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[I try to keep this as personal blog, but by trade I am a book promoter. As most of the people I engage with both in real life and online are writers and book people, I thought I should share a few observations about the trade. This is the first in an occasional series of posts.]


Local Bookstores vs. “Local” Authors.

One thing that comes up over and over again when self-published or small press authors responsible for their own publicity/marketing discuss bookstores is a level of anger that it’s often difficult to get their books into indie bookstores (either on the shelves or for an event). I often see writers comment online (and hear it at festivals) that “even” their local stores “make it hard” for them and that local stores should want to work with local authors, and somewhere along the way I’ve realized there’s a disconnect between many fledgling writers and bookstores about what exactly a local author is.  Newsflash: it’s about a lot more than your ZIP code.

Let’s start with the obvious factor: physical proximity. Do you live a short drive or walk from the bookstore? This is an essential part of the equation, but it’s not the only relevant consideration. Another question is even more vital: do you shop at this bookstore regularly?  The key difference is between someplace being a local bookstore and it being your local bookstore.

From there the questions go on: How many booksellers do you know on a first name basis? Do they smile or grimace when you walk in? How many events have you attended there? Have you ever ended up in a bar, after hours, boozing it up with a touring author friend, a couple of booksellers from the store, and a sales rep for a publishing company who you still can’t see at a party without blushing?  How many times has the manager pulled a book from under the counter and said, “You’re gonna love this!” the moment you crossed the threshold?

I’m not saying you have to be best friends with the owner and blow your kids’ college savings at the bookstore, but you have to use it. You should be a known face — not necessarily a confidant — and part of the local literary community. If you’ve been working away in beautiful isolation and ordering all your own reading material from Amazon, then how can you expect your local bookstore to regard you as a local author? You’re a local, certainly, and you’re an author, but neither alone is a compelling reason for any bookstore to want to work with you. (They are swamped with authors asking them to carry their books or host events.) They need to know you the individual, and know you have a level of respect and support for their mission before they might consider supporting yours.

Your local store should be the one in the community where you live, where your children go to school, where you and your friends shop, the one with the cafe where you meet for safe first dates, and the place you bring out-of-town family when they visit. If you do not have a local store like this, find one. Pick a store, shop there, chat with the booksellers, ask for recommendations, buy birthday gifts there, attend events, get to know the staff and let them get to know you. It’ll make your literary life more interesting, more varied, and more eventful, and when you finish your manuscript and finally have a book to promote, your local booksellers will be much more enthusiastic and supportive because your success will be personal for them. During the writing process there’s a time for isolation and contemplation, for quiet work and freedom from distractions, but everyone needs a literary community to present their work to, and your local bookstore can be the cornerstone of that.

Bear this in mind: one of the criteria bookstores use in deciding whether to carry your book or to host an event is the question “Does this author have a local network to mobilize in support of their book?” If you haven’t even bothered to get to know people at the area bookstore, this doesn’t suggest you’ll be any better at networking in any other aspect of your life.

Bottom line: No bookstore is compelled to work with an author, especially not one who claims to be local, but whom they’ve never seen or heard from before. Take the time to get involved in your local literary community and support your local bookstore, your life will be the richer for it, and the booksellers will be more inclined to support your book in turn.

This is not to say that cultivating a good relationship with your local bookstore is the only thing you need to make a successful book. It’s just one part of your overall marketing plan — I’ll try to write about some of the others shortly. But, it’s a key relationship, and new writers should not take it for granted.


Recently, I enjoyed a great afternoon running around Dublin bookshops. I visited many of my old haunts and one cool new bookstore. It happened to be the day of Gay Pride, so driving around the city center was difficult as streets were closed for the parade, but once I had the car stashed in a multi-story I was exploring a Dublin that in some ways hasn’t changed much since I lived there.

The spire wasn’t there in my time, nor the odd metal balconies over the river, but I’ve seen them on previous visits. I hadn’t come across the big Polish Embassy on the quays before, but it makes sense since the second language of Ireland has seemed like Polish for some time.

The tiny Winding Stair Bookshop and restaurant has shrunk over the years. From a book-lined restaurant upstairs, to a well-stocked bookstore downstairs and separate restaurant up. It’s probably an indication of the relative importance of books to the Irish populace over the Celtic Tiger years: dining out has only grown in importance, while reading… well, let’s not dwell on that. The ground-floor now houses new books, and not very many square feet of them. However, the place feels like a perfect example of a curated selection. I immediately found most of the new fiction I was looking for right there on the shelves (not always a given in any store, anywhere) and found several books that looked great. Chatting with the staff at Winding Stair showed they are up to speed on new writers.

