Knopp. "We are located downtown and sometimes finding a parking spot is a challenge, so many people do arrive en masse right at 7 p.m. or a few minutes after. Our customers are pretty laid back ('relaxed' is the vibe in Asheville). If we were super punctual, it might freak them out."

Local rules apply for Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., according to Chuck Robinson: "We tell folks that we start at 7 p.m., Bellingham time, which is five minutes behind the rest of the world. We've had no problems with this. Bellingham is a real 'last minute' town."

The five-minute rule is a natural extension of the way events are held at McLean and Eakin Bookstore, Petoskey, Mich. According to Matt Norcross, "We tend to begin our signings with a little mingling and wine & cheese with the author and the 'start time' is when we try to direct people to their seats so we can get the talk started. We have had many event start times dictated by the author, though, as I'm sure many other booksellers have. I've 'tap danced' and did an impromptu book talk while an author kept over 120 people waiting an extra 30 minutes (frankly, I ended up with a lot of extra sales because of it) and I've even had to call the local bar once to get the author off the stool and into the store. Events, even the best-planned, are always an adventure."  

Starting time strategy "is constant conversation here and we generally take it on a case by case basis," said Besse Lynch of the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo. "Our events are structured a bit differently than most other indie bookstores. Typically when we host an author, we close the store and sell tickets to the event to including wine and appetizers (from our cafe). Because this format naturally lends itself to conversation and a cocktail party style gathering, our guests usually don't mind that we start a few minutes late. They get a chance to nibble on some yummy treats, catch up with friends and even mingle with the author before we start the show."

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan., hosts more than 300 offsite events a year, so timing is an almost daily concern for Roger Doeren: "Flexibility is favorable over rigidity. We target our author event start times usually at 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m., depending on the venue. Either way, we allow time for our attendees and our authors to comfortably settle in before we officially start our presentation. Sometimes a combination of crowd management, security, traffic and weather can cause slight delays (10 to 15 minutes) in our attendees and authors arriving and settling in on time. We make informative and repetitive announcements for about 30 minutes before our start time so that the arriving attendees are made aware of our upcoming author events, our community partners, our thanks and other details."

So, variations on the five-minute rule are apparently in effect coast-to-coast, but Matt Norcross suggested another events dilemma question: "Do any booksellers have a polite way to wrap up/cut off an author who could go on talking all night? I loathe this (cutting people off) and more often than not let people ramble far too long." Any suggestions?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1277.


Love in the Time of Indie Bookstores

Dating may be hard, but it pales in comparison to the implications and complications of merging two book collections. Now that's really taking a relationship to a new level.

There's been a flurry of media attention recently surrounding the online book-dating site alikewise (Shelf Awareness, August 20, 2010), but it has a successful bricks-and-mortar predecessor in Between the Covers: A Matchmaking Service for Book Lovers, which was started more than a year ago by indie bookstore WORD, Brooklyn, N.Y. Positive response to the idea has since inspired WORD-sponsored singles mixers for readers and even a literary "prom."

Apparently, not everyone is a fan. "Bookshelves Give Daters Yet Another Way to Be Judgmental" was the headline of a recent Jezebel.com post that took a potshot at the notion of literary matchmaking in general and Between the Covers in particular.

For WORD manager Stephanie Anderson, however, the concept is simply a logical extension of the Greenpoint bookstore's community outreach efforts. The matchmaking board, like WORD's ambitious events schedule (which, effective today, will be headed by occasional Shelf Awareness contributor Jenn Northington as the new events manager), is simply another way to bring readers together in an increasingly unbookish world.

"If you've lived in New York for three days, you know that meeting people here is not easy," said Anderson, adding that the original idea for Between the Covers came to her and WORD's owner Christine Onorati one day when they realized that they "knew all of our customers, but we forget that they don't know each other."

Anderson said that on the board, "people seem to represent extremes of themselves, but it seems to me that the 'likes' are just as--if not more--important than the 'dislikes.' And since conversations are the best way to get to know people, I think the point of our board is to help people find those conversations. We've already hosted two singles mixers this year in an attempt to foster them."

Two enthusiastic supporters of the board's matchmaking potential, as well as the way it reflects what indie bookstores can mean to communities, are Russ Marshalek and Marley Magaziner, who met "on the board" and now live together.

Marshalek praised the bookstore's "massive community work," and called Between the Covers "a brilliant idea, and a move that is only enhanced by sites like alikewise, which fail (in my opinion) to instigate the real-world interaction that WORD does with its quarterly events. Judging someone based on what they read is brilliant--you're going to judge anyway--why not judge someone on a book they've put 14 hours of their life into? I love the fact that Marley and I both read Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms back-to-back within a few weeks of one another. I found them incredible. She found them cold and empty. We discussed it over dinner. That's what a good relationship is, no? But, again, I think the only real story here is the work WORD Brooklyn is doing, continuing to remind us why independent bookstores are vital community centers."

