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Bookstores Don't Have Friends; Booksellers Do 

Tonight we are pleased to welcome (insert author's name here), who's been a friend of the bookstore for many years.

Here's a confession: When I was a bookseller, I invoked "friend of the bookstore" far too many times. It's one of those phrases we use during author introductions because it sounds so good, and is often followed by the visiting writer's generous expression of gratitude as well as--sometimes--a heartfelt paean to indie bookstores.

Long before Facebook devalued "friend," I struggled with the concept of bookstore friends. Frontline booksellers, book buyers, events coordinators or bookshop owners can claim friendship with authors, but bookstores--bricks, mortar, shelving, cash registers--have fans. It's about people, not semantics.
Bookstores don't read books. Booksellers do.

This week I'll tell you a friend-of-booksellers story. Since the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., was the place where I said "friend of the bookstore" occasionally for more than a decade, it seems an appropriate setting for our tale. Now all we need are some characters, so let's cast Jon Clinch, author most recently of the excellent novel Kings of the Earth, as the writer, with Erik Barnum and Karen Frank as the booksellers.

Once upon a time (let's call it 2007), an ARC arrived at a bookshop, as often happens in the beginning of author-bookseller friendship stories.

Karen recalls that she "noticed a galley by a debut author with an intriguing cover and the snappy title of Finn [featuring Huckleberry Finn's 'Pap'] in the buying office. I have always been greedy for fiction by a new author and dove right in. I had never read anything like it. I was shocked and thrilled. After passing it on to fellow booksellers Nancy, Liz and Erik, we began to discuss the novel and agreed that we all needed to get behind this book. And we did, using individual shelf talkers, a group shelf talker (which has only been done twice) and our verbal powers of persuasion. Many readers who trusted us got behind Finn, too, choosing it for book groups and buying it for friends. The response was overwhelming."

The first time he visited Northshire "as a writer," Jon introduced himself to Karen. "I'd gotten word from Random House rep Michael Kindness that she admired Finn. That was a weird and uncomfortable moment, believe me. I'd just driven four hours with my in-laws in the car, on top of everything. My wife and I lived in Pennsylvania at the time, and we passed within a few miles of Manchester on our weekly commute to our place in Vermont. Northshire was an important landmark and a favorite stop for us. The shift in my relationship with the store--How is a writer supposed to act in a bookstore, anyhow? What's he supposed to expect? What do they expect of him?--seemed a little daunting. I should have known that it wouldn't turn out to be all that difficult.

"Karen introduced me around, and I'm willing to bet that one of the folks I met on that first day was Erik. Early on we started talking music. We're both guitar players, and we both adore the late John Hartford. That right there is enough to build a friendship on. We talked books, too, of course. We learned quickly that although our reading tastes intersect at a great many points, they're nowhere near identical. That's okay. It gives us something to laugh about--and it keeps Erik on his toes when he's making recommendations. Our relationship is sustained the way all good relationships are, really, by little stuff: eagerness to see each other more than anything else; that basic human connection."

Although Erik received a Finn ARC because Karen knew of his love for Mark Twain's work, he was initially a reluctant reader: "I'm normally not a fan of what she calls 'rewrit lit,' but she caught me when I was at a point where I hadn't found anything good to read in a while. I loved the book, and touted it to other booksellers who signed on to the Finn train."
Shortly after that, Erik and Jon met and learned of their mutual admiration for Hartford's music: "At one of his early visits, I happened to bring my guitar to the store to give a lesson after work," Erik says, "and he mentioned that he was a guitarist also. We wound up playing some tunes on the sales floor, swapping out the guitar as we each played tunes that we loved. He plays a unique and great rendition of Johnny Cash's 'Big River.' "
After writing Kings of the Earth, Jon sent a copy of the manuscript to Erik, who "was the first civilian other than my wife and my daughter to see Kings when it was finished."

Erik "realized it was something special and altogether different from Finn, a character-driven piece that just sang to me. I teased Jon that I loved Kings in spite of the fact that he wrote it, and the Clinch train moved out of the station again, in much the same way--ending in me hosting his Kings of the Earth event in the store."

Tonight we are pleased to welcome Jon Clinch, who has been a friend of Northshire booksellers for many years.

