Tuesday, April 22, 2014

when great colleagues retire: 50 plus reasons I will miss Adena Siegel

Because she’s the smartest rep in the book business, period.
Because she understands both the craft and the art.
Because she really loves university presses, especially Harvard/MIT/Yale.
Because she embraces the contradiction that good books come into the world as works of imagination, culture and beauty, but have to live there as commodities.
Because she sees that selling them can be both pain and privilege.
Because she’s never forgotten her retail roots, and sees our mission through the eyes of a bookseller.
Because, nevertheless, she knows that our main obligation is to our Presses, which sometimes require a different lens.
Because she’s also never forgotten that, ultimately, we are representing an author and a book.
Because, better than any rep I know, she balances these three sometimes competing imperatives with aplomb.
Because she works to really get the book as step one; the rest follows.
Because she brings her real self into the job, the room, the appointment.
Because when buyers check their calendars to see which reps they’re seeing tomorrow, Adena’s name makes them smile. not groan.
Because she pays attention to an uncelebrated but crucial rep necessity: the right shoes.
Because of the post sales conference hours we spend processing the deluge of information and making sense of it.
Because I’ve never had better laughs than I’ve had with Adena.
Because of her scrupulous attention to detail.
Because of her standards and work ethic- though she makes it not seem like work.
Because our midseason check in- what’s working, what’s not- is one of my favorite rituals.
Because of her tireless behind the scenes advocacy for booksellers, and to booksellers.
Because she understands in her bones how publicity works.
Because she always knows the right people to call to solve a problem, or will track them down.
Because she believes in telephones, and talking to people.
Because she asserts herself, and assumes her place at sometimes intimidating tables.
Because this confidence leaks out and bolsters her colleagues, and we feel more able to speak because of her.
Because she won’t be bullied, neither by self-important authors nor surly hotel staff.
Because she knows what she wants, and can order a coffee drink or a nice meal with exquisite precision.
Because she thinks on her feet.
Because she has informed reactions- to jackets, marketing plans, expectations.
Because she also has moral and political reactions to the contents of books.
Because she’s a human being.
Because she loves Chicago.
Because she’s not a luddite but she has a healthy skepticism about the digital turn.
Because she’s willing to take chances and expects others to be.
Because she’s had the kind of career- an honorable living in books- that seems to be melting into air.
Because I wouldn’t have considered leaving bookselling and taking this job without her.
Because she made me see that I could do it.
Because blunt is in her toolbox: “Five copies?  Twenty-five!
Because her booksellers can’t say they weren’t warned about the hottest book of 2014.
Because of her passion for and taste in art
Because of her same for blues, jazz, R&B
Because, ditto, her cats.
Because, Steve.
Because she loves the road and she loves coming home from it.
Because she has had some life experiences that might surprise people.
Because she talks and listens.
Because on our road trips from Cambridge to New Haven between sales conferences we’d always stop at Rein’s delicatessen.
Because she’s old school, but conversant with new.
Because we share frustration, sadness and anger about certain aspects of book world.
Because she’s a friend, mentor and colleague, and the lines are all tangled.
Because of her loyalty and collegiality.
Because she has an excellent and long memory.
Because she’s queen of the perfect gift, and the thoughtful gesture.
Because if the book business is to survive it will need more Adena's.
Because she will be embarrassed by this list.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Congress to Vote April 1 on $750 Billion Book Bailout

Recognizing the central and irreplaceable role books have played in American history and culture, and taking note of the unprecedented economic pressures that have made the survival of books an open question, Congress acts today to save the book for future generations.

Key components of the bailout legislation include:

-    A bookshop in every city of 25,000 or more.  Low cost loans made available to get these shops open by the end of the year.  The bigger the city, the bigger the investment;

-    A library in every community, open and staffed 24 hours a day.  Special supplementary grants to bring collections up to date;

-    Establishment of a National Bookselling and Publishing Academy, with the stature of West Point- a prestigious institution with a faculty consisting of the best minds in the field, and a student body of professionals who will graduate with the long-term support of their government for their career in books;

-    A National Reading Corps, to consist of thousands of unemployed workers who will be trained to fan out to communities across the country this summer.  They will conduct story-times and promote books and reading at schools, playgrounds, nursing homes, hospitals, community centers- wherever people gather.  The goal is nothing short of a fully literate population;