They had a copy of Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel, You, (and turned out to be the only store I looked in that day that did). After reading her story collection Nude last year, she’s now on my “must read” list. I was interesting in the new Dermot Healy novel, but after reading a couple of pages a combination of style and heft made me decide to wait and maybe look for a used copy on a future trip.

Hand-written shelftalkers showed me that the staff take their books seriously. Somebody at The Winding Stair is a huge advocate for Kevin Barry, and it’s due to their shelftalker that I later bought a copy of There Are Little Kingdoms and it’s high on my TBR list. [Although I must confess that I bought it elsewhere, because I needed to Google the book and read more about it first… you know how it is.] Kevin Barry’s debut novel, The City of Bohane, looks great, and if the short stories are as excellent as promised, I suspect I’ll be ordering the novel soon.

I also found several books that I’d never heard of and bought one nonfiction on impulse.  Many of the other Dublin bookstores had a lot of the big books, and little else (or maybe it’s fairer to say that the else they had wasn’t the else I was interested in), but whoever buys books for The Winding Stair seems to be close to my own reading tastes. A tiny store, but still a great one.

The next day, reading Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s poem “Dancing with Paul Durcan,” it felt strangely apt to discover that it references The Winding Stair. If that isn’t literary cachet, I don’t know what is.

The newcomer to the Dublin bookselling scene since I lived there is The Gutter Bookshop. I’d come across them on Twitter (@GutterBookshop), and heard good things, so it was fabulous to finally be able to explore their shelves. The streets of Temple Bar were thronged after the Pride rally, and there was a healthy crowd browsing in the store. Owner Bob graciously stopped to chat to me despite the fact that the words “I follow you on Twitter” should send a tremor through the bravest soul. The space must be great for events, with all the fixtures on wheels to allow for flexibility.

Gutter is well-stocked: all the new releases and big books, as well as a noticeable sprinkling of quirky and backlist selections. I was delighted to score a copy of Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1, as I never find his books in the wilds of North Carolina.

I stuck my head into Hodges-Figgis & Easons, the physically large/chain bookstores, but really didn’t see much to interest me. In fairness, Hodges-Figgis has a massive Irish nonfiction selection (if you can’t find it there, it probably hasn’t been written yet) but I wasn’t really looking for new nonfiction right now. Easons had lots of popular fiction and a “Buy 3 for the Price of 2” offer, but I’d already bought most of the books I was interested in. Many of the older second hand bookstores that used to be found down the quays and near Grafton Street seem to be gone. Every time I’m home I find a couple of new remainder and used stores, but these always vanish by the next visit.

A quick stop into Books Upstairs, a tiny bookshop absolutely crammed full of books by the gates of Trinity College, and I netted Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car, a poetry chapbook by Nuala Ní Chonchúir that I hadn’t expected to find. Books Upstairs has been there I don’t know how long, and has so many books that you have to hold your breath and suck in your gut to squeeze down the aisles. Not a store to follow fashion, but this is one of your best bets to find quirky titles from several years ago.

By now, my feet were beginning to drag, so I decided to call it quits for the day and head home to work on the most-difficult decision: which book to read first.


“Stealing Will Self’s Pig” — a great review of Jude: Level 1…

Totalfeckineejit blog reviews Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car…

I haven’t read Richard Louv’s new book, The Nature Principle, yet, but intuitively I can get behind it. The argument seems to be the more time we spend with technology, the more time we need in nature to compensate/recharge. I know that’s true for me.


His earlier book was Last Child in the Woods, which was another duh! argument (kids need to play and be out in nature) that seemed to be news to a lot of people.




So AMZN pulled the buy buttons from all Macmillan’s books this weekend. At issue is the publisher’s ability to set the base price for their ebooks (as they do for their print books). AMZN’s response is the nuclear/6-year-old tantrum option (pick your metaphor, there have been plenty floating around Twitter all weekend)–their way or the highway. Authors are concerned their sales will suffer. Other publishers watch eagerly.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent explains why the two giant companies are at odds.

The authors’ view:

John Scalzi at Whatever — lots of discussion in the comments!

Cory Doctorow at boingboing

Several commentators attempt to unpack the bigger picture:

Charlie Stross at Antipope

Tobias Buckell UPDATE: Tobias’s site is went down under the strain. His post is mirrored at SFWA.

Chris Meadows at Teleread

Mashable on the The Great Ebook War (a title worthy of many of Macmillan’s affected authors).

Caleb Crain at Steamthing

Can a publisher insist on minimum pricing? Apparently so.
Can a retailer refuse to sell a publisher’s books (some or all)? Of course.

Every bookstore passes on some of a publisher’s books because they’re not right for that store’s customer base. However, using a publisher’s entire print catalog as a bargaining chip in a separate negotiation is a completely different order of magnitude.