"Jon and Wendy Clinch had been (and still are) loyal customers of the Northshire and we were already on chatting terms about books," Karen observes. "After meeting and talking to Jon after the publication of Finn, absolutely nothing changed. He was still charming, eloquent and interested in everyone's reactions. Jon is one of the more delightful and sincere authors I have met in my 10 years as a bookseller and I will always remember Finn as a completely rewarding experience. In fact, it continues to be my great pleasure to recommend this marvelous novel."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1378.


Indies E-Handselling Books & Technology

"When you put a book into your cart on Amazon, there's no bookseller, no Mr. Amazon, to consult with about whether your selection is a good choice for you. At indie stores like ours, you can call or drop by to chat with a favorite bookseller whose recommendations you've come to value, then get online and order your pick as a Google eBook. It's a two-step process, of course, but one that preserves what we do best--matching books to readers. That's what we'll continue to do in whatever format works best for each customer."

Anne Holman, co-owner of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, offered that response to a question--How do you handsell the concept that an indie bookstore is the best place to buy a recommended e-book?--I posed shortly after the introduction of the Google eBookstore last month.

More recently, she expressed delight that "we are selling e-books. Our customers' main concern is that we are making money on selling them. Our response has been a resounding 'Yes, thank you!' We feel like this is a golden marketing opportunity for us in terms of no upfront costs and lots of talking points."

Matt Norcross, owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich., says it has been "an interesting start to the New Year. We've had a steady flow of e-book purchases so far, which frankly surprised me. It's not 'bringing home the bacon' yet, but it is encouraging and the customers are coming back, sometimes twice in one night. Evening does seem to be the preferred shopping time; almost always after our bricks & mortar store has closed. It has made me a little obsessive about checking the orders every morning, but it's also fun."

E-handselling both the books and the concept of buying e-indie is the challenge. Matt contends that recent developments are "changing the way we need to think about our websites as well. We need to think about improving the browsing of our sites; we need to create the 'I never know what I'll find next' kind of experience that people associate with our physical store on our websites. We also need the publishers to work with us. Currently, they seem surprisingly unprepared to help the indies promote digital sales. Mainly, I've had to discover what our e-book store has to offer the same way our customers do, through our search bar. Some of what I've found, including pricing errors, has even surprised publishers."

Among his positive discoveries, Matt cites "great opportunities" for e-handselling like Chuck Klosterman's The Karl Marx of the Hardwood: An Essay. "I love Chuck K. and this particular essay and it's 99¢ on our website. What a great teaser to get new customers and introduce people to Chuck."

E-handselling works. Based on Matt's recommendation, I purchased a copy of the essay through the bookstore's website. Another satisfied indie e-customer.

He also notes that McLean & Eakin is creating "smart shelf talkers," which use QR codes that "can direct the customer in the store to the e-book version on our website" to help stem the "leakage" caused by customers scanning UPC codes in an indie with their smartphones, and then purchasing elsewhere.

With up to five e-book orders per day, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Calif., has seen "quite a bit of interest from customers about the program," says Casey Coonerty Protti. To fan the e-flames, they've passed out instruction sheets and last week hosted an "e-book petting zoo," at which customers could try various devices, get support with technical questions and learn "about the ways that you can enjoy e-reading while supporting your independent bookstore in the process."

While using such tools as in-store signage, staff education and website promotion to e-handsell, Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., thinks "our conversation with each customer is going to be the best way. We need to figure out who owns the readers. Our customers have been reluctant to talk about them (I think out of a misguided loyalty to us)."

The choice of e-reading devices is a primary concern for Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., who observes that "most of our customers who read e-books are using the Kindle. In fact, all the conversations we've had about e-books have been with Kindle owners. It seems that Kindle is now synonymous with e-readers to many people (kind of like Kleenex is to tissues). We certainly hope this will change with time, as we've lost entire book clubs to the Kindle this year, but Amazon has done such a brilliant marketing job that it's hard to counter that. Now that Staples, Target and Walmart are all selling the Kindle, too, it's even harder to convince people to buy something else. It's also strange to find ourselves in a position where we are sending people to Barnes & Noble to buy the Nook."