-    A National Author Tour in the fall, funded by the government, that would put one thousand authors on the road for six weeks, with readings and events in every corner of the country, with special emphasis on inner city neighborhoods, small towns and rural areas that have never seen a live author.  These events would leave a new functioning bookshop in every location;

-    A massive investment in translated books, with generous subsidies to publishers who undertake bringing the world’s literature to American readers at affordable prices, and raising the percentage of international books translated into English to 20%.  Conversely, we will hire and fund a Book Corps (modeled on the Peace Corps) that will fan out across the globe with the mission of spreading literacy, helping local bookshops get established, and making American books available everywhere;

-    The New Baby Book Bonus: henceforth, the family of every child born in the US will receive a voucher worth $500 for the first, and subsequent twelve, years of the child’s life.  This voucher would be redeemable for books purchased at a bookstore, with the goal of establishing a home library in every American household.

[I came across this 2009 piece among a batch of old folders, author unknown. Sad that it seems like an April Fool's idea.]

Saturday, March 1, 2014

the business book visionaries of milwaukee

Independent booksellers often tell me “we can’t sell business books.”  Yet there’s a beehive of business book activity in Milwaukee, an indie book operation that’s found a way to crack that nut.  The business model is unique, but their success may have some lessons for retail booksellers in search of that holy grail- profitability.

800CEOREAD (or 8CR) began as a project of the Harry W Schwartz Bookshops, the joint brainchild of David Schwartz and Jack Covert in long ago 1982.  But I’d trace the roots even further back. 

David’s bookstore, which he took over from his father in the late sixties, was a traditional general bookseller with a marked progressive cast.  Political books and social criticism were featured prominently, and selling books that matter- what David famously referred to as “the social profit in bookselling”- was a matter of principle.

Booksellers and customers were shocked one day in 1973 to find the store's gorgeous Wisconsin Avenue display windows filled with 500 copies of Robert Ringer’s Winning Through Intimidation.  This was a path-breaking business book of its time for several reasons: it took a self-help approach which thousands of subsequent business books would later follow as a template; it was self-published after being rejected by establishment houses; and Ringer was an early prototype of the author as marketing machine.  He personally masterminded a campaign for the book, store by store, that made it a phenomenal success.  Our store was one of his early guinea pigs.  David’s takeaway: we can sell business books!

David scored a coup when he lured Jack Covert from his own business, Jack’s Record Rack on the east side of Milwaukee.  Then as now, Jack was a man of big ideas and a healthy respect for the small steps needed to bring them to life.  I was a Schwartz bookseller who had purchased many an LP from Jack at his record store.   But I was afraid that the turn toward business books in the store would mean a turn away from selling the “real books.“  Plus, Jack worked like a maniac, making cold-calling trips to companies in northern Wisconsin with a trunk full of business books, and (I can admit this now) he made us feel like slackers.

There was a distinct bias against the very idea of business books in those days.  Sure, they might be profitable.  But  David had taught us to think of bookselling as more than commerce, and we did.  To sell a book was not just a financial transaction; it was a cultural and often a political act, a kind of bond with the reader.  Business in general was held in low esteem, and the Think and Grow Rich crowd, a vast audience, was not much better.  What could it mean for our beloved store to have someone cultivating this audience full-time?  But success was irrefutable, and by fits and starts Jack’s business book operation gained traction.

How different the bookselling landscape looks today.   The Schwartz Bookshops have been gone for a decade.  One aspect of David’s legacy, the vibrant neighborhood bookstore with deep community roots,  lives on in Daniel Goldin’s amazing Boswell Book Company;  and from another direction, David’s long ago, prescient vision that it’s possible to be successful at business books without sacrificing the social profit is unfolding at 8CR, now over thirty years old.

Still owned by David’s wife Carol and daughter Rebecca, with a host of Schwartz bookstore alumni involved in daily operations, the company has become much more than a business bookseller.   It’s a missionary for the printed book.  In case you miss the message, it’s emblazoned in stark type on the extravagantly beautiful 11x17 annual report just issued by the company: “We believe in Books.”

This is no ordinary online book retailer.  They call themselves “a service and logistics company,” and have something to offer every stakeholder in the business book community: authors, buyers, publishers, readers.  The web site is loaded with information and creative content:

The Keen Thinker, a monthly newsletter;

A Daily Blog aimed more at inspiration than the hard sell;

 Jack Covert Selects, in which Jack brings decades of experience to bear on reviewing current books and issues;

 A Thinker in Residence interview and conversation series;

KnowledgeBlocks, a subscription book club with innovative bells and whistles;

Annual business book of the year awards, which extend the 100 Business Books of All Time, a project that also began here;

ChangeThis manifestos, which publish six essays a month, a project that originated with Seth Godin;

And more!

