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May 10 2012

The reinvention of the bookseller

This post originally appeared on Publishers Weekly.

Books Etc Victoria by markhillary, on FlickrIf you're a brick-and-mortar bookseller, does your blood pressure rise when you think about e-retailers and their deep discounts? Do you look at ebooks as a threat or an opportunity? Depending on how you answered those questions, you might need to ask yourself another one: What business are you really in?

If you're simply in the business of "selling books," I believe you're thinking too narrowly. Think of the story of the successful tools salesman who explained why he was able to sell so many drills: "My competitors sell the drill while I focus on selling the hole." In other words, he emphasizes the benefits while others are busy trying to sell a bunch of meaningless features.

What are the benefits you've successfully provided in the past? When I think of my local bookstore, some of the key benefits I see are personalized service and community. If I want to know more about a book I'm considering, I'd rather talk with a real person than simply trust a bunch of reviews on a website, especially if some of those reviews might be planted by the author or publisher. The main advantage a physical bookstore has over an online one is the in-person advice and support the former can offer.

A lesson from Apple

Despite the sluggish economy of the last few years, some brick-and-mortar retailers have found ways to grow their businesses. Apple is a terrific example. Regardless of whether you're an Apple fan, there's always something new and interesting to discover in an Apple store. I can't tell you the last time I felt that way about a bookstore. I'm not talking about eye candy or glitzy merchandising; when you enter an Apple store you know you're in for a treat.

Wouldn't it be awesome if customers entering your bookstore had that same feeling? I realize Apple can invest a lot in its store experience because it's selling higher-priced items, but maybe that means you need to look beyond simply selling $20 or $30 books. I'm not talking about adding stationery and toys, like some bookstores have done over the years. It's time to think much bigger.

These days most bookstores have some sort of coffee shop or snack bar. Years ago it was a brilliant move to add that dimension, as it helped turn bookstores into a hangout rather than just an in-and-out retail destination. If in-store coffee shops were the game-changing idea of the '90s, what's the new one for the current decade? Here's one possibility: an in-store self-publishing resource. Self-publishing is red-hot and still gaining momentum. But what's sorely lacking in the self-publishing world is a reliable place to go to ask all the questions. How do I get started? What's the best platform? How do I create a marketing campaign? Self-publishing enthusiasts are left with a slew of questionable online options and a few in-person events. Why not create an in-person self-publishing resource within your store?

Take a page out of Apple's playbook and create a Genius Bar service for customers interested in self-publishing. Establish your location as the place to go for help in navigating the self-publishing waters. Remember, too, that most of the income earned in self-publishing is tied to services, e.g., editing, cover design, proofreading, and not necessarily sales of the finished product. Consider partnering with an established expert in these areas or build your own network of providers. The critical point is to evolve your business into something more than just selling books.

This doesn't mean you need to invest in self-publishing equipment to enter the field, but it's interesting to hear from someone who has. I spoke about this with Chris Morrow, co-owner of Northshire Bookstore in Vermont, which has had an Espresso Book Machine for a number of years. According to Morrow:

"The Espresso machine has allowed us to create a self-publishing business and more. It has changed how customers view the bookstore. The self-publishing business is a complementary business that takes advantage of technological developments while being true to our mission."

If my self-publishing suggestion isn't the best option for your store, don't simply give up and assume you'll always have a future selling print books. It's clear to me that the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores will continue to decline; more specifically, the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores that mostly rely on selling print books will continue to decline. Bookstores have always been a source of inspiration and an important community resource for their customers. Think about your own store's unique attributes and how they could be extended as print sales decline. If you go about it the right way, the digital reading revolution won't be a threat but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconceive your business.

Photo: "Books Etc Victoria" by markhillary, on Flickr

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November 28 2011

How Twitter helps a small bookstore thrive

Omnivore Books in San Francisco looks like a traditional bookstore. Opened three years ago in a former butcher shop, the small, bright room is stocked floor to ceiling with new and vintage cookbooks. Locals and tourists come by to browse, or they're on a mission to buy the latest installment of Canal House or Lucky Peach. The proprietor, Celia Sack, is the person most often behind the counter.

