Friday, July 28, 2006

Guest Blogger: Response to Dave about ABA and Book Sense

At my request, HarperCollins VP for Independent Retailing Carl Lennertz has agreed to guest blog today. The opinions expressed here are his. Register your agreement, disagreement or further thoughts on this subject in the comments. Let's continue the conversation.

Response to Dave about ABA and Book Sense

Dave makes some thoughtful, reasoned comments about his concerns about ABA and Book Sense. Full disclosure: I worked at ABA for 4 years on the Book Sense project.

I’m not going to go point for point on the ABA issues; my brief was solely Book Sense. All I want to say is that I bet the hardware, video and music stores wish they had such a strong association, especially the past 10 years, and that the ABA has been a very strong voice in Washington, DC for the independents. As for the value of education, the Thursday before BEA starts has been the single most important day of the year for booksellers to share ideas the past 25 years. Every innovation in the business has been introduced on that day, to the benefit of all booksellers. I do find that booksellers who don’t value that day are the ones that didn’t attend, to their great detriment. Ditto the ABA Winter Institute this past January: The booksellers who were there learned so much and gave each other such an energy boost. It is so important for booksellers to come together to feel a part of something bigger and not feel isolated in their towns. That notion of a collective and of a collective power is at the root of Book Sense and of the independents remaining a player in bookselling and publishing.

Which brings me to my first real beef with Dave’s perspective. Jumping ahead a bit, his comment about the part of BookSense.com that forces him to promote other stores is very telling. He says he doesn’t even promote the store in the next town. That’s a real shame, because together, he and his neighbor could leverage their proximity into a greater voice in the area, recommending customers to each other and bringing more authors to the area. In fact, NYC is the last remaining city in the land in which the indie booksellers don’t work or converse together. All the stores in Boston, DC, San Francisco and Seattle – to name the 4 other cities with the greatest concentration of indies – have worked together for years to make each other stronger.

And here’s the key point: They did this without any loss of individual identity. They only became stronger in concert with each other.

And that’s at the core of Book Sense. Having a voice on the national stage – with the publishers, authors, the media, and readers and book buyers – without sacrificing a shred of individual or local identity. There is power in #’s; there is a loss of power if stores stay on their islands.


The Book Sense Picks and Bestseller List put the indies back on the map in the halls of publishing. It gave the indies a tangible measuring stick that everyone from a marketing VP to a publicity assistant could use every single day. Before Book Sense, each store was seen as a single identity that just couldn’t match up to the collective power of any chain.

And the beauty of it all is that it wasn’t some artifice laid on top of the stores; they were organic programs that got all their strength and information from them. The Book Sense Pick program is just a national staff picks section. And once gathered, the information and the message went back out to the stores – so they could discover books they may have missed. And the bestseller list gave every store invaluable knowledge about books that were taking off elsewhere. AND the Pick and Bestseller news went to the publishers – who could now put indies back into the sales & marketing discussion every day; to the authors – who were thrilled to appear as a Book Sense Pick or on the local or national list; and to the media – who had been in love with calling indies beleaguered, dying, Mom & Pop dinosaurs, and overnight, began writing about the resurgence of the indies. And all because Book Sense just gave the stores a way to pool their resources and report on the things they were doing in their own stores every day. But now they had a national voice. AND that national spotlight only shone a light back on every store’s individuality.

I could ramble on some more, going point for point with Dave. And will be happy to over the coming days and weeks if he’d like. He seems like a really smart guy. I just wish he’d share some of his smarts with his fellow booksellers to the benefit of the greater good AND his own business.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Comment: Check in Tomorrow...

In response to my request, Carl Lennertz of HarperCollins and the blog Publishing Insider (whom I know to be a longtime advocate of BookSense) has written a response to guest blogger Dave's comments from July 14. Look for his comments here tomorrow, along with your chance to jump into the conversation about the American Booksellers Association. Things may heat up again around here, so don't miss it!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Comment: Summer Vacation

Man, I couldn't even get on Blogger yesterday to tell everyone that I couldn't post. Sorry -- I blame the Internet. Or my ancient computer.

But here I am today to tell you that I'm taking a break. I'm going to be out of town quite a bit in the next two weeks, and I'm feeling that late-July exhaustion. I need to step away from the computer for a little while, let some ideas percolate, spend some time with books and family, refresh and recharge for the energy surge of the fall.

I may be able to offer you the words of a guest blogger in the meantime: Carl Lennertz of the blog Publishing Insider has agreed to write a post in defense of Booksense, so we can continue the ABA conversation from another angle. If his busy schedule allows it, you should see that post here sometime later this week.

And I'll be back on August 7, fresh with news about bookstore visits, plans for the future, and that ever-interesting question "what did you read on the plane?" Hope you all have a lovely two weeks -- I'm off on vacation!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reviews #28 and #29: The Chattering Classes

Book Review #28:
Conversations with Mr. Prain
by Joan Taylor
Melville House (June 2006)

Book Review #29:
The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology
Edited by David Plotz, Introduction by Jacob Weisberg, Foreword by Michael Kinsley
Atlas Books (June 2006)


In typical fashion, I've managed to find a theme in the two totally disparate books I've read most recently: they're both about people who love to talk. In the first, a fictional twosome from opposite sides of the track exemplify talk as battle of wills (and method of foreplay); in the second, members of the digital intelligentsia spout opinions about every issue of the last ten years, making for a lot of conversation for the folks at home. (And for once, both books are actually already available in bookstores.)