Personally, it’s my understanding that publishers are prohibited from charging one retailer a lower price for their physical books than all the others. I don’t see why it should be any different for ebooks.  (Not being privy to the discussions, I have to assume Macmillan’s desired pricing would be the same for all ebook retailers.)

AMZN think they can get away with this because they are the largest gorilla in town. Macmillan seems to be anticipating Apple quickly establishing themselves as an equally large gorilla in the ebook business. AMZN have one thing to bargain with that Apple does not, the sale of physical books.

Indie booksellers have sensed the opportunity to use this brouhaha to support Macmillan authors and take some mindshare from the behemoth. WORD in Brooklyn are doing their part to publicize what’s going on, and the ABA have added banners highlighting the availability of Macmillan’s books to the website. These are encouraging first steps, but I hope to see indies following up with events and promotions that lead directly to tangible sales for the affected Macmillan authors. This is not only a chance to serve the large market of readers that AMZN have chosen not to serve,  it’s also a chance to re-emphasize indies’ vital role in bringing a wide choice of books to their neighborhoods and to connect readers with writers. Two roles that indies will not relinquish in an effort to corner a different market.


New links added as I find them.

Digital Book World’s roundup of discussion.

Galleycat readers discuss.

Brenda Cooper.

A heavy reader who sides squarely w/ AMZN (even above the authors he enjoys).

Author Jay lake weighs in by severing his connection with AMZN.

Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, does the same.

Ed Campion says “not a single bookstore chain has ever discriminated against a publisher like this before”

Update #2.

Amazon claim to “capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms.” Although, right now (Sunday 6pm) the “buy” functionality does not appear to have been restored to Macmillan titles.


Finally, Macmillan buy buttons reappear (6pm ET, Friday Feb. 5, 2010).

[The intent of this post is to step back and consider the industry-wide implications of $8.99 bestsellers. I’m making multiple assumptions where I do not have all the info, so I invite corrections, counter arguments and real numbers before anyone jumps off any cliffs.]

The shoe is on the other foot this morning, with indie booksellers contemplating deserting publishers for cheaper $8.99 books at the mass merchants., and are waging a price war over the top dozen-or-so projected bestsellers of the holiday season.  To do so they are all willing to make a loss of $5-$6 on each book – which is staggering, because last time I checked market share wasn’t legal tender. Naturally, indie bookstore buyers have concluded that if you can purchase books you know your customers will want, at a lower price than directly from the publisher, and force a competitor to take a loss on each copy, why the hell wouldn’t you?

This is my attempt to make a case not to desert the publishers. [Full disclosure: I work for a small publisher and part-time for an indie bookseller, hence the need to look at the situation from both sides.]

The reason to support publishers by buying directly is because of all the services they deliver which indie bookstores value: selection, curation, marketing, creating demand? (You know, many of the same things we tell customers they’re supporting when they shop indie…) The irony of this situation is not lost on anyone.

The question is, who loses if indie bookstores cancel and reorder at 8.99 from the gamblers who are prepared to take a loss of almost $5-$6 on each copy? Publishers theoretically ship the same number of books, just through different channels. Those publishers are making the same profit whether they ship through Wal-Mart or directly, as giving one channel a larger discount than another would be illegal, right? [Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the ABA took publishers to court over this exact issue several years ago.]

Our sales reps lose out, esp. if their income is commission based. Many stores depend on good reps to cut through the clutter of titles the large houses publish and showcase the books that will appeal the most to customers in our individual regions and cities. However, so many reps have been let go and the remaining rep’s territories have become so large that many small bookstores don’t see reps often, if at all, so I don’t expect the argument that deserting publishers will hurt your sales reps to hold much water with those stores.

Distributors lose out; leaving them with a large amount of money tied up in product that will move much more slowly than anticipated. This tied-up money could have gone to support smaller, more indie-friendly titles that don’t have to be discounted to sell – the bread ‘n’ butter of indie bookstores. We’re going into the busiest time of the year, the time when distributors are the only way to get hot books in time for the holidays. The last thing indie stores need is for those distributors to be unable to stock up on the mid-list and regional hits that are too small to be on the mass merchant’s radar, but which indie booksellers have carefully cultivated a demand for in their cities.

Distributors provide a valuable service to indies: centralizing the supply of small- and mid-size-press books and saving indies the expenses of time and money to place multiple small orders, often incurring individual shipping costs, and making the returning of any unsold books so much more cost-effective. $8.99 books threaten distributors immediately, and with them would go the ability of many indies to cost-effectively source the small, quirky, off-beat titles that we boast about providing to the reading public.

The $8.99 price tag may just be on a handful of the projected bestselling titles of the year, but the economics of publishing seem to suggest that the results of removing this much value from the industry could negatively affect the industry at all levels.

