Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Nerd and BookStream

No link madness today, folks. Instead, as promised, here's the big news:

On Sunday night at NAIBA, I sat in the hotel bar with Jack Herr, the president of BookStream, and my friend Carolyn Bennett, a BookStream sales rep, and hammered out the details of an arrangement that had been in the air for a while, by which this independent bookseller will become an employee of the independent wholesaler.

So what does this mean, and why am I doing it?

It doesn’t mean I'm leaving the bookstore.
It doesn’t mean I'm leaving Brooklyn.
It doesn't mean I've abandoned my dream of having my own store, or that I'm selling out on my indie ideology. In fact, it's a way to get a little closer to the dream, and a way to work and learn and connect more with the indie bookstore community.

First, just in case you don't work in the book industry or you're not familiar with this particular company, let's talk about book wholesalers. In addition to ordering books directly from publishers, bookstores have the option of ordering books from "middle men" or distribution organizations: wholesalers. Since the wholesalers have to make a profit, they usually sell books at a smaller discount than you'd get from the publisher. The advantages, however, are that 1) they ship faster than publishers do, so you can get that hot title in your store sooner; 2) they carry books from publishers you may not have (or want to have) an account with, so you can minimize paperwork. Most "special order" books will be ordered through a wholesaler, so that stores can get it into customers' hands more quickly. There are a number of these guys; Ingram is the biggest, and there's also Bookazine and Baker & Taylor. (There used to be others in our region: Koen, which closed and then reopened as Koen-Levy, then closed again.) BookStream is a regional wholesaler, serving primarily New England and the mid-Atlantic region. and they're kind of the new kid on the block in this field – they opened only a couple of years ago, in late 2005.

And one of the things that I love about this company is that they opened in spite of a certain amount of naysaying – the same sad head-shaking that too often accompanies the opening of an independent bookstore – and they're making good in spite of it, too. With the collapse of Koen, the prevailing wisdom was that there was no future for another regional wholesaler. How could they possibly compete with the big guys? CEO Jack Herr's answer was: by working better with independents – in the words of the company motto, "leveling the playing field." Unlike many wholesalers, BookStream offers the same discount – 42% -- to every store, no matter how large or small the account. They've developed customer service that offers a level of personal relationships akin to the best bookstores. And they're constantly working to expand and perfect their systems, their service, their relationships, their shipping time, their efficiency – all of the stuff that makes a wholesaler valuable to booksellers. Like the successful bookstores I know, they're continually refining their business model and their operations to build on their previous successes, and to adapt to the needs of their customers.

Or, as I should say now, "our customers." Because, as Jack and Carolyn and Carol and Felice and Ken warmly tell me, I'm now a part of the BookStream project.

And what's a nerdy bookseller like me going to do there, you justifiably ask? Part of the company's efforts to do the best it can for booksellers involves expanding its web presence, creating content and connections using some of the tools I've been talking up on bookseller panels – blogs, social networking, interactive websites, etc. My job, while pretty open-ended, will involve developing some of this content, as well as potentially working on events, marketing, and other PR-ish stuff. In the words of my official employment offer:

"creating online resources for the company’s prospective bookselling customers and publishing clients… design, plan, and execute events and other marketing programs… assist BookStream to develop an integrated portfolio of programs and resources for our customers and publishing clients which simultaneously create advantage for them and set us apart from other wholesalers. "

Sounds pretty sophisticated, huh? But really what it translates to is a lot of what I'm doing now: reading and researching about developments in the book industry, connecting readers and authors, meeting booksellers and learning from them, waxing enthusiastic about the future of independent bookselling, and blogging – all of that fun good geeky stuff that I'm currently doing for free. I'll just be doing it in a somewhat more focused way, and getting paid for it.

Which is why I think I can actually do this in my spare time, around my full-time job at the bookstore. I'll be working primarily from home, and visiting the BookStream facility in Poughkeepsie once or twice a month. Sarah, the best bookstore boss in the world, tells me I may be able to make my store hours a little more flexible to accommodate this (and incidentally, believes there to be no conflict of interest in working for both a bookstore and a wholesaler, especially since I don't do the buying.)

But why?, you ask again. Aren't you busy enough? Well, yeah. And I may have to give up (or cut back on) one or two things to make this work (though I'm not abandoning Emerging Leaders, the NAIBA board, the Litblog Co-Op or anything else just yet).

Part of the reason for doing this is financial: so that the ALP and I can start to save up a little nest egg to help finance my store, and maybe even to buy our own place at some point. In terms of scheduling and pay scale, it beats the heck out of freelancing.

But I wouldn't bother to sign on if this wasn't a project I was interested in, ideologically, creatively, and practically. I'm a huge fan of BookStream's commitment to independent bookstores, and I think its forward-thinking leap into the world of Web 2.0 is both admirable and astute. I'm looking forward to learning more about the interactions of publishers, wholesalers, and bookstores, and bringing a new perspective that will help to make those interactions better. I'm excited about working with the independent bookstore community on a kind of macro scale, getting a bird's-eye view of what's going on in our region. And of course, I'm giddy to put to the test some of my ideas about how the web can serve the world of print media, and to learn, perhaps by trial and error, how providing "added value" can help a book company's bottom line.

And, probably most importantly for satisfaction in any job, I like the people. One of BookStream's selling points on its website is "Staffed by the best people in book wholesaling". Like the best bookstores (and unlike a lot of larger companies), they understand that the company is only as good and as functional and as happy as the people in it. Carolyn, of course, is one of my favorite people in the industry, a real fellow book nerd. Ken Abramson (whom we always just called "Ken from Koen" when I worked at Three Lives) is incredibly knowledgeable and hilarious. Jack Herr is one of the most optimistic, practical, smart, ambitious, and supportive people I've ever met – his enthusiasm for his project, and for the bookselling community, is infectious, and I'm looking forward to working with him. And I'm looking forward to meeting the other employees, some of whom have already sent me the nicest welcoming emails. Obviously, it's a good place to work, which to me suggest the potential for a very successful company.

I may have a little less time for this blog in the coming months, but I imagine you'll be able to find my over-enthusiasm elsewhere on the web. I'll keep you posted. I start officially as a BookStream employee the first week of November. I'm looking forward to talking to booksellers, publishers, authors, critic, and readers in my new capacity as well as the old one. I'm excited about what the future may bring.

(And I' welcome your thoughts, comments, questions, and suggestions, as always.)