CONVERSATIONS WITH MR. PRAIN was actually the first book I received through the auspices of Fresh Eyes Now, Robert Gray's project for linking authors with booksellers. His strength is that he knows what we all read and like, to one degree or another, so I was well-disposed to like this book knowing that he sent it with my tastes in mind.

I gotta admit, however, that for the first half I kept the book at arm's length. The unnamed heroine and narrator, a bohemian New Zealander ex-pat running a small bookshop in London, reminded me a little too much of the aspiring writers I knew from the high school literary magazine or the NYU English department: full of ill-understood, nuance-less ideals of "not selling out," convinced of their own brilliance if only the world could understand them, etc. Maybe to some degree that kind of mindset is necessary for the ego-bruising work of being a writer (and maybe that's why I'm not one), but I found myself rolling my eyes a little bit. Then again, to capture that kind of person could be a writerly triumph (assuming, of course, that it's not mostly autobiographical, and Joan Taylor herself is the voice behind our heroine). I got so annoyed at one point that I folded down the page on a quotation I thought unwittingly described the book itself:

"Like the reader of a bad novel, who laments the time it takes to get to the end and cannot put the book down because the barbed bait of the promise of answers drags the reader on through the plot after one bite, so I, uncomfortable as I was, remained where I was."

Hmm… barbed bait, though, that's a pretty nice alliterative image. There are totally flashes of brilliance throughout this book, and enough suspense that it really is irresistible to keep reading.

Oh yeah, the plot: so our Green heroine starts chatting with a regular customer, a slightly formal older gentleman who is a good conversationalist about art and literature – one of the joys of being a bookseller, as I can vouch, though I've pretty much always kept things firmly on this side of the line which our heroine quickly crosses. Eventually Mr. Prain (the middle-aged interlocutor, of course) reveals that he is in fact a well-known publisher, and asks to see a sample of Greenie's work. Nervously she puts together a portfolio, and in the course of time Mr. Prain suggests that she come out for tea at his country house to discuss her work without the distractions of the bookstall.

Now, it seems obvious what is about to happen: Mr. Prain talks young hot bohemian writer girl into some sort of sexual situation in exchange for publishing her work. As the conversation at the country house, fraught with sexual tension (and misunderstandings about publishers and writers, I feel) drags on, this seems obvious. But wait! There's a sultry French "housekeeper," a house full of unusual postmodern sculpture, a gardener who has his suspicions, and an incriminating photograph of our heroine from years earlier. The plot thickens – and the satisfaction increases. The encounter with Mr. Prain turns out to have much different contours than expected, and Taylor manipulates the reader's expectations skillfully. There is sex, and more than one pronouncement about our heroine's writing skill, and an unusual proposition… but the story kept surprising me right up until the end. Some of it I found a little unbelievable, but what's an English country house mystery without a touch of contrivance to make things fit together like a good puzzle?

The bulk of the novel, of course, is taken up with the conversations between the two warring/wary/fascinated protagonists, and again, I feel there are moments of brilliance and self-awareness among a fair amount of tripe. The dichotomy between the pure and noble writer and the greedy commerce-driven publisher, which the heroine seems to believe in, is belied by Mr. Prain's equivocal but ultimately honest pronouncements; when she says she hasn't done more drafts and corrections of her novel manuscript because "it wastes too much paper," he laughs and we laugh with him. I found that some of her assumptions made me angry enough to start talking about them myself (to the luckless ALP, of course), which is some measure of the novel's success.

Overall, I feel this is a novel that rises above its supposed protagonist, and one that has all the pleasures of a psychological thriller with enough intellectual cachet to get one thinking, if not to make any final pronouncements. Mr. Gray was right after all, of course, and this one made it onto our Staff Picks table, if only because it is both gripping and worth grappling with.

***

The Slate anthology from Atlas Books had its own set of preconceived notions to overcome. I admit I haven't ever read the online magazine enough to have strong opinions about it (I usually find articles there through blog links, and always think "Oh yeah, I forgot this was here), though of course the article earlier this year about the irrelevance of independent bookstores got my dander up, if you'll recall (see my May 24 post, which I can't seem to link to). But when I told people what I was reading I received equal parts interested noises and groans.

The main objections to Slate seemed to be the same things Slate editor Jacob Weisberg touts as strengths in his introduction: the "clubbiness" of Slate writers and readers, the methods of writing "Slate-y" articles, especially "make the contrarian case that all the common assumptions about a subject are simply and hopelessly wrong." And I admit, there is some snarking and unnecessary contrarianism in this book, as is probably inevitable with a stable of young(ish), overeducated, irony-soaked, hipsters and counter-hipsters.

But I also found this one of the most engaging and enjoyable reads I've had in a long time. I'm a big fan of the essay collection genre myself – I have a short attention span for nonfiction but a regular appetite for it, so the small bites and variety of a collection is perfect for me. I took this book with me on a 4th of July weekend getaway, and a lot of the topics I was reading about found their way into conversation with my fellow smarty-pants vacationers.

Reading this collection is a brilliant way to work through a lot of the topics, serious and banal, that have preoccupied us over the last ten years: the gay Teletubby, Che Guevara, the 2000 election, mood-altering drugs like Paxil, soccer and nationalism, the World Trade Center, low-rise pants, Martha Stewart, Bush's intelligence or lack thereof, Michael Moore, Hurricane Katrina, etc. Whether you agree or disagree with the authors on their chosen subjects, their cases are always engagingly and wittily made, and it’s a pleasure to argue with them.