On the other hand, perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the extra margin indies sourcing their bestsellers from would receive will revitalize their stores, or that the money readers save buying their books for $8.99 will spur additional book purchases, growing the industry? I can’t fit the pieces together to make either sound convincing, but I hope others can.

The crazy thing is, after writing all that, I can’t say that on balance it would be a bad idea to cancel your publisher order and get the books $6 cheaper at or not. Margins are so low on books that those extra dollars on the top titles could keep some stores in business. It’s difficult to take the long view when you’re worried about meeting payroll each month.


Bob Miller at Harper Studio has a great post on the economics of a price war and considering the long-term industry impact of $10.00 books becoming the new norm.

Without meaning to, retailers spend a lot of time telling their customers to go elsewhere. This is an old problem, broadly excused/justified by the “can’t please everybody” manta. Recently, I’ve realized that technology is giving us new ways to be rude to potential customers. Last year I bought an iPhone; so I’m now one of those people who checks email quickly while I’m walking somewhere, am sitting stuck in traffic or while waiting for another family member to finish their transaction in a store. (If this is making you feel smug and superior, stop—there are many people who use their smart phone to multitask like this — more every day — and we’re all potential customers.)

eat read tweetWhat I notice through this iPhone’s iview of the world is that every time I come within range of a wireless router I see it on my phone. A window pops up to tell me the name of the wireless network and whether it’s open or locked. Essentially, every one of these windows is a popup ad for your store, an opportunity to get me inside your doors or create a positive impression for your business. If the window says “XYZ Store” and has the open network symbol, I have a good impression of that store planted in my mind or maybe I remember I wanted to buy something and go inside. If the network is locked, I get a negative impression of that store because I feel like this locked network message is essentially telling me to go away, and nobody likes to be told to go away. It feels like you don’t want my business. I know that’s not the intention, but nobody likes to be told to go away. I’m constantly multitasking through my phone (again, like so many of us these days) so I’m constantly seeing these go away messages from stores, and through repetition they make an impression and are making me less inclined to shop at some places.

Think about it this way: if you spend good money on branding and PR intended to build a positive impression of your business, but potential customers are being told to go away every time they walk by the store, you’re throwing your money away.

Another way we create poor impressions in the eyes of our customers is online, through an infrequently updated or slap-dash online presence. A MySpace site where the only new content is the random wall postings of teenagers suggest the store doesn’t care about the impression it creates, and makes you wonder what other corners it’s cutting? A Facebook site that hasn’t been updated in over a year, might make you wonder if the store is in trouble – anyone can find 3 minutes to update Facebook once a week. Opening hours that turn out to be inaccurate when you try to find the store are the kiss of death. A map or address info that is incorrect makes the store hard to find for people using their phones as a GPS, and tells them you really don’t care about the customer.

There are so many small things that create a bad impression and are so easily fixed that not to do so looks like complete laziness and indifference to the customer.

The physical environment of a store isn’t immune to turning off customers, too. Think about all those No signs: “No Cell Phones,” “No Food,” “No Unaccompanied Children” or “No Dogs Allowed.” We don’t like to be told no. We might not have a dog, be eating any food or be inclined to let our children out of our sight, but the sight of all those negative messages makes a bad impression.

With the holiday season coming up, take a few minutes to think about what your store’s layout, your wireless network (or lack thereof), and your online information says about your business. In a tight economy, nobody can afford to be seen as unfriendly towards families, dogs, online shoppers or anybody with a phone. If you’re sending out signals that these customers aren’t welcome, you aren’t going to have many customers left.

A few ideas how booksellers can combat negative messages:

  • If you have a wireless network that you cannot or prefer not to open for public use, make sure it does not have your business name on it.
  • If you can open your wireless network, do so, and use the network name to your advantage. Consider a message like: “Fresh coffee inside,” “We’re Dog Friendly,” “[bestseller of the day] Now Available Inside,” or  “Eat, Read, Tweet.” The network probably doesn’t extend much past the sidewalk in front of your store, so your business name is probably unnecessary.
  • If you don’t have a wireless network, invest in one. It’ll build goodwill and encourage people to linger longer in your store.
  • If you install or open your wireless, let people know. It’s one more service to the community, and  creates a positive impression, even among those who’ll never use it.
  • Take out your own phone (or an employee’s) and walk around your store. Any black spots? Move the router until you have optimum coverage.
  • Look at your Facebook, Indiebound or MySpace profiles. Make sure the store address, opening hours, and any other basic info is correct. Make sure there is an inviting, recent store photo.
  • If you have given up on Facebook, your blog or any other social network, add that fact to the page. Say you’re no longer updating it, and link to your store website. Customers who want to do business shouldn’t have to guess or search to find this info.
  • Look at all your signage. Does ‘no’ predominate? If so, rewrite everything in more positive terms. “No Cell Phones” becomes “For the comfort of those reading, please take all calls outside.” “No Food” becomes “Sticky fingers and books don’t mix. Please keep all food in the café/outside.” “No Dogs” becomes “Working dogs only.”
  • indieboundappExcessive rules and instructions make your store feel more like a school or institution, and most of us chaffed under those conditions as teenagers. Don’t evoke those feelings in your customers.
  • Download the Indiebound app (or ask a friend/employee with an iPhone to do so) and look at your store’s info. Thumb the address to bring up the map to your store. Is it correct? If not, correct the address. Make sure you know that any directions to your store posted online are correct and updated.
  • Not on Indiebound/Facebook/online? Most other bookstores are. You look out of touch and less professional in comparison.

