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.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

the hopeless quest for the perfect comp

As they sift through all the information we give them on new titles, booksellers say that “good comps” are their best tools for deciding what and how to order.   But like everything else in the book industry, it’s complicated.

We put our house up for sale this week.  When it came time to land on a price, the process had some surprising similarities to bookselling.  It turns out that no matter how unique and special your house may be (and ours is naturally spectacularly unique and couldn’t be more special), the most relevant factor is the comp, which is to say the price at which similar homes in the area have recently sold.   

“Price is a moving target,” our real estate agent and neighbor Tammy explained.  This means that no matter how much intangible charm you’ve got, no matter how much debt you’ve gone into to fix the place up, and no matter how much every amateur armchair real estate expert says it’s worth, it’s actually worth what similar nearby houses happen to have sold for very recently.

It’s a frustrating business to have to reduce a much-loved residence to a check list of features: square feet, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms (one-yikes), yard (or not), condition of kitchen, garage, school district.  All of the other factors count (Twenties arts and crafts bungalow with one of a kind details!  Gorgeous boulevard!  Cool little eyelid windows in the attic!) But not as much as a solid comp.

So what’s the book connection?  Like a unique home, the one of a kind text is also a commodity, and thus reducible to a checklist of features:  subject, author, page count, illustration count, price.  Before saying yes, the bookseller wants to know what other books she has sold are “like” the new book I’m presenting.  

Reps and publishers spend lots of time and energy preparing these comps.  To be effective they have to be accurate, not wishful thinking.  And they have to be more than the result of an Amazon subject search.  The importance of this key piece of information predates the digital age, but now that a bookseller can simply click on comparable titles as we move through the catalog, noting how well they did, it’s essential.  A truly great comp is the Holy Grail. 

But I have the nagging suspicion that we sometimes rely too much on comparable titles, that they sometimes lead us from the essential uniqueness of every book.

Five types of comps are especially reliable:  the previous cloth edition of a new paperback ; the previous editions of a new edition;  a previous title by the same author;  other biographies on the same person; volume one of the volume two which is new this season;
But even these seemingly ideal comps can be problematic.  When I started in bookselling a paperback would routinely sell twice the number of hardcovers, but that formula is now long obsolete.  Much can change between editions of a reference book in terms of sales, especially since the advent of the internet.   An author’s previous books, which would seem to be a good rule of thumb to predict sales, are often on subjects so far afield  (or are so old) as to be meaningless.We routinely pitch biographies with handles like “first book on Mr. X in 75 years.”  No comps there,  .And even using sales on volume one to predict sales on volume two isn’t as reliable as it once was.  (Ask your bookseller how they did with the follow-up to last year’s extraordinary Letters of Mark Twain vol 1)

The gold standard for truly reliable comps might be something like the Whitney Biennial Catalog, which Yale publishes every two years.  A bookseller who checks sales on the 2008, 2010, and 2012 editions should have a pretty good idea of what to do with 2014  Though even in a case like this, fluctuation in art book demand makes it a guide, not a mandate. 

Like the comps for my house, book comps can be misleading, or at least incomplete.  A comp might reference other books on the same subject which had a similar number of pages, similar selection of illustrations, and similar price point- with no measure for whether it was actually a better book or not!  But this is one thing the rep is for. 

If a comp is good enough, I’ll sometimes make it the centerpiece of my pitch.  When Yale UK Sales Manager Andrew Jarmain described his approach to a new biography by saying “Sutherland does for Whistler what Ellman did for Oscar Wilde,” it was a twofer- a concise handle and a good comp.

But chasing comps too desperately can be a kind of fool’s errand.   There are so many caveats and specific circumstances in the sales life of any book that comparisons seem more like a wish than a science.   The shelf life of a new book now six to eight months.  The precise demographic that wanders into the store and sees the new book is never exactly the same as the one that bought the similar title two years ago.

We have a great new biography of Stephen Crane on the spring list.  The previous biographies are pretty old and nobody will have a useful sales history on them.  So I suggest checking sales on Red Badge of Courage, his best known work.   But is that really a good comp?  Maybe.