Red Fox's owners now have an iPad "so that we can better understand e-books," and Susan notes that on March 10 they will host an event called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About E-books and E-Readers. "We're hoping that this will be a good place to discuss e-readers and e-books with our customers. We are going to invite guest speakers to talk about their experiences, including someone from Barnes & Noble."
E-handselling, like any handselling, is all about the conversation.

During a recent Jonathan Franzen event at Bookshop Santa Cruz, someone asked the author to sign her iPad with a marker. Casey believes "our messaging is getting through. I had a customer tell me that she bought an iPad for her nanny as a holiday bonus. Her nanny had mentioned she wanted a Kindle, so she bought her an iPad and put a note on the front saying that she decided on an iPad instead because that way she could buy her books from an independent bookstore. One down, thousands to go."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1372.


Indie Booksellers & E-Pricing

Indie e-bookselling will probably be a popular conversation topic at ABA's Winter Institute next week, so it makes sense to come back to the discussion we began here before the holidays regarding booksellers' initial response to the Google eBookstore and its potential as (okay, I'll use the term just this once) a "game-changer."

The conversation now turns to pricing because last month, Sarah Pishko of Prince Books, Norfolk, Va., expressed surprise "at how few booksellers have bothered to discount the non-agency titles. I'm thinking primarily about Random House. I spot-checked a number of RH titles, and it looks like our discount would be 41%. So I've got them listed at 30% off, but a lot of major bookstores have failed to do so. That said, I guess I was very lucky to get Scott Nafz on the phone, and he talked me through it."

Chuck Robinson of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., is also surprised by the lack of discounting he's seen thus far: "We decided to discount the non-agency e-books. I know that some stores are adamantly opposed to any discounting (I usually find myself in that crowd), but this seems a special case, since prices were not initially established at bricks-and-mortar retail, but by online retailers. We're not discounting below what we're paying (as online Amazon et al apparently are--unless they're getting special deals), but we figure a sale with any income is better than no sale at all, and it keeps our customer with us."

Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Calif., is discounting bestsellers and many Random House titles, with plans to discount more RH books in the near future. Casey Coonerty Protti notes that "one of the drawbacks of launching in mid-December is that we didn't have the staffing from the get-go to focus on these issues). A few customers have written us about pricing and we've changed books manually to meet their needs." With a touch of humor, she adds it's all "about resources and time, something that indies have in abundance."

Time has also been a factor for Neil Strandberg of the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo.: "As to non-agency pricing, we remain commited to noodling the math of what to discount, by how much, and how to feature it. It just so happens that I've been preoccupied by some very brick-and-mortar concerns these last three weeks: How was the holiday season? How is the payroll level? What must I return? Where's my gross margin?"

The learning curve is key for Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., who says, "We are still learning the Drupal system (we just switched before the holidays, so we haven't had time to play around with it much) and just figuring out how to adjust e-book prices. We are going to lower the prices on some hot titles, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But to be honest, I can't imagine a more daunting task than searching through all Random House and other non-agency titles to change the prices. I suppose for stores with many employees this is do-able (and no doubt Amazon has an entire department to handle this task), but it's just not something we have time for. And since we're not selling any Google eBooks it's hard to feel the urgency behind this."

Up to this point, Lanora Hurley of the Next Chapter Bookshop, Mequon, Wis., has "made the deliberate decision to not adjust the prices. Since there does not seem to be much demand so far, at least from us, I just haven't had the time over the holidays to look at it. I suppose that I should."

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, is anticipating future changes: "We are planning on discounting selected titles that will tie to our internal bestseller list. That way we can still talk about the books we love and offer our customers a deal. We won't be discounting across the board as each publisher seems to have very different discounts but we will be looking at individual titles strategically. "

As far as booksellers choosing not to discount is concerned, Christine Onorati of WORD, Brooklyn, N.Y., observes she "wouldn't be surprised if for some it was just something they don't know how to do on their site, and maybe they don't have a savvy tech person to explain it to them. It is not the most intuitive process, to be honest, and no one wants to discuss pricing and discounts in public forums, so maybe that's a factor? That's the only reason I can think of. But we are discounting everything non-agency by 20%, so our margins of profit for agency and non-agency titles are pretty much the same at that rate."