The holidays are when many customers enter your store for the first time, or use your website for online ordering/information gathering. First impressions count, so take a few minutes to make sure your store and online presence creates the best first impression.

[This is the last in a series of posts about social media and bookselling — at least for the time being. You can read the original post, about the reasons indie retailers need to engage with their customers online and how to begin, here and second, about how social media needs to be personal and not corporate spin, here.]

Your personal and professional success is tied to your reputation. We may not realize it, but we live in a reputation economy. We may have qualifications and exams and grades and all the statistics and data you could ever want, but reputation trumps everything — that’s why we ask for (and call) references before hiring anyone.  Social media builds reputation (for good or ill). In fact, social media can enhance your reputation in ways it wasn’t possible to before.

You might be a book buyer at a medium-sized store in a moderate-size city. You sales reps might know you have an uncanny gift to pick the season’s great reads, your regulars might have a sense that they always find good books on display in your store, and your co-workers might think highly of your opinion, but while that’s a good reputation, it’s a very localized reputation, with very localized rewards.

No bullIn another scenario, you might buy books for your store, write a weekly column on great new books for the store’s email newsletter, post it on your store or personal blog, tweet about it, link to it on your (or your store’s Facebook page), but that would only be half the story. In this scenario, what you’ve been doing up to this point is broadcasting. Yes, your reviews and opinions are being seen by more people than in the first example, but they have no more weight than all the other reviews and opinions out there. You might be using some of the tools of social media, but you haven’t been using it to be social. This is broadcast, the old way of doing business, the media part of social media.

The social part starts when you enter into conversations sparked by your broadcasts. That’s why blogs have comments (if you turn them on). That’s why people get on Facebook or use Twitter. If you’re not exchanging opinions with people through these electronic forums, you’re not being social.

Social media means that at each step, you have the opportunity to enter into conversations with people interested in the books you’re recommending. This is no different to the conversations you might have in your store with customers, except that these are public conversations, taking place on Twitter, in blog comments or wall-to-wall on Facebook and thus they have the potential to influence far more people than you could before. Now, assuming your store has ecommerce, your recommendations will have the potential to bring sales to your store from outside your area.

Taking it one step further, if you regularly livetweet your events, you now have an additional reason for publicists to send their A-list authors to your store: your ability to inform and influence more than just the customers who walk through your doors. Assuming you are proactive in friending local people on Facebook, following locals on Twitter, and commenting on blogs you admire (both book- and locally focused — nobody likes a monomaniac, which is why this is my last social media post for a while) you’ll be introducing yourself and your store to new potential customers. Significantly, many of these local customers will be people who were exposed to your previous advertising and branding (your physical store and any old-media advertising/outreach you do locally) and were not converted.

When you think about it, you’re not necessarily having to write more than you already did to recommend books to your customers. You can take the same newsletter reviews, the same staff reviews you now write on bookmarks in the store, the same event copy you prepare for the event listings in your local paper, and use the tools of social media to get that writing in front of more people than before — leveraging benefiting from the ease of interaction and retransmission of info online to generate new conversations about those books/events with new customers.downout

So get online and enhance your reputation (and/or your store’s reputation) and bring in some extra sales.

Cory Doctorow did a lot to spread the idea of the reputation economy with his debut novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. If you could never, not ever, read a business book, you should check out Down and Out for the wealth of ideas about social networks and society (and it’s a fast, fun story, too).

[This is the second in a series of posts about social media and bookselling. The original post, about the reasons indie retailers need to engage with their customers online and how to begin, is here, and the third post, about the role of reputation in social media, is here.]

“It’s not personal, it’s business.” – Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), You’ve Got Mail

You've Got Mail

I happened to catch part of You’ve Got Mail the other day, and I was struck the contrasting attitude to business reflected in the two protagonists, corporate bookseller Joe Fox and feisty indie bookseller Kathleen Kelly. Naturally, I began to wonder what their views on social media would have been.