The Americanization of Narcissism, also on the spring Harvard list, has one perfect, appropriate comp: Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism.  This book was a sensation when it came out decades ago, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.  But the title draws a blank with many younger booksellers, and it’s often fallen out of active backlist and hasn’t sold recently.  So my most effective comp is worthless.

Like real estate prices, comps are a moving target- I add and subtract from my list as I go through the selling season.  And booksellers are an excellent source of new comp ideas.  I rarely get through a season without stealing a few original ideas for comps from one bookseller and using them on another.

Sometimes a comparable title pops into my head like an earworm.    Saskia Sassen’s new book Expulsions somehow brings to mind Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine every time I start talking about it, but it’s not similar enough to suggest it will sell that way.  A new title about Josephine Baker’s bizarre attempt to assemble a “rainbow tribe” of multi-racial adopted children all but screams Michael Jackson’s Neverland, but I’m reluctant to cite MJ (what book?) as a comp.  Yet the first bookseller I called on this season said it’s the first thing he thought of when he saw the book.

Use of superstar, freakishly successful titles as comps for much quieter titles that happen to be on the same subject is to be discouraged.  Malcolm Gladwell has been so over-used as a comp that I hesitate to bring him up even when we actually do have a title that resonates with his.   Our Professor Anonymous may have the better book but we don’t have the Gladwell Inc publicity machine.

Sometimes good comps can be plotted geometrically.  The Harvard series of Annotated Jane Austen’s continues this season with Northanger Abbey.  One comp axis contains the other active editions of Northanger Abbey so the store can gauge customer interest in that title; the other axis contains the six previous Harvard Annotateds of her other titles, the format of which is identical so should have a similar sales pattern. 

Sometimes a great book really is incomparable, such as the forthcoming Why Architects Still Draw by Italian architect/poet Paolo Belardi.  In this case the most useful comps remind booksellers of how well MIT Press does in this genre.

Extraordinarily prolific authors can present their own issues.  Terry Eagleton has a very long list of successful titles, so the trick is to find the comp among them that is closest to his new book.  Note that this sometimes means resisting the impulse to just list the best-selling prior book!

My favorite comps are unexpected, and come at the book from off-stage rather than full-on.  I like comps that help us to think about a book and imagine its reader more than comps that promise some slavish repeat of a sales pattern. 

One of my favorite new spring books is Poilu, the World War I diaries of a French soldier.  It’s utterly unique but the universe of potential First World War comps is massive.  So my colleagues and I came up with various literary references- Paul Fussell, Vera Brittain, e.e. cummings- that have little to do with replicating a sales pattern but, together, really help to bring the book into focus.

Literary references can crop up in unusual places.  In Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture, the author argues that the best writing about buildings is found in novels- specifically, Elizabeth Bowen and Alan Hollinghurst.  I love mentioning Eva Trout and The Stranger’s Child as comps even though on a purely metric level they don’t qualify. 

Talking of novelists, the apt literary comp is especially useful for relatively unknown writers.  For the fantastic but obscure-by-design Margellos World Republic of Letters series, which introduces works in translation to English audiences, having a few good comps is essential: Rodrigo Rey Rosa will be of interest to Roberto Bolano and Paul Bowles readers, and Can Xue evokes Kafka, Borges and Bruno Schulz.

One of our collective rep favorites this season, Alon Confino’s A World Without Jews, faces the challenge of a massive pool of potential comp titles on World War II and the Holocaust.  We narrowed the list to a few essential historical texts like Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners and Hitler’s Furies, along with Confino’s earlier works.  But I loved it when my colleague Patricia added Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, and when my other colleague Adena finished Avi Shavit’s profound new book about Israel, My Promised Land, and rightly suggested it belongs on the list.  The horror Confino describes makes Shavit’s young Israel seem inevitable.

I suppose the most extreme form of book comparison these days is found at ground zero for extreme everything - Amazon.  Here you can easily generate price lists of the identical book offered by re-sellers at a bewildering variety of prices.  In an odd way, it undercuts the idea that comps predict sales or value, though "value" in A-world is a meaningless concept..

So back to the house.  I’m hoping that we find a buyer who approaches comps on our home the way smart booksellers approach comps on our books- as information, good to know, but in no way replacing the unique object, which stands alone on its merits.