Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Independent Bookseller

Last year, I worked on behalf of the BISG office on a survey of bookstores. The survey was ostensibly about the kinds of data that bookstore buyers needed in order to make their purchases. The main hypothesis behind the survey was that publishers should focus their efforts on giving buyers the specific data elements that they need in order to make informed decisions. Part of the survey was done via an online form, and part was phone interviews with buyers. In this process, I personally spoke to buyers from 30 independent stores to get their views.

Buyers don't look at title information, the way that techies (aka product information evangelists) like me, think that they do. And, because the online form was geared around the original hypothesis, the results that came back were, unsurprisingly, useless. So, the formal survey failed, and the results were never published. However, what I learned in my phone interviews - while anecdotal from a statistical point of view - was profound to me in its simplicity.

I found two significant things during my conversations:

  1. Independent bookstores that had not been put out of business by the rise of the chain stores, online retailers, big box retailers, and price clubs, were in fact, thriving.
  2. The buying process is incredibly personal. Bookstore buyers, for the most part, rely heavily on the recommendations of their sales reps, the recommendations of other independent bookstores, and the feedback from their customers.

And, to a great extent, these two elements are tightly intertwined. The reasons behind these findings were equally interesting and insightful. They also gave me great confidence in the role of the independent store in the ecosystem of bookselling, and in fact, book publishing in general.

I also think that publishers can learn alot from some of these simple lessons. So, let's dive in and look at them.

Why are many independents thriving? Generally speaking it is because they have questioned the assumption that their mere presence in the community was important to the community. They have turned themselves from a business that simply received customers to a business that went out and got customers - or better said, they have gone from businesses that are generally reactive, to businesses that are generally proactive. The successful stores are the ones who are understanding and leveraging their own unique strengths in their communities.

Many of the independents I spoke to talked about their roles in the creation (and supplier) of local book clubs. Many work with and through the internet, using mass email mailings, RSS feeds, and targeted recommendations to keep themselves relevant in their customers minds. Others talked about the events they put on - especially related to authors. One very successful independent store owner, told me how she combs industry publications every week, looking for new deals that have been signed, and then proactively contacts the publisher to set up an event - even before a book has a publication schedule. Many also move these author events to venues outside the four walls of their store, so that they can bring more people into listen to what the author has to say.

Most of this transformation is eloquently described in one of the final chapters of (my favorite business book of all time), The Art of Profitability by Adrian Slywotzky. I highly recommend this book to anyone.

But, probably the most profound thing I got from my interviews was related to how personal this whole business is. Buyers at stores look through all the sales catalogs for the titles that catch their eye, but almost all (who have reps they trust) trust the recommendations of their reps. They will buy books recommended by their reps, even if they didn't see the fit of an individual title when they browsed the catalog. Equally true, they might bypass a title, that they thought might work, but the rep was lukewarm on.

And, what catches their eye? Many different things, but some are pretty obvious. Is there any connection to the geographic region of the store? Is the author from a nearby town? Does the author have some other connection (a brother, cousin, parent, or life history) to this particular community? Is the publisher putting any marketing muscle behind the title? Generally, buyers are looking for books that they can get behind personally, that their patrons will love.

It was incredibly powerful to hear time after time how important the rep was in this process. "They know our store, and they know the books". "If they say that I have to have a particular title - even if I disagree - I always buy one or two." Generally the feeling was that the rep helped the buyer cull the catalog down to those titles that the store needed, and equally important, help the buyer decide which titles they didn't need.

The importance of a title to the publisher was also a recurring theme. One buyer told me how they would heed the advice of an email that came from the VP of Sales at Random House, where he picked his favorite titles for the season. Other publishers signal their own picks by highlighting a national advertising campaign, or by publicizing the initial print run. Others, signal it through the position in the seasonal catalog. It seems clear that any help, buyers can get culling through the masses of titles being published (6,000 +/- per week) is greatly appreciated.

So what are the lessons for publishers?

  1. Sell your books to the reps, and treat your reps like gold. They are the ones initiating grassroots demand for the title. In the age of the internet, the grassroots is where the power is.
  2. Present as much information about the author as possible. Authors are the stars, and if the author has any type of connection to an individual community, their books will sell.
  3. Layout your seasonal catalogs to make it easy for a buyer to get an understanding about whether the title will work for them. Most buyers I spoke to said that they spend less than 10 seconds on any given catalog page, so the title really needs to grab them. Leave alot of white space in a consistent place on the page so the buyer can markup the catalog.
  4. Publishers need to identify and reach out to communities other than the bookselling community. When the list comes together, each title should be analyzed for the communities that may want it, and those communities should be marketed to directly.
  5. As evil as it sounds, rank your titles, and make sure that the entire bookselling ecosystem knows which ones you are really behind.

comments? email me at ftoolan at qsolution dot com.

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