And maybe the most fun are the articles about subjects that aren't really part of the national debate, but of more small scale and quirky interest: food writer Jeffrey Steingarten's struggle to get over his food aversions, surgeon Atul Gawande's study of whether more accidents happen on Friday the 13th, Mike Steinberger's quest to learn how to spit wine correctly at those tastings, William Saletan on human-animal relations (no, really…), Josh Levin on how gangsta rappers and geeky bloggers really do have a lot in common, Edmund Levin on the recipe for Proust's madeleine, as well as articles on whether men should have to watch their wives give birth and whether you should allow your baby to sleep in your bed.

Obviously, it's a collection like a box of chocolates, with some new flavor to engage in every piece (and since they're all only three to five pages long, it's easy to consume several in one sitting). It is in some ways a clubby, elitist collection as well, and it's one of those books that makes you aware of that; but isn't all reading, all conversation, to some degree a luxury? I feel lucky to have the luxury, and grateful for all the contrarian folks at Slate (and the prescient folks at Atlas) who have sparked the conversations. For cocktail party tidbits or just a way to wake up your brain from its July torpor, this one is highly recommended.

Now get off the computer and start talking.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Link-Mad Monday, July 17: Community, Baby!

The theme of today's link madness is community, in all its forms: neighborhood community, internet community, bookstore community, etc. As you may have noticed, this is one of my primary passions and one of the reasons I'm such a nerd about this independent bookstore thing. I think people coming together voluntarily, or being thrown together because of propinquity or common interests, or forming coalitions, or learning each others' names, or supporting each others projects, or learning from each other... well, it's just so darn cool.

Yesterday I went to my first-ever political rally: the gathering sponsored by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn to protest the crazy development project for the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards (remember, the reason they tore down the Underberg...) The New York Times has this article about the event. For a more exciting, if much more partisan view (with pictures), here's the website of Develop Don't Destroy. The main contentions of the protesters (who included Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, our fiery senator Letitia James, Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, and some actual reverends, business owners, politicians, and other citizens) are that 1) the project has gone through without sufficient community approval; 2) the planned 16 skyscrapers and gigantic arena will create enormous population density, traffic congestion, and other problems that will change the character of all the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods for the worse; 3) there are much better ways to achieve the "more jobs" and "affordable housing" that developer Bruce Ratner touts as the benefits of the plan.

I won't bore you with all the details, but it was an inspiring day. Brooklyn is a place that a lot of people are passionate about. (I, for one, am super excited that the Hotel ABA will be in Brooklyn for the Book Expo in New York in June -- I can't wait to welcome my fellow booksellers to our city, and they're gonna love it!)

The ALP just sent me the link to this wonderful project by Anthony LaSala and Seth Kushner, The Brooklynites, a photo/essay collection of Brooklynites famous and anonymous, with their thoughts about their city. It demonstrates some of the reasons why this place is so wonderful, and so worth -- well, not preserving, because it's far from stagnant, but maintaining and developing as one place in the world with a character so powerful that change will have to come from the Brooklynites themselves, because corporate forces and homogenization just can't get a foothold. As Bogart puts it in CASABLANCA, "There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade." Is it any wonder I want to open my store here? Go Brooklyn, and hooray for neighborhood community!

* * *

The Litblog Co-Op, another fabulous conglomeration of like-minded individuals with a common goal (in this case, promoting great under-marketed books), has kicked off its summer activities. The Summer Read This! selection has been chosen: MICHAEL MARTONE by Michael Martone (published by Fiction Collective 2). It's a playful fictional autobiography, and Dan Green of The Reading Experience blog gives it an insightful preliminary review today. The following weeks will see more discussion of the book with Co-Op members -- it's like a book club with your most literary friends.

I've been meaning to do a blogroll of the "leading literary weblogs" involved in the LBC for some time, so here they are, with annotation if I know anything about them. Some of these blogs are new to me, but you can bet I'll be reading them more in future, since they're now part of my community. Here, then, are the participating weblogs (it's a long list, so you can come back to it later if you want).

Bookdwarf - Megan is a bookseller at the Harvard bookstore in Cambridge, and as I can vouch, a great reader and an all-around cool person. She sometimes participates in one-on-one online book conversations with Ed Champion of Return of the Reluctant.

Booksquare - "News and Views for Authors"

Conversational Reading - Scott Esposito's Friday columns are some of my favorite writing about books on the web.

Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant - Edward Champion is the alter ego of Bat Segundo, who is the host of a wildly popular podcast show, and both are among the snarkiest characters in the literary blogosphere. But since he has (mostly) amazing taste, a stellar line up of books and authors, and a wickedly clever writing style, I'm inclined to cut him a bit of slack... and it's often irresistable to read what he'll skewer next.

Elegant Variation - Mark Sarvas writes one of the longest-running litblogs on the web.

Emerging Writers Network - Dan Wickett is a born mentor -- his blog is aimed at reaching and promoting, well, emerging writers, and he's been awfully nice to your Book Nerd as well.

Fernham - I admit I haven't read this Jersey girl's blog much yet, but as she's a fellow Virginia Woolf fan I suspect I will...

Golden Rule Jones - Chicago-based literary news

Literary Kicks - Levi Asher is one of my fellow new inductees to the LBC.