The crucial thing to understand about social media is the thing that prevents many people engaging in the first place: it’s personal. Some people consider blogs and social media to be all ego and self-aggrandizement and full of irrelevant personal detail. Social media appears to run counter to what colleges have taught generations of students: be professional, be impartial, leave your home life at the door — exactly the attitudes Joe Fox represents. What traditional business doesn’t understand is that it’s that personal connection that makes social media attractive to a growing number of people. We’re sick of slick, professional marketing that hammers its message relentlessly. We don’t trust it anymore.

In the offline world, we prefer to get our advice from friends, we call around if we need a plumber, a chimney sweep, or a carpenter. “Who installed your water heater?” “Were they good?” We can find testimonials on manufacturer’s websites and “real customers” are featured in ads on TV all the time, but we trust the advice of our friends over all the slick, focus-grouped advertising money can buy. It’s the same with book bloggers and booksellers. People come into your stores to talk to you about what’s new and what’s good — they want to talk with the Kathleen Kelly’s of the world.  Similarly, people return to blogs they like because those bloggers share something of their lives with their readers; their reviews and opinions take on more weight because the blogger has kids that interrupt her reading, just like you, or lost a whole shelf of favorite books when his pipes burst.  People can get more emotionally invested in the  connection when the blogger is also on Twitter/Facebook/Friendfeed/any-other-social-network and shares some of their daily travails and joys in real time.

Kathleen Kelly might have had an old-fashioned children’s bookstore, but she was clearly embracing new technology. If they remade Who’s Got Mail today, I’m sure Kathleen Kelly would have a kid-lit blog.

“What’s so wrong with being personal anyway?” – Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), You’ve Got Mail

[Background: I’m taking part in a panel on social media at the SIBA trade show next weekend. So this post is what I’d like to say about social media there and know I won’t (because I tend to ramble — stop laughing at the back — and panel discussions aren’t the place to give speeches, anyway). So here’s what I think about social media and the indie bookstore (at least this week).]

[Edit: There have been two follow-up posts with more social media musing. The first, about why social media should be personal is here, and the second, about the role of reputation in social media, is here.]

pdQ: Why do we need social media?
A: Our customer’s buy most of their books elsewhere!

Have you seen Paperback Dreams? (If not, I urge you to watch it!) When Kepler’s Books in San Francisco was in trouble, they discovered that their “best customers” only bought 25% of their books from them. Before you sneer and think reflexively that your store is doing so much better, consider that the average for indie bookstores is 40%. So even if your store is capturing the nationwide average, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Imagine the difference an extra 5 or 10 percentage would make to your bottom line.

My own realization that loyal customers were shopping online more than I thought came in 2005, on the Sunday after Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince came out. After church that morning dozens of people, teenagers and their moms, were holding, reading, caressing their brand-new copies. The main topic of conversation was not, however, the contents of the book, it was where they ordered it and how much they saved. People were bonding over their thriftiness. Now these were people I saw in the bookstore every week. Many were regular buyers. If they were seduced away by the savings on the biggest book of the year, I wondered, how many other times were they buying books elsewhere?

You don’t have to lose 50% of your business to be put at risk, you only have to lose 10% – 15% of your business to be put at risk.
— Michael Powell (in Paperback Dreams)

So there are your customers, browsing in your store, purchasing occasionally, and buying most of their books elsewhere (and increasingly online). How do you strengthen your bond with those customers and even bring new customers in? For me, the answer seems to be you need to go where your customers are and engage them, and that means online. The fact is customers are coming into our stores less often than before. They’re getting their book fix online: reading about books, talking about books and buying books. This is where social media can help booksellers.

How do we utilize social media?
crush itThere are many experts offering rules and guidelines for successful use of social media. My gurus are Chris Brogan and Gary Vaynerchuk; however, there’s no way I can copy them or follow their guidelines fully — but go read their blogs & watch their vlogs, they will really help you understand the world of social media. The thing to consider it this: Chris Brogan and GaryVee are building multiple brands, launching companies, writing books, etc. Social media is their work! I have two book industry jobs and do a bit of freelance graphic design on the side; for people like me (and you) social media is a set of tools to help me get my work done.

Here’s what works for me:

A year ago I thought a good blog should be updated daily (more than once a day for a really good blog — boingboing was my ideal). Since then I’ve begun a regular blog, joined Twitter, Facebook, Indiebound and several other online social networks (most using Ning), and I’ve learned something: social media is about being part of the conversation, not simply broadcasting your POV. If you participate daily, you can help shape the conversation and move it in directions that interest (and potentially benefit) you. If not, well it’ll move on just fine without you. To participate you don’t actually need your own blog — I think it’s better if you have a homepage, blog or store website to link back to because it’s a place for the conversation to continue and grow – but it’s not essential in order to get involved in the conversations you want to be involved in. The conversation (or uber-conversation if you prefer) takes place all over the world: in blogs, publisher websites, on twitter, at trade shows and any time two book-people get together.