Onorati also shared a recent pricing story: "One customer e-mailed me about the pricing issue in regards to Cloud Atlas, which she tried to buy from our site, but Google was having technical difficulties with it, so she bought it from Amazon at a considerable discount instead and let me know that--in case I wasn't aware of how cheaply Amazon was selling their e-books. It's definitely one of the biggest frustrations, since most customers don't understand the agency model and the extreme price divide between us and Google direct/Amazon."

The conversation didn't end there, however: "I explained it to her as succinctly as I could, and even explained that I am discounting all non-agency titles by 20%, and she was really nice about it and asked me to suggest a few more e-books that she should consider for a long plane trip. I sent her a few suggestions and the next day she purchased Skippy Dies, an MPS title at a competitive price. So a little bit of explanation seemed to help in that case, and through our e-mail conversation she told me she lives in a neighboring town and therefore can't shop at my store as often as she'd like, but that she's thrilled she can at least purchase her e-books from me, so hopefully I've gained a new loyal customer from it all. I know I won't have the opportunity to explain the pricing issues to all the customers who are confused by it, but we'll do our best to let them know we're discounting as much as we can."

Next week: e-handselling now.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1367.


Marble Bookends & Infinite Reading

As you begin 2011, anxious as well as excited about the future of books, I'll offer just a bit of advice for the new year: Consider infinity and relax.

We don't read enough (according to our own unforgiving standards) and we never will. If you decided, starting tomorrow, to read a book every day for the next 10 years, you would consume 3,650 books (leap years, I know, but I'm rounding off). You probably wouldn't have time to do anything else, however, so by 2021 you'd have lost your job, your home, your family, etc. Even your library and bookstore might get sick of you after a while.

Each year, tens of thousands of print books and book-like substances are released upon a dazed and overwhelmed reading public. The digital revolution will soon make even those numbers seem quaint. As I anticipate a new year of more books and more reading options, perhaps it's not surprising that I find myself taking solace in thoughts about the epic life span of a useful object found in homes and bookstores and libraries worldwide--the humble bookend.

You can't keep up, so rather than worrying incessantly about unread books and the electronic biblio-deluge, consider... infinity. For the purpose of scientific and philosophical experimentation, let's agree to represent infinity as a set of polished marble bookends. They are real, but you can think of them as a metaphor if it helps.

My bookends work well, but I'm not really testing their full capabilities since they usually hold no more than a dozen titles, all precious to me if not necessarily to anyone else.

It is the potential bookends represent that matters here. These marble reading tools exist because of geological metamorphosis during the late Cambrian or early Ordovician eras, as well as more recent quarrying, cutting, carving and polishing. They are fully equipped to withstand pressure, friction and abrasion. They are easy to operate--place on a flat surface and insert books. Repeat as necessary.

Theoretically, all of the books ever printed would fit between a single set of marble bookends. Of course this infinite collection would require really great bookends. But marble can endure 17,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. How many books is that? Clearly, my imagination trumps my scientific knowledge. You can blame early exposure to Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel."

Gravity is an issue as well.

"Indeed, gravity, the force that makes bookends work, is the very definition of verticality," writes Henry Petroski in The Book on the Bookshelf. "Yet it is the equally definitive horizontal force, caused by bearing down of the bookend's weight, that creates the force which resists sliding. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the simplest machine is not the wedge but the block.... When called upon, bookends--many of which are really nothing but sculpted blocks--develop a horizontal push to shore up books that want to fall. Friction is the secret, of course."

Words to live by for 2011.

Much attention has been given to the creation of an all-encompassing digital library. My bookends represent an alternative, if imaginary, concept--a limitless collection of books that I've read or not read or reread, with some space left over for books I'll buy in the future to read or not read. Too many books to count, all lined up neatly, stretching toward infinity, yet nestled firmly between a pair of delicately carved marble bookends.

Why bookends?