With so many book retailers struggling to gain a foothold, what is this company’s secret?  And are there any lessons for other booksellers?

I’m no business book expert.  Indeed, truth be told, I still harbor some of the same disparaging attitudes toward business that I had in 1982.  But based on my observations of what these folks are about, I have a few ideas.  In the spirit of bullet point business literature, here are my top ten reasons for 8CR success list:

1. While the focus on business books as a category is obvious, they are ecumenical about what counts as a business book.  It seems to be any book that a business person might find interesting or useful. 

2. The business book category has gotten vastly more complex in recent years, thanks to Gladwell, Kahneman, et al.  If Napoleon Hill still comes to mind when you think business book, your profile needs updating.  Among the book categories 8CR features are General Books, Leadership, Management, Marketing & Sales, Entrepreneurship & Small Business, Personal Development, Innovation & Creativity and Finance & Economics. And blog tags include such subjects as Communication, Safety and Health, Current Events, History and Fables.

3. The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing.  These are usually considered either/or approaches, and on the surface it would seem that this is the quintessential hedgehog company.  But with the head-spinning array of original content and book advice, they’ve turned the saying on its head.  They work hard to bring fox-like scope into the more focused definition of the traditional business book and its reader.  I suspect this is an added value much appreciated by customers.

4. The 8CR team pays attention to the product they are selling, and applys lessons from the smarter business books to their own company.  It’s not just a question of mastering jargon; they’ve grown, changed, and transformed their own business model over the years, and their book recommendations surely carry added weight because of it.  Perhaps an analogy would be the Cookbook retailer who actually cooks using the recipes in the books he or she sells.  Cooking (and eating) the meal yields a keener knowledge than simply reading the recipes.

5. Staff are encouraged to bring their real selves to work.  You won’t hear a fake note in phone or socially mediated interactions with personnel here.

6. And speaking of the phone, another confession: when Jack first announced the name of the new business book operation, I thought it was ridiculous.  Who names a forward-looking business after a phone number?  Any idiot could see that computers were coming and we’d be stuck with this old technology handle.  Shows what I know.  In 2014, it seems like a bit of forward-looking genius.  Have you tried finding a phone number on the web site of a company that doesn’t want to be bothered by talking with you?  It’s the norm.  By contrast, here’s a company whose name is its number!  It all but begs you to interact. 

7. David Schwartz embraced contradictions.  He wasn’t afraid of them because- sorry business readers, a little marxism- he thought they were intrinsic under capitalism and impossible to escape.  It’s not immediately apparent that a company selling business books would have to pay a living wage with decent benefits, would have an idea of social responsibility, or would allow people to dress comfortably and post their playlists on company time.  The goal is to make a profit by selling a product.  But this is a contradiction Jack and manager John Mueller have embraced.  Authenticity might not be an easily quantifiable metric but in this age of fakery it goes straight to the bottom line.

8. Good bookselling is personal.  I often notice the difference between booksellers who imagine a category of customers when I present a new book, versus the ones who think of specific people.  It’s the difference between “Military History does well for us” and “I know two people right off the bat for that one.”  8CR excels at the latter, and have taken the endlessly repeated “know your customer” mantra to heart.  At the simplest and most productive level, it really does mean knowing your customer.

9. For all the talented bookselling at work here, the heightened social status of business and entrepreneurship vis-à-vis 1982 also play a role in creating a favorable environment.   As a teenager I wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing a brand name label.  I’d cut them out if they were visible.  Be a walking billboard for a corporate logo?  No thanks.  But brands are now worshipped.  Indeed, teenagers worry about tending to their “personal brand,” a thought that almost makes me cry.  In the eighties, we aimed our bookselling firepower at intellectuals, social activists, and Humanities majors who were most apt to change the world.  Today, the dotcom tech companies are home to the new hip revolutionaries, and entrepreneurs with the latest killer apps are the new creative class.  8CR gets this.

10. Finally, every successful book operation needs a Jack.  This company owes its success to Jack’s imagination, hard work, and willingness to press on with an idea he believed in.  Like David Schwartz, he’s not afraid of contradiction.  And like David, he’ll leave behind an incredible accomplishment in his wake when he retires this year- a smart, idiosyncratic, profitable, holistic and sustainable book company.