Literary Saloon - an amazing site with book news from all over the world; this is where I got my info on the Orhan Pamuk case

Moorish Girl - Laila Lalami is one of the first bloggers to break into print with her recently published novel HOPE AND OTHER DANGEROUS PURSUITS (Algonquin Books)

OGIC - Courtesy of Arts Journal: About Last Night - Terry Teachout writes the blog affiliated with Arts Journal, focusing on the arts in New York City

Pinky's Paperhaus - Carolyn Kellog is another LBC frosh, with a blog focused on podcasting and Pittsburgh

Rake's Progress - brand new to me; based in Denver.

Shaken & Stirred - the fabulous Gwenda Bond, who occasionally graces this blog with her comments

Slushpile - Scott McKenzie, another newbie, whom I met at the LBC party before either of us were in the LBC... his blog is focused on writers and the publishing industry

Syntax of Things - new to me too, but Jeff (the blogger) and his wife just had a baby yesterday -- cool!

The Happy Booker - Wendi Kaufman has the best blog name ever.

The Millions (A Blog About Books) - You've heard my admiration for C. Max Magee, who tends to focus on internet issues and books (Amazon, Google, etc.), with a lot of reviews and other links.

The Mumpsimus - or maybe Matthew Cheney has the best blog name ever...

The Reading Experience - the aforementioned Dan Green, who nominated the winning Read This! title for the summer.

The Written Nerd - Hi, you're here!

Tingle Alley - cool pictures, though no new posts in a while...


***

And finally, if you haven't gotten a chance to post your comments on Friday's guest blog post "My Gripe With The ABA" by bookseller Dave from New Jersey and the subsequent comments, do it now! The post sparked a fascinating conversation between Dave and Andy Laties of Rebel Bookseller fame about the potential for change within the American Booksellers Association, the benefits and drawbacks of membership, and the importance of community between booksellers. I suspect many of you have thoughts on the subject, whether you're staunch supporters of BookSense or have your own dissatisfactions, and I'd love to hear from you about any of the points Dave or Andy raise. If you're not an ABA member or would like more information, go the the ABA website and see what they offer.

In the next week or so, I plan to feature another guest blogger who will make the case for the ABA and BookSense. Keep an eye out for that rebuttal, and get in the discussion now! You readers of this blog are yourselves a community, in a way, of folks interested in issues in the book industry (or just friends of mine who read out of pity, I suppose). Whether you're a bookseller, publisher, ABA board member, or book buyer, your thoughts matter, and can ultimately create change. Thank you for being one of my beloved communities. What other communities are you grateful to be part of?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Guest Blogger: My Gripe With The ABA

In response to my challenge, bookstore owner Dave in New Jersey has agreed to guest blog today. The opinions expressed here are his. Register your agreement, disagreement or further thoughts on this subject in the comments. Let's get a conversation going.

My Gripe With The ABA

WHAT IS THE ABA?
The American Booksellers' Assocaition, Inc. (the ABA) describes itself on its website as "a not-for-profit organization devoted to meeting the needs of its core members of independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations through (a) advocacy, (b) education, (c) research, and (d) information dissemination". That sounds pretty darned good! This description is consistent with virtually all of the marketing and communication the ABA presents to the independent bookseller community. The bold/italics are mine. I use them to point out why I joined the ABA in February 2005, just a couple of months after opening my store.

The ABA's by-laws (a binding legal document) state that "the purposes of the Association...include, but are not limited to, professional advancement, education, and advocacy on behalf of professional booksellers, such as the following: (1) serving as the voice of professional independent booksellers and advocating on their behalf; (2) providing professional independent booksellers with access to the information and services they require; (3) providing opportunities for peer interaction; and (4) promulgating policies and conducting activities for the betterment of all those individuals and firms involved in aspects of the professional independent bookselling industry. The bold/italics are, again, mine. I use them to point out the verbage in the by-laws that provide the legal basis for the ABA to serve constituencies other than "its core member of independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations".

SO WHAT'S DAVE'S GRIPE (IN 100 WORDS OR LESS)?

While the ABA would like us to believe that it is "devoted to meeting the needs of... independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations", its actions suggest otherwise. In fact, an ABA membership is probably not a worthwhile investment for most independent bookstores with retail storefront locations.

WHAT DOES AN ABA MEMBERSHIP COST?

That's a damn good question. The annual cost of an ABA membership is based upon sales. The minimum annual cost is $350. That's for first year members, and for stores doing less than $50K annually. A store doing $250K pays $535.

WHAT VALUE DOES AN ABA MEMBERSHIP PROVIDE?

Fortunately for us, we don't have to argue about the benefits that member receive...because the ABA has listed them for us at http://www.bookweb.org/join/422.html! So let's get started...in the order listed by ABA....