For me, they are an enduring symbol of the reading life--not altars exactly, but maybe fortress walls or temple columns in miniature. Marble bookends are older than we are. Holding up a few books is just a small favor they do to pass geologic time. Archaeologists may or may not uncover books and smashed e-readers in the future ruins of our era, but they will definitely find marble bookends.
Which brings me back to the book world of 2011.
In his book The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, Frederick Buechner considers his personal library and a particular title that, "like a great many other books I own, I have never read. ('Why on earth would I want to do that?' a friend of mine answered when somebody asked him once if he had read all his.)."

Why indeed? My New Year's gift to you is a virtual set of marble bookends, which hold between them all the books in the world. Read what you want to this year, when you can. The bookends will hold your place until you're ready for more. And there will be more.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1362.


The True Spirit of Bookstore Boxing Day

They are a memory for me now. I haven't worked in a bookstore for some time, though I can easily imagine what they will look like next Sunday, the day after Christmas, as they huddle outside the locked door of a bookshop somewhere--waiting, waiting, waiting for the clock to strike the opening hour. It's a future I can predict because I'm talking about futurist consumers.

Wrapped snugly in parkas, mittens and scarves, they stomp boots on cold pavement to keep their toes warm and wait, patiently at first and then impatiently, in sub-freezing temperatures. They eye one another warily. Someone may ask for the time as the magic hour nears. Another might see a friend or neighbor and have a casual conversation about the predicted chance of snow flurries or ask, always with one eye on the shop's doors, about holiday festivities:

"How was your Christmas?"    
"Wonderful. The whole family..."

The sound of a turning lock cuts off all conversation. It is time. Now they have only one thing in common--a fierce dedication to the sweet science of Bookstore Boxing Day bargain hunting.

As the doors open, the hunters race--more of a slow-paced Running of the Bows, actually--toward displays featuring holiday-related merchandise discounted 50%: gift wrap, ribbon, greeting cards, ornaments and a zillion themed trinkets; all that leftover inventory the sidelines buyer was staring at, with a slightly defeated expression, while sipping eggnog after the store closed Christmas Eve afternoon.

I observed this ritual for many years, and only now do I realize what I was seeing as post-Christmas shoppers lugged multiple baskets overflowing with holiday stuff to the register barely 24 hours after having tossed piles of crumpled wrapping paper in the trash.

They represent a triumph--modest, but genuine--of the human spirit. Bookstore Boxing Day's morning rush is an optimistic act that I, a confirmed fatalist, can only envy. It's a bold statement by these committed retail hunters that makes certain brave assumptions about the future in a world rife with uncertainty. Not least among these are the following facts: They plan to be alive 12 months from now; they assume they will be able to find, when needed, the wrapping paper rolls and bows they are storing away; and they are confident they won't be tempted by new Christmas card designs, which will begin appearing in the shop around Labor Day.
Traditional Christmas celebrations, whether secular or sacred or both, look to the past for tidings of comfort and joy.

Bookstore Boxing Day is all about the future. These time traveling holiday shoppers will be ready for December 2011.

Cynicism is easy. I look back to George Orwell. Not the 1984/Animal Farm author, but the Orwell who wrote, in his "Bookshop Memories" essay: "At Christmas time we spent a feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which are tiresome things to sell but good business while the season lasts. It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited. The touts from the Christmas card firms used to come round with their catalogues as early as June. A phrase from one of their invoices sticks in my memory. It was: '2 doz. Infant Jesus with rabbits.' "

And I look at the present, where this week Slate's Kate Julian asked "Did Facebook Kill the Christmas Card?" and predicted "2010 will go down as the year the holiday card lay dying." She hedged that bet a little, noting that although anecdotal evidence is plentiful, numbers are hard to come by: "Like all kinds of paper mail, holiday card deliveries have been steadily declining for years, but the postal service hasn't finished compiling its numbers for last December, let alone this one. And various greeting card industry representatives predict only a modest drop in card sales this year. I meet their optimism with skepticism--it seems unfair to expect the greeting card people to trumpet their own decline."

On Sunday, however, the post-Christmas bargain hunters will be waiting in the cold for a chance to scoop up boxes of holiday cards for future use. Maybe sales numbers are fading. Maybe, as a demographic, these shoppers represent the past to analysts. But this year at least, I'll raise a glass to that hardy band of consumers who embody the true spirit of Bookstore Boxing Day.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1357.