Magaziner likes "the idea that my--now our--local bookstore was a catalyst in our relationship. By the time of WORD's first in-real-life mixer, we were officially boyfriend and girlfriend, which meant I was breaking it off with the kids I met on the Internet to be with the guy who found me through the WORD board. Real life trumps the Internet! When Russ and I moved in together and merged our libraries, we found that we had exactly three of the same books. For two people who consider themselves big readers, and who were drawn to each other based on literary taste, having just three crossovers is pretty striking. The point is, together we have a serious library. We're readers.
"While everyone seems to be whining about the death of the local independent bookstore, WORD has managed to appeal to that facet of our personalities to engage us in a greater community. WORD has managed to latch onto the hyper-local marketing trend--match up people who like books and who visit at the same local bookstore frequently enough to keep an eye on a singles board. To me, it's less important what a person likes, but that a person likes reading. What a person does in his or her free time is a huge window into personality and the specifics of that are important."

For Anderson, the matchmaking board and singles mixers are a natural part of the bookshop's overall effort to bring the community together to talk books, meet one other and maybe even buy a tome or three. It's just what an indie bookstore does. Oh, and then there's WORD's summer basketball league for book lovers, but for that you'll have to pass a test. Question #4: "Name a poet. Any poet."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1273.


Opening the Door: A Not-So-Sentimental Education

During the early 1990s, a friend of mine spent a year working for an indie bookstore while seriously exploring the possibility of opening her own bookshop in New England. She had money, experience as a librarian and business acumen, but she ultimately walked away from the prospect. And that was during the pre-chain, pre-Amazon golden-ish age of independent bookselling.

Who stays and who walks away now? This was one of several questions I posed to Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman--of Paz & Associates: The Bookstore Training & Consulting Group--who facilitate a workshop retreat, Opening a Bookstore: The Business Essentials, and partner with the American Booksellers Association to provide training for people interested in entering retail bookselling.

"For the past five or six years, the ABA has placed a great priority on education for booksellers, with content related to all aspects of the business," said the Kaufmans in an e-mail interview. "Our goal, on the other hand, is to reach prospective store owners early in the decision-making process, so that they're on the right track from the moment they open their doors rather than having to dig themselves out of a hole."

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I've noticed that many new bookstore owners seem better prepared for their entry into the business than their peers were a decade or more ago.

The Kaufmans agreed: "Before the advent of the 'information age,' we suspect that many booksellers opened stores with a Field of Dreams attitude--if you build it, they will come. With a great deal at stake, our trainees realize how much they don't know; they see the number of indie bookstores that have gone out of business and want to know why. They hope to avoid the same mistakes and preserve their hard-earned investment. Most have never owned or managed a retail store of any kind, let alone a retail bookstore, and see the importance of training for a new chapter in their career. They understand that you can easily buy anything you want online, and are aware that a retail bookstore needs to give customers a compelling reason to get out from behind the computer and come shop at the local bookstore."

The majority of their workshop attendees "are career-changers, having come to a point in their lives when questions like 'Is that all there is?' arise, and they're motivated to live out a dream before they run out of time. Every so often, we'll see 'emerging leaders' (the under-40 set), yet funding seems to be the greatest challenge here. One constant is the number of dreamers who get disillusioned when they find out the amount of time, effort, and money required. Retail is retail: the hours are long, your feet get tired, and there's very little margin for error."

The path from wild idea to actually opening that front door is more perilous than ever, and the "need to be better prepared is most evident when looking for funding sources, as lenders require more and more--collateral, credit history, experience, etc. There are even some landlords who expect sketches of a store design before they will approve a tenant. The chains provide a consistent look, but landlords of quality properties want to be assured an independently owned business will be just as serious about creating an attractive sense of place that will contribute to their development."

A hard road can sometimes be a hard sell. The Kaufmans noted that "over the past seven years, some 1,850 people have contacted us for information about opening a bookstore. Of that number, 1,025 took another step by minimally investing in their education. A bit more than 20% attended a workshop, and we estimate that 50%-60% of workshop graduates have gone on to open stores."

To foster more interest, they are using their blog "to promote the business opportunities that the media just doesn't see. We've also been in touch with the major newspapers and magazines to encourage them to tell the other side of the story. Opportunities do exist and several successful indie bookstores are now for sale, in search of new owners. These are businesses with an existing loyal customer base, revenue stream, and profits that are enriching the lives of people in their communities, employing residents and contributing to their local economies. Indie bookselling is part of the 'long tail.' "

One aspect of the process that hasn't changed is the questions prospective booksellers ask: How much will it cost? How long will it take? How much can I earn? Can my community support a bookstore?