1. "For new ABA bookstore members, we will pay regional bookseller association dues for one year."
Okay, annual dues for NAIBA are $75. This is somewhat offset by the one-time sign-up fee of $25 for all new ABA members. So what you have is a one-time $50 savings.
2. "Low-Cost Group Programs. All ABA members have access to a wide range of business management services which include: LIBRIS Casualty and Property Insurance, Bank of America Credit Card Processing, FedEx Small Shipment Freight Program, and other services. The savings you may realize from these business services can substantially offset your ABA membership dues. You can't lose when you take advantage of these programs and choose ABA as a partner!"
When I joined the ABA, I looked into all of these opportunities. The good news is that these programs really exist. The bad news is that you can often get better prices (and service!) at other suppliers...or even THESE suppliers. The really, really bad news is that you could actually end up paying substantially MORE than you should be paying for some of these services! Take the BOA credit card processing. How can the ABA possibly recommend that program with a straight face?! That program alone would create about $500 annually in additional EXPENSE for every $100K in credit card sales! So how do we value these programs? What would you pay for a partial list of service providers and suppliers that does NOT represent the best value out there? ZERO!! (Actually, less than zero, but let's move on...)
3. "ABA Book Buyer's Handbook. Updated on an on-going basis online. Available only to ABA members, the Book Buyer's Handbook features publishers' discount schedules, returns policies, trade terms, and more."
We should take a vote on what this thing is worth. I'd give you $20...tops.
4. "Timely News and Information. Get breaking news via Bookselling This Week Online delivered directly via e-mail.
Try Shelf Awareness...it's better and it's free. And if I really want Bookselling This Week Online, I can access THAT for free at http://news.bookweb.org/ This is worth ZERO.
5. "Members' Web Site. You'll find a wealth of information and resources on our Web site http://www.bookweb.org/ <./">http://www.bookweb.org>./ Network with other booksellers by using our Idea Exchange or ask ABA a question."
The Idea Exchange at the ABA website has value. In my opinion, you really can't underestimate the value of talking with other booksellers. So what should a subscription to a great message board cost? $5 annually? Let's call it $25 just to make sure.
6. "National Marketing Program. BOOK SENSE--Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds -- is an integrated national marketing program developed by ABA to strengthen the competitive position of independent storefront booksellers. More than 1,200 bookstores in 50 states participate in, and take advantage of, a national advertising campaign, national gift certificates, and two consumer book reference lists that have captured the attention of publishers and the press: the Book Sense Picks: Independent Bookseller Recommendations List and the Book Sense Bestseller List. The Book Sense marketing program is free to ABA members that meet certain criteria. BookSense.com: Member stores with Book Sense have the option of offering their customers a dynamic e-commerce service through the capabilities of http://www.booksense.com/ <,/">http://www.booksense.com>,/ which has been especially designed for independent bookstores. Each bookstore has its own Web site, supported by BookSense.com, which offers the consumer all the services required for a pleasant and efficient experience shopping for buying books online."
Aaah, Booksense...where can I even begin? Whenever I hear the words "Booksense" and "independent" in the same sentence, I think of Monty Python's "Life Of Brian". There's a scene where Brian is exhorting the crowd to think for themselves and be individuals..and the zombied crowd responds by chanting in unison, "Yes, we are all individuals." I don't want to bore you, so I'll sum up the biggest reasons for my disgust in Booksense for you as quickly as possible. (I'll assume that readers are familiar with this program).

First, bookstores cannot fulfill their obligation to Booksense without promoting the Booksense.com website. The Cards, the lists, the newsletters...it's all over them. This is all fine and dandy if you want to be part of the Booksense.com program. But what if you don't? Do you advertise for Amazon in your store? Hell, I don't advertise for the guy with the bookstore in the next town...and I like that guy!!

Second, the Booksense.com program itself is seriously flawed. The web presentation sucks. The technology sucks. And the service itself costs MUCH more than competitors (yes, there's a separate fee for Booksense.com). In fact, Booksense itself can't seem to figure out what the benefits of the program are. When it was first introduced, it was supposed to generate internet sales for participants. In the last year, Booksense has repositioned it as more of a marketing tool (why? because the sales never happened). Yes, it's working for a few (VERY few) bookstores, but if you feel a need to be on the internet (and it certainly might make sense for your store), this is probably your WORST choice.

So let's see...if I "take advantage" of Booksense.com, I overpay for an inferior website. And if I want to support independents via Booksense participation, but don't want to pay for Booksense.com, I have to direct my customers to my competitors' internet site! So far, Booksense is worth ZERO!

Of course, there's the infamous white box. I think Romeo said it best....junk mail by any other name...

7. "Educational Opportunities <.">http://www.bookweb.org/orgs/>. Throughout the year, and culminating at the annual ABA convention held in conjunction with BookExpo America <,">http://www.bookweb.org/aba/convention/>, ABA offers educational programming that will help you be a better bookseller and a better businessperson. ABA holds the Winter Institute <">http://www.bookweb.org/education/institute/> -- an education event in January free to ABA member booksellers. Every Spring, ABA also offers education sessions at its Spring Forums. Every Fall, in conjunction with the regional bookseller associations, ABA sponsors a series of educational programs at each show."
(Full disclosure: I never attended one of these programs).