There is not one central conversation to get involved with, so trick number one is to create a common identity across the platforms,  so that your persona, your online personality, is consistent and easily identifiable across the web. At a simple level, this can be achieved by using the same userID and avatar across platforms. At a more advanced level, there are two really interesting services/apps that facilitate this: Disqus & Glue.

dc-inlineDisqus aggregates your comments across blogs, and can be used to moderate comments on your own blog, essentially collecting all your blog conversations in one spot, and under one ID. Glue is a pop-up menu that tracks the books you view online and any ratings you give them (ditto for movies, music, and other things, but I’m talking about bookselling). It then shares your opinions with your friends when they in turn encounter these same books, and shows you what they thought of the same books and suggests other titles that they liked. Glue is brand new, and has real potential to  inform buying decisions on participating websites (including Indiebound) in real time. (I’ll try to go into more detail about these in a follow-up post.) Sign up now and you’ll have a chance to really understand how itGetGlueLogo can be used to help your business by the time it becomes the next Twitter or Digg.

Rich’s rule: Participate in the conversation everyday.

In business, you shouldn’t go to a meeting if you’ve got nothing to say. In school, you shouldn’t go to class if you aren’t ready to participate. In sports, you shouldn’t get on the pitch unless you’re prepared to play. Social media is no different. Don’t set your store up on Twitter, Facebook or with a blog if all you’re going to do is push info at people — just like on a date, nobody likes a guy who only talks about himself. You must be prepared to converse with your customers. Aim to have one conversation about books with at least one person online everyday. That’s through blog comments (on your own or someone else’s blog), via tweets, or wall-to-wall on Facebook.

I may not have the time to write a blog post daily, but I can tweet practically everyday — and do: 2800 tweets as of last Wednesday. That’s about 390,000 characters, or 40,000 words (40% of a novel or a complete screenplay, for comparison purposes). I’m a light Facebook user: I tend to only ‘friend’ family or real-world friends. I add a few books to my Indiebound wish-list during the course of the week (which are also effortlessly added to my Glue profile as I browse), comment on a few blogs as the inspiration arises (and as workload allows), and return innumerable emails daily. Even though everything isn’t book-focused (I chat with a large group of neighbors–mainly about a bear that’s been raiding our birdfeeders; parents at my kids’ school; and eclectic local twitterers) it is all participating in the realm of social media.

jetsThe point I’m trying to make here is that you can’t be afraid to be personal, to show some heart and share your individual interests and point of view: that’s what makes social media compelling. Gary Vaynerchuk nails this point in his book Crush It!; his success selling wine online isn’t something he’s achieved despite the fact he’s an opinionated guy from New Jersey who loves the New York Jets, he succeeds precisely because he’s an opinionated guy from New Jersey who loves the New York Jets! People can relate to him because he’s real, not some scrubbed and scripted spokesmodel. We’re done with the age of slick scripted drama; reality sells.

Twitter isn’t the be-all and end-all

I like Twitter. I tweet a lot. Twitter is probably the best medium for me because it forces me to be succinct and focus my message in 140 characters or fewer. But just because it works for me, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Gary Vaynerchuk’s medium is the vlog, the video blog. The thought of watching myself review books in a video makes my skin crawl — but I’m sure there are booksellers out there who could excel. It works for GaryVee (he built his family’s wine store into a $50million business!), but wouldn’t work for me. Other people love Facebook’s combination of status updates, games and lots of photos. Musicians bond and network through MySpace. Different mediums suit different personalities; play around with what’s out there before you reject social media as not for you.

Communal Communication

I had begun to notice that some of the things that used to be communicated over email are now being communicated through Facebook wall posts or tweets, when I came across a study that recently confirmed this. These previously private conversations are becoming  public, and this often increases the number of people involved and the impact of the conversations. (Compare the results if you were to send an email to your best friend from high school to ask if she is going to the reunion next month, versus if you left her a message on her Facebook wall. Chances are some of your (and her) listening earFacebook friends also went to your high school, and are interested in the reunion.) I think of this as akin to the way you handsell a book to one customer in the store, but several others are usually listening and sometimes buy the book, too. Some people seem to judge these overheard conversations as more trustworthy than if they asked you outright “What’s good right now?” (I suspect this may be a reaction to the way some booksellers (and not just at the chains) automatically respond with something that’s just out in hardcover – but I digress.)

For example, as I’ve struggled to understand the emerging role of ebooks over the past  year, I’ve blogged my imperfect understand and chatted with online friends who understand these things better on Twitter. Frequently, I’ll get into a conversation with one person about how the Sony Reader works or how ebooks need to be formatted, and will see other people joining the conversation, answering my questions, posing new ones or offering different points of view.