Sack is also the person behind @OmnivoreBooks tweets like:

Omnivore Books tweet 1

And:

Omnivore Books tweet 2

Sack, who has been in retail for years (she and her partner opened Noe Valley Pet next door to Omnivore in 1999), believes that integrating her personality into the shop is a key part of its success. For the store's Twitter account, she follows this rule: one third personal, two thirds professional. "You don't want people to feel marketed to all the time," she said. "It's so important that I'm the face of the store — and that's important digitally, too."

So, while the majority of her tweets are, in fact, about store business — particularly the author events she holds almost nightly — her personality tends to come through in those posts, too:

Omnivore Books tweet 3

And:

Omnivore Books tweet 4


And:

Omnivore Books tweet 5

The Omnivore Books account has more 7,000 unusually enthusiastic followers, and Sack says that people who come into the shop commonly introduce themselves by their Twitter handles. Often, they have stories that relate to something she posted, and though she's careful not to divulge too much personal information, she readily shares enough of her sensibility that, as she puts it, "people feel warm and loyal."

Interestingly, connecting with customers isn't what Sack considers the biggest benefit of Twitter. When she opened the store in November 2008, she knew she wanted to hold a lot of author events. She figured she could build on her small circle of food-world connections to draw in speakers — chef Traci des Jardins (@chef_traci), for example, is a long-time friend. Plus, Sack could reach out to publishers who might be sending their authors on book tours. The first part of the strategy worked; the second part, not so much.

"Early on, I really wanted to have Flo Braker speak here, and I kept trying through the publisher," Sack said. "They'd repeatedly say, 'We're trying to reach her,' but nothing would happen. And then Flo contacted me and said, 'I'd love to speak at your store.' Of course, she hadn't heard a word from the publisher." Sack started to think that contacting authors directly would be a better way to go, but they weren't always easy to find.

Then, in April 2009, a friend introduced Sack to Twitter. Sack took to it right away. She enjoyed the brevity, she liked posting observations from the store, and it fit with the intermittently busy-slow rhythm of retail. And here's something special: Sack is not at all technical; she didn't then and doesn't now own a cell phone. (She tweets from the store's desktop computer.)


The Twitter Book — Omnivore Books (@OmnivoreBooks) is one of dozens of accounts whose tweets are used as examples in the fully updated "Twitter Book, Second Edition."

Although Twitter was Sack's "only technological milieu," it didn't take her long to figure out that she could use it to connect with other people. Food writer David Lebovitz (@davidlebovitz) was an early inspiration. "I wrote him [an @Message] and said, 'I know you don't have a book now, but if you're ever in SF, I'd love to have you come give a talk." He responded enthusiastically, and the proverbial light bulb went off for Sack.

She began using Twitter to reach out to authors directly — whether they had books coming out or not (she included her email address so they could follow up easily). The outreach had two big benefits. First, authors would turn around and tell their publishers about Omnivore Books, which put the shop on the map. Cookbook publishers now routinely contact her (though Sack notes that it's important for her to maintain a personal relationship with authors, in part because there's a lot of turnover among publishing house publicists). Second, when she wrote to authors — Dorie Greenspan (@doriegreenspan), for example — people who followed them both would see the notes and chime in with comments about how great Omnivore is for readings. "Having that backup is powerful," said Sack.

Sack wins over customers and authors alike with her idiosyncratic voice (I was surprised to learn that people ask all the time if she writes the store's tweets; who could you pay to use the hashtag #BadLesbian in reference to yourself?). She emphasizes the importance of putting your personality into it and being interesting because that's who you are, not because you want to draw followers for the sake of a higher number. And she adds, "The strategy is to make people feel included not excluded, to make them feel part of your world."

She recalls a recent example: A guy planned to surprise his girlfriend with a marriage proposal in the store. Sack was nervous but excited and live-tweeted the episode, beat by beat. Her followers were riveted. "Tweeting about it was personal and spontaneous, and I happened to take out my camera — and it worked! I showed the couple all the responses. 'Congrats from London.' 'Crying at our desks in Chicago.' They were so overwhelmed. It was totally fun." Later, she mentioned to me that she'd picked up 100 new followers that day.

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