The Winter Institute is free. If you want to pay the airfare, you get two days of education/comraderie/information. Hard to put a price on this. Bookselling is a tough business. The ABA should be doing free education constantly. It should be held in locations all over the country. It should be available on-line. That's what a "strong" organization would be doing.
8. "Networking Opportunities <.">http://www.bookweb.org/orgs/>. The annual ABA Convention, held in conjunction with BookExpo America, a preeminent international event in the world of books, provides a unique opportunity to network with your colleagues, as well as attend panels, workshops, and roundtables focusing on the latest industry developments. ABA sponsors
"Hotel ABA," an exclusive hotel for ABA member booksellers attending BEA. ABA also holds special events and sends Board members and staff around the country to provide a forum for booksellers to network and speak their minds."
Networking opportunities are important and valuable. But is this something that booksellers need to pay for? I mean, booksellers simply FIND eachother at the BEA with or without the ABA...(usually, it's the seventeen people closest to the alcohol). Hey, W.N., how much did you charge people to attend that networking opportunity in Brooklyn back in June (sorry I missed it...had a vacation coming up and had to get a bunch of stuff done)? You charged ZERO as far as I know.
Our total value so far...$95 in the first year ($45 thereafter) plus the Winter Institute if you want to pay the airfare.
9. "Valuable Research Information. Members have access to ABA research surveys and publications that can make a difference between red and black ink on their bottom lines! Each year ABA gathers financial data from member bookstores for the ABACUS Study <,">http://www.bookweb.org/education/abacus/>, which provides operational benchmarks for independent booksellers by measuring business operations by sales volume, store size, region, and more."
Now THIS is valuable. I'd pay $100 annually for this. Our total value so far...$195 in the first year ($145 thereafter) plus the Winter Institute if you want to pay the airfare.
10. "A Strong Voice in Washington and in the Industry. Critical decisions that could drastically affect your business are made constantly in Washington, D.C., and in the publishing community. Having ABA as your advocate assures you and your fellow booksellers that a strong, unified message will be delivered, whether the issue is the tax code, the First Amendment, or the equitable treatment of all book retailers by publishers."
Is the ABA an effective advocate of independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations? It's no secret that we've lost a ton of market share to Amazon and eBay. And it's no secret that virtually all of those sales go untaxed, creating a competitive advantage for those corporations. This also, obviously, reduces state government revenues and increases individual tax burdens. The ABA has been ineffective in reversing this favoritism. And given the extreme consolidation - vertical and horizontal - in book publishing, distribution, and selling, shouldn't someone be raising anti-trust questions?

Next up...the publishers. Independents create TREMENDOUS value for these big publishers. In an industry that creates over 500 new products EVERY DAY, where would the publishers be without our marketing and advertising efforts? How many Book Club favorites were created by Independents? How many books are sold every day because an employee at an Independent said "You've gotta read THIS one!"? Would Harry Potter have become a the Phenom that it is without the excitement generated by Independents throwing parties in the middle of the night? And yet, publishers are increasingly selling books directly to consumers are only slightly higher prices than Independents are paying. And yet, the publishers continue to provide corporates with favorable advertising arrangments (a rose by any other name....). And yet and yet and yet. Every day, inch by inch, the corporate publishers seem more and more interested in competing with us, rather than partnering with us. An "strong" advocate - one that could do a good job communicating the value of Independents to publishers - would have been able to prevent Scholastic from selling Harry Potter 6 on its website at a 40% discount on the day it was released.

11. Although, the ABA website doesn't mention it, ABA members do save $85 on BEA registration.

So where does all this leave us?

As a one-dimensional financial proposition, and given how poorly the ABA does at making free education available to those who need it, a bookseller's decision to join the ABA really comes down to how many people you're gonna send to the BEA. A store doing just $250K annually would need to be sending 5 people to the BEA to make up their annual ABA fee.

As a multi-dimensioned proposition, however, the ABA is ineffective in helping independently owned bookstores with retail storefront locations. In my opinion, the ABA seems to be in the business of preying on the insecurities of small businesspersons trying to survive and thrive in an awfully difficult market.

When I was a member of the ABA, I took advantage of the message boards to direct a few questions to the organziation. The president's response didn't anwer my questions, but did crow about how the ABA's endowment had grown to over $20 million. I'm almost 42 years old: I've learned not to take seriously guys that brag about the size of their endowment.


Dave in NJ

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Comment: Check in tomorrow...

Time got away from me yesterday and I didn't get a chance to post the book reviews I had planned. But I'm going to put them off for another couple of days in order to feature a guest blogger for tomorrow's post. Dave from New Jersey has written "My Gripe with the ABA," a summary of his opinions of the American Booksellers Association, and I will post it here in hopes of creating a dialogue. Be sure to check in tomorrow, and register your opinions in the comments!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Link-Mad Monday, July 10: Food for Thought

A lot of random stuff has caught my attention this week. Hope there's something here to pique your interest as well.

- Publishers Weekly has this article about a brilliant idea: t-shirts as literary inside jokes (and a great fundraiser). Lou Bank, described as a "book marketing professional", has come up the Novel-Tees, project, a line of t-shirts advertising fictional businesses like Championship Vinyl, the record store from Nick Hornby's HIGH FIDELITY, and Mama's Restaurant from Andrew Vachss' series of Burke mysteries. The proceeds go to Protect.org, a political lobby dedicated to fighting child abuse (a subject I know is dear to lawyer Vachss' heart). They're being sold in bookstores as well as from the Protect.org website.

The ALP and I were discussing the other day the fact that the best superhero t-shirts are the ones that just say "Daily Planet" or "Wayne Enterprises" -- they're like a souvenir right out of the fictional world, and a fun in-joke for fans of the comic book that's slightly more subtle than the name of the book itself. This project extends that idea to the realm of literary fiction, and it's sure to be appealing to fans of these writers' work. I hope the idea spreads and more books get the souvenir t-shirt treatment -- wouldn't it be great to wear a shirt advertising the prep school from THE SECRET HISTORY or the vanity publishing firm from CLOUD ATLAS or the FutureMouse project from WHITE TEETH or...

What fictional business or institution would you buy a t-shirt for, especially if it was for a good cause?

