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.