Bookseller or Book Provider?

Today, the 5th annual Winter Institute is winding down in San Jose, California. The conference (Wi5 for short) is put on by the American Booksellers Association, and is an educational event that hosts “in-depth sessions, special events, provocative speakers, festive receptions, and much more.” Basically, it’s an opportunity for independent booksellers and publishers to chat about what works in the world of indie bookstores, what doesn’t, and what the future holds for the industry.

Although I wasn’t able to make it out to California this year, the plugged-in booksellers at the conference have been making it very easy to follow the events of Wi5. In addition to the handouts for the sessions posted on the ABA’s site, Shelf Awareness has been providing great coverage of the event, and attendees have been blogging about the conference and tweeting out using the #Wi5 hashtag.

One of the main things I see coming out the conference (along with chatter about e-books, excitement about upcoming titles and continued worries about the economy) is a definite split between old attitudes and new attitudes about bookselling. The newer attitudes about how to succeed as an independent store by selling using a store website and social media, connecting with the local community, hosting events and finding alternative business models give me plenty of hope that the small local bookstore will survive well into the future. Unfortunately, there are more than a few stores – even stores that are connected enough to be tweeting about Wi5 – that are trying to address a 21st century customer with a 20th century model.

There are stores that simply want to be book providers, and these stores are going to die. There are stores that want to sell books, and these stores are going to thrive.

For whatever reason, there are stores that think simply being there and having books on the shelf is enough. Benefiting by a location or simply longevity in a community, there is a business plan that seems to say “let’s just put books on the shelf, and our work is done.” Customer service? Nah, people just want to find a good book on their own. Handselling and making recommendations? Nope, a customer can find the right book because it is on a shelf in the store. Blogging, making videos, using social media? Too complicated, too time consuming, not enough PROOF of the efficacy. Selling books online? Amazon does it cheap, so let’s not even try to compete – we’ve already lost. Looking at a way to sell e-books? We’ll shut down before even trying something like that, those aren’t even books!

These might look like reasons to you, but they look like excuses to me.

To quote the great Roast Beef Kazenzakis(‘ shirt), what the hell, people?

I get it, change is hard. New things are scary. That doesn’t stop the fact that the way your customers socialize, buy books, and even read books is rapidly changing. And yes, Virginia, I mean all your customers. It is obvious that  the millennial generation is comfortable with technology and used to shopping and living online (PDF), but did you know that the average e-book buyer is 43? Even if technology was only changing the way that the next generation of customers reads, it would be important to adapt. The fact that the way everyone reads and shops is evolving makes reacting crucial to survival.

Shops in the business of selling books know this, and they are the ones that are weathering this change the best. The ABA is making it easy for independent bookstores to integrate e-book sales into their stores with their (newly improved) IndieCommerce program and IndieBound iPhone app. Booksellers like Green Apple Books are making great shelftalkers and recommendations in their store, and Vroman’s, Booksmith and The Regulator Bookshop are using video to sell books and get customers in their stores. Tweeting about a chili cookoff helped Fountain Bookstore get record-breaking attendance for an event. Facebook helped cut the marketing budget at Breathe Books, and Powell’s and Politics & Prose make serious sales on their online stores – even though they aren’t named Amazon. WORD and River Run have such packed event schedules that they are vital parts of their community calendars – and irreplaceable by a leviathan chain or big-box online store.

These bookstores have little in common on the face of things – some are large, some are tiny; some are in rural communities, some are in huge cities; some have big budgets, some have small. What they do have in common is  that they listen and adapt to give their customers what they want, and the have the agility to change granted by being independent.

People still like having a community store that reflects their tastes. Time and time again we’ve seen that personal recommendations and displays are more likely to sway someone on a book than a discount. It’s about the whole shebang – selection, service, and letting customers buy the book they want how they want it (digital or dead tree) and when they want it (online or in the store).

It takes more than just having the book. It’s about selling the book.

4 responses to “Bookseller or Book Provider?

  1. Great post, echoing some of what I said in this post (which I initially intended for my quasi-private tumblr feed, just venting some anger, but that I now think more people could stand to read). You said it much more eloquently and gently than I did.

    I’m not at Winter Institute this year, but following it on Twitter has been a disturbing experience for me. I sense that people are getting fatigued with technology. I hear more and more that “Twitter and Facebook don’t sell books” mentality. And when major publishers tell indies not to worry about digital issues and concentrate on selling physical books, well… I worry.

    As I said in my rant/post, ebooks are going to be a major part of the bookselling landscape in very short order. To once again abdicate a part of the market to “the big guys” is, for most stores, signing their own death warrants. And again, it’s not that all books are going to become e-only, but it won’t take much to push many stores over the ledge.

    All of this seems to me to be an extension of the strangely adversarial relationship to commerce that some indie booksellers have. As you put it, they don’t really want to sell books, they want to be around books. The trouble is that people already have a place to be around books, and that place is called a library. The further problem is that there is always going to be a segment of customers (likely a vocal one) that will encourage you to resist change. They’ll get mad at you for charging for events. They’ll mock your forays into selling non-book merchandise. They’ll encourage you to get back to doing what you do best (which, one presumes, is selling high-brow literary fiction and little else).

    The problem is that all of these alternative revenue streams are more important than ever. We have to start exploring new ways to bring in money because just selling books, for most of us, isn’t going to cut it. And some of that means educating our customers that we are, in fact, businesses and not non-profits or public institutions on the order of libraries. Maybe that means sending less emails appealing to people’s sense of charity and more that trumpet what we offer and why we offer it better than anyone else.

    I say all of this as someone who is about to leave the indie bookstore world. I’m leaving because I think there’s more for me to do elsewhere, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to see indies survive and thrive. I love independent bookstores. I’ve spent the entirety of what you might call my career working in them. I plan vacations around them. I think some of them will survive, some because they’re located in places that are just desperate to have a bookstore and have the population density and demographics to support one, and others because they are run by smart, competent business people. But others, I fear for them.

    Anyway, excellent post. It’s good to know I’m not the only person thinking these things.

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  3. A. Thanks for the WORD shoutout and

    B. If it makes you feel any better (Josh and Patrick), I think the mood at Wi5 was way more positive than #Wi5 has made people think. I couldn’t follow the hashtag as well as I would have liked because I was primarily using my phone, so I’m not sure exactly what was coming out of the conference that was a bummer (and you aren’t the only two who have mentioned it). But almost every conversation I had and bookseller I talked to was optimistic, if cautiously so at times. I think most of us walked away with ideas both big (looking into POD, Google Editions) and small (SEO hints, Drupal fixes) and can’t wait to overcome jetlag so we can get back to work. (The exception being that oft-dismaying “State of Trade Publishing” panel, about which the less said the better, because: wowza.)

    The sentence that has stayed with me for the last 48 hours was Daniel Pink’s assertion that doing the same thing incrementally better will not lead to success; only making large-scale leaps and changes will. That will be my 2010 mantra, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

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