- Britain's influential paper The Guardian has devoted a lot of space to the subject of independent bookstores in Britain lately. January saw a fairly snarky article about how many small bookstores just weren't that great compared to the Shangri La of the chains and the online stores, though it did make the valid point that those stores will have to evolve or go under. (The largest chain in Britain, Waterstone, just bought the second-largest, Ottakar -- it's like Barnes & Noble swallowing Borders to create a super-mega-chain.) Then there was a great response to that article in a special report with a visit to some small bookstores that are actually beloved and prospering, and an analysis of what it takes to make it as an indie bookstore in Britain. Last Saturday saw this article about the Independent Alliance, a group of small publishers working together and with small bookstores, and modeled in part on the success of Booksense in the U.S.

The landscape for independent bookstores in Britain may be in some ways even tougher than that in the United States: the chains and supermarkets selling books are all crammed into a smaller space, and there's no strong organization like the ABA to give indies a kind of collective power. Still, the small bookshop remains an important cultural icon in that country, and we can learn a lot about how indies succeed and fail from their example. Fascinating stuff.

- Lastly and most thought-provoking, Rachel Donadio wrote this article for the Sunday Times Book Review about the potential for environmental responsibility in book publishing. Her take: "But how green can an industry ever be whose product depends on felled trees and toxic ink?" My take: at least publishers are starting to try. As an industry that thinks of itself as (at least potentially) a noble one, purveyors of ideas, emotions, culture, and dialogue, it's about time we started thinking about how all that "virgin" paper, all those pulped returns, all those unused galleys and stripped mass market paperbacks, not to mention the beautiful and cherished hardcovers that build our libraries, are affecting the world we live in. It's certainly time for the book industry to rethink some things in order to live up to its implied ideals, and I'm proud of the Green Press Initiative, NativeEnergy, Random house and others for starting the process.


Hope these get you thinking. See you on Wednesday!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Comment: Shelving 101, or, Organic Organization (with helpful vocabulary words)

I've got a lot of wonky book stuff on my mind lately: statistical trends that show the growth of independent bookstores, attractive and productive ways of doing websites, methods of forming alliances with other local institutions, and not least, figuring out the specifics of writing a bookstore business plan (more on that soon...).

But the wonky bookselling topic of today is the eternal conundrum of bookstore shelf organization. We've been working on redoing some displays in the store, and I've been thinking about my own bookstore: how one would develop an organizational system from scratch. Bookseller Chick has also been addressing this lately from the perspective of the beleaguered bookseller answering the author demanding "Where are my books?", with data from her readers about how they go about finding books; check out her enlightening discussion in the June 27, 28, and 29 posts for more aspects of this issue.

You've got books. Your customers want books. You've got shelves, you've got display spaces, you've got staff and/or a computer to keep track of things. How do you arrange, display, organize, and categorize books so that customers can buy the books they want?

The way I see it, the ultimate goal of any bookstore's organization (into sections and within sections) is twofold:

1) Findability: placing a book so that it can be quickly and accurately found by a customer or a bookseller looking for that specific book.
2) Browsability: placing a book so that it catches the attention of a customer who is likely to be interested in it, whether or not they were actually looking for that specific book.

Findability is the motivation behind most backlist (that is, non-new release) sections; it's why, say, fiction is usually separated from nonfiction, and organized alphabetically by author's last name. Anyone looking for CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger need only find the fiction section and look under S, and the sale is made. They don't even need to ask a bookseller for help if they don't want to (as Bookseller Chick laments in her recent posts).

Browsability is usually the focus in new release sections, where customers may not know the exact title or author of a book or may just be looking for something new. Displays and featured tables, books grouped together by theme, and point-of-sale books are all aimed at attracting the reader who knows what she likes, but doesn't know what's out there.

This all gets more complicated when applied to books that aren't necessarily easily classifiable as one section or one author. For example, how do you organize anthologies (by editor? separate section?), creative nonfiction (memoir? travel writing? essays? belles lettres? criticism? what if it's more than one?), history or biography (by subject? by author? by time period or theme?), etc. The judgement calls are endless, and sometimes agonizing. Should Art Spiegelman's MAUS be shelved next to Brian K. Vaughn's smart superhero comic EX MACHINA (in a graphic novel/comics section), or next to Eli Weisel's Holocaust memoir NIGHT (in memoir, or history, or World War II History, or Oprah Book Club Picks?) – or both? (And if it's supposed to be in both and you have only one left, how do you know where it is?) Should a book on living rooms go in architecture or interior design, and should it be shelved by author, title, or subject?

The real question is where the customer who wants this book is likely to look for this book. Answering that question takes knowledge of the books as well as the customers. It also takes knowledge of the store itself.

In my experience, very small stores tend to skew toward browsability. With fewer books (and staff that knows them well), it's easier to find any book if needed, so it makes sense to focus on making more books attractive to the undecided reader. A larger store, especially one with a specialty focus or one that tends to have a lot of goal-oriented customers, should probably skew toward findability. It may be more important for customer happiness to find a particular book quickly than to present a cornucopia of tempting impulse buys.

The bookstore's best bet is usually to try to determine the most intuitive place to look for a book and have it there consistently, sometimes setting it in stone by coding into a computer inventory system. There are, of course, variations on this – I linked earlier to this article by comic book store owner James Sime, who not only organizes his books by variables like publisher, superhero featured, title, or genre, but actually reorganizes his store periodically to see if another system will work better (and to encourage customers to discover books they wouldn't if they stuck to familiar sections).