"But more people now want some specifics about how they can make it work without losing sleep at night," according to the Kaufmans. "There is one question that comes up, especially after we focus on the financial dynamics of the business and the potential return on investment. We've had people ask, 'Why bother?' Our goal is to ensure that prospective booksellers make informed decisions based on understanding the risks, the potential rewards, and all that it takes to succeed.

"We do use 'formal education' to refer to retail training in bookselling," they added. "Our focus is not to repeat training someone can easily find elsewhere, like understanding how to write a business plan or the critical elements of marketing. Our training is specific to retail bookselling. We emphasize the realities of retail and the nuances of the book industry, combining the two and placing it in context of today's economy and consumer."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1267.


Opening the Door at Battenkill Books: The Plan

Everyone knows that opening a bookstore is more complicated than just filling the shelves, hanging a sign out front and unlocking the door. Whether everyone knew that 15 or 20 years ago is debatable, but the new and prospective indie booksellers I've met during the past couple of years strike me as a much more business savvy crowd than many I encountered during the 1990s. They know the stakes; they do their homework; they harbor fewer delusions.

I mentioned last week that I'd been asked how Connie and Chris Brooks prepared for their entry into the business as owners of Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y.; how they had learned about the intricacies unique to retail bookselling, and what led them to believe they could be successful.

They didn't take any formal bookseller training, relying "primarily on our own research and backgrounds," said Connie. "Chris already owns a small business and has an MBA, so his experience in particular was very important. It is important to note that we took over a smaller existing store with a 24-year history in our village. We began drafting a business plan (nights, weekends, and coffee breaks) in January 2009, then presented it to a counselor at the Small Business Development Center in Albany, N.Y., in May for feedback. We had a relatively complete plan to present to two loan officers in June 2009, and opened our doors November 1, 2009."

She added that from the beginning they "knew we had a community of readers and one that would be inclined to support a small, independent bookstore. Analyzing census data and incorporating it with a book buying behavior study and an NEA report on trends in reading confirmed this in quantitative terms. We used some planning tools like a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis and Porter's Five Forces Model of Competitive Analysis. These are instructive. Guess what our top 'Weakness' was? 'Lack of experience running a retail operation.' It also shows up as a 'Barrier to Entry' to the industry in our Competitive Analysis."

Geography also played a significant role, since "the nearest big box bookstores are 45 minutes away and the nearest brethren indies are about 30-40 minutes away," Connie said. As part of their preparation, they took "recon" trips to bookstores in the region and discussed "what was good about each and what we would use or change if it were our shop. We took a map, outlined how far we would drive for a good bookstore and started adding up the population in that area, their income, and (based on the studies noted above) what they could be expected to spend on new books. Along with a conservative estimate of the market share of that total new book spending Battenkill Books could expect (i.e., versus online sales and regional competition), we arrived at a first year top line revenue figure."
They assumed "cost of goods sold to be 60%, based on buying from distributors to start, which brought us to our gross profit," said Connie, noting that by checking anticipated expenses "against ABA's Abacus as a rough guide, we had a handle on our pro-forma income and expenses."
On paper, the numbers didn't work initially, she admitted, and only with "a lot of thought and revision" did they begin to make sense. Ultimately it "came down to controlling expenses. If you take a look at the industry, that is what it is about. Gross profit is essentially fixed. So this is an expense controlled, cash flow business. We found a way to make it work on paper, by prioritizing spending on basic needs and areas that would support increased sales."
In an earlier column, I outlined how they handled the real estate aspect of this venture, but Connie said the "big splurge was on a computerized POS system that has paid dividends and will pay more as we use more of its functionality. I spent most of the months preparing to open the store learning the basics of running a retail operation--setting up tax exempt resale status, learning New York's labor laws, researching business, workers comp, and disability insurance, learning about sales tax, etc. I set up a relatively few accounts with book distributors, and am still very much learning on the ground how to run a bookstore."

Conceding that a course for future booksellers might have helped, Connie noted they "had no budget for it and little time. There are still terms that I don't understand and whole areas of the business that are as yet foreign (remainder buying, handling used books, how to make the most of a sales rep call, etc.), but I also am a believer that at some point you just have to take the plunge and get on with it--there are some aspects of the business that you can only learn by doing and over time."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1261.

Note: Photo by Leslie Parke, whose painting, "Moths," is on the wall behind the information desk.