This is the core value of social media: bringing people together quickly and cheaply around points of shared interest.  Check out the #followreader hashtag for numerous examples of these conversations of interest to booksellers.

What’s the benefit to me/you?

Well, obviously there’s the personal satisfaction of having all these interesting conversations (if they’re not interesting you shouldn’t initiate or respond), there’s the wealth of information you gather during the course of these interactions that you can use in your job, and then there’s genuine opportunity to drive additional customers to your store. You can bring in customers from outside your geographic location who want to support you because you’re personally becoming an important part of their online world (note: another recent study suggests that Gen-Y considers their online friends to be more important, more ‘real,’ than their local friends – think about that!). You can get to know people who live nearby but never entered your store before, and bring them across the threshold. You can strengthen your bonds with existing customers who may then forgo the apparent savings at AMZN and buy more of their books from you. You’ll also discover interests that you never knew your customers had, and be able to adjust your stock to fill this demand — but only if you’re part of the conversation.


Directory of Book Trade People on Twitter

ABA Guide to Twitter (.pdf)

man booker logoThe Booker Prize is my favorite literary award. My annual goal is always to read the whole of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. I never achieve that goal, but then the purpose of goals like that is aspiration. Why do I have this reverence for the Booker when I don’t attach any special significance to any other book award? The answer is that the Booker is inextricably tied up with my personal ‘Golden Age’ of reading, the time I woke up to the joys of reading for more than simple distraction.

As background, you should know that in secondary school in Ireland I devoured every book about WWII and Vietnam I could find, dipped into the usual science-fiction & fantasy classics (2001, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) and regurgitated the accepted interpretations of The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea for my final exams. I wasn’t a particularly good English student, but I enjoyed stories. After graduation, lacking any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life and scratching the itch to travel, I moved to the north of England for college.

What I lacked in the way of intellectual stimulation from my classes (business and computers – it was the end of the 1980s, greed was good and computers were the thing to study) I found in the twin forces of the local WHSmith and The Late Show. Before you snigger too much, consider that I came from a small town without a bookstore. Discovering writers like Pynchon — then in the news with his ‘comeback’ novel Vineland — Eco and Rushdie, seemed to take the tropes of my escapist teenage reading and transform them into the social commentary of “real” literature.

bkofevidenceMy problem was that although I loved to read, I didn’t know a thing about “real” literature. I needed guidance and initially found it at WHSmith. I was an undiscriminating reader, devouring my share of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz novels, but the merchandising decisions of my local WHSmith – the only bookstore in town – introduced me to many new authors and impressed the importance of the Booker Prize on my mind. Cardboard displays of the shortlist (the first year I remember saw Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day pitted against Banville’s Book of Evidence and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, among others) looked terribly cool to my young self.

Having had the name ‘Booker Prize’ impressed on my mind, I then heard and saw it everywhere. Articles on the shortlist in the Sunday papers, editorial cartoon’s lamenting the “difficulty” of reading the Booker contenders and interviews with authors on The Late Show.

times arrowAt the time, the BBC was renowned for great arts programming, and I loved The Late Show, then hosted by future bestselling author Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus, Sacred Hearts) and future leader of Canada’s Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (who later authored a Booker-nominee, Scar Tissue). The Late Show made me aware of the contemporary arts scene, giving authors and poets the cultural cachet of the indie rock stars with whom they shared the stage. Mainly, I think it was all the Booker hoopla that caught my imagination: the betting, the breathless marketing copy, the front-of-store displays and the entertaining reviews in the papers. Amis’ Time’s Arrow, a book I read because of a fabulously rancorous debate over its merits on some arts show, blew me away (but I haven’t dared go back to see if it still does). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was required reading for anyone interested in the arts, and debating the fatwa, whether you’d read The Satanic Verses or not, was a never-ending conversation among politically awakening students of for a time.

qmWith the controversies (Was James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, an unreadable book? Was The Unconsoled a worthy follow-up to Remains of the Day?), the clever marketing and the consistently high quality of the books, the Booker was simply the most entertaining of literary prizes, and it still is. I’ll be online refreshing the Man Booker website to learn the shortlist on September 8, and I’m currently working my way through some of the long list (I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, but Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man is my favorite thus far.  Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is beautifully observed and written, but I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.).

Although I can no longer watch the BBC arts shows dissect the nominees, the blogosphere provides plenty of discussion and commentary. Below are some links to blogs where readers are also working their way through the longlist and some especially interesting interviews with the nominated authors.


The 2009 Longlist

Interview with Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man

Farm Lane Books Blog — reading her way through the longlist

@Suejustbooks – a bookseller who doesn’t blog, but tweets her impressions

Both Eyes Book Blog – has reviewed several of the contenders

Review of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn from the LA Times

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