And I think his impulse, while taken to something of an extreme (in a store where customers are likely to appreciate it), is one every bookstore can learn from. Just because "we've always been organized it this way" doesn't mean that's the best way to do it. A store may be invisibly losing sales because they're not displaying the books their customer base is likely to find irresistible, or because books in a certain section would be easier to find alphabetized a different way.

In my store, we have a large health section – all of the books have a label that identifies them as belonging in that section, and staff can look up any health title or author in the computer. Recently, a staff member went through the section and broke up the health books into subsections with new shelf labels – "diet & nutrition," "alternative medicine," "aging," "women's health," etc. And sales in the health section shot up. It's a little more difficult now for a staff member to find an individual book – they have to make the right guess about which subsection this book has been shelved in (and correct it if it doesn't make sense). But customers in the health section apparently tend to have a particular issue in mind, if not a particular book, and the new system has made the section infinitely more browsable. And we've applied this subtopic grouping in other sections with similar success.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to balance browsability and findability based on knowledge of a store and its customers. There should be a way to find any book on demand (even if only a bookseller can figure it out), but books should also be placed where likely readers are able to stumble upon them. If your store tends to sell a huge amount of Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson, maybe you need to break those authors out of the fiction section and create a fantasy/sci fi section, so fans of those authors can find other fantasy books they're likely to be interested in. If your historical biography section never sells anything, maybe those books need to be folded into the history or memoir sections. If booksellers can never find anything for customers in the design section, maybe a more findable order of books is needed.

This is a different focus from the big questions about the state of the book world I've been talking about here lately, but in a way it's part of a big question in itself. It's part of stepping back and looking at why bookstores do the things they do -- what our actual goals are, as opposed to what our habits are -- and how we can do them even better.

In planning for my own bookstore, I've occasionally fantasized about just having every book organized alphabetically by author – no separate sections, no exceptions, no more agonizing decisions ever again! Theoretically, this would be the perfect findable system (provided one always knew a book's author, which is of course unlikely), and serendipitous browsing might even occur as the reader of Anne Lamott decided to try George Lakoff. But what if someone just wanted a book on Japanese pop culture, but they didn't know which one? Theoretically again, a preternaturally gifted staff might be able to steer this customer toward half a dozen pop culture books whose location they had memorized – but now the realm of theory gets a little silly. A completely alphabetical bookstore might have a quirky attraction, but it probably wouldn't sell nearly the number of books it could, and there would probably be a lot of frustrated customers.

In fact, I'll probably organize books into a minimal number of large sections, based on the number of books I carry in each broad category and my own personal interests. Then I'll watch carefully how customers shop my store, and listen to what they're asking for, confused about, or pleased by. Then I'll make changes. The store's organization will evolve as it finds its place in its neighborhood and with its customers, and organization will become organic. I can't wait to find out how it develops.

In the next months I'm hoping to visit some local bookstores and look at their organization and other factors, and talk here about what can be learned from each of them. If you have thoughts on bookstore organization, or you know of a particularly unique or effective/ineffective bookstore shelving system, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Link-Mad Monday, July 3rd Edition: Few, but proud

Hooray for finishing projects and holiday weekends! I spent the weekend in Great Gatsby mode, drinking on the porch and the beach and the lawn with smart lovely people at a house party in Connecticut, and got to pass along two of my favorite light/smart reads of late, TOLSTOY LIED and ACTION PHILOSOPHERS, the first compilation of the comic book about yeah, famous philosophers kicking butt.

I haven't been doing as much blog reading as usual of late, so the links today will be few, but there are a few major happenings to report.

Aubrey's Episode Soldier is exceeding expectations, with thoughtful and well-written posts on life in Moab and love of books. Her Summer Reading Series and Wednesday Poetry posts both look very promising, and I loved her love-note to my own favorite poet Elizabeth Bishop.

Speaking of bookseller blogs, I came across this great list on a blog called Using Books. It looks like Jeff Sharman, the owner, hasn't posted here in a while, but his list is an exhaustive one, and there are dozens of bookseller bloggers out there that I'd never heard of. Cool -- more booksellers in blogland!

And speaking of literary blogs in general (drumroll please....) -- your own Book Nerd has realized the dream of her cyber life: an invitation to join the Litblog Co-op! Yup, that's my blog linked right there on the lower right under "Participating Weblogs."

For those of you who (like me until recently) aren't sure what the Litblog Co-op (or LBC) is, or why this is such a big deal, allow me to elucidate. Founded in the spring of 2005, the LBC is basically a group of literary bloggers who nominate, vote upon, and feature great books they feel are under-publicized in the mainstream media markets. Several are nominated, but only one book becomes the "Read This!" selection each quarter. The blog contributors (of which there will be 20-something for the coming season) each read the book and contribute to an ongoing online discussion, which may also include interviews and Q&As with the author or other neat ways to get into the book in question.

The goal, in short, is the same as that of many indie booksellers: to get people to read those great books that don't get an ad in the New York Times. It's like a Staff Picks of the blogosphere, and also like a book club or panel discussion that creates a dialogue about the book, and also like a sort of "buzz marketing" experiment. It's a literary venture done entirely for the love of it, and one that is unique to the web. I think it speaks directly to the potential of the internet to positively change, not undermine, the print book industry. And the contributors are some of the literary blog writers I most respect and admire (whom I'll be adding to my own litblog links as soon as I can). I'm excited to be a part of this project, and I'll be sure to keep Written Nerd readers posted on how it's going!

Have a great 4th of July -- see you on Wednesday!