Friday, April 15, 2011

value added



What‘s the most important question facing traditional booksellers today?

To judge by the rising level of hysteria over the digital tsunami, the answer seems obvious: E-books. One colleague of mine at a trade house returned from a sales conference recently with his head spinning- “its E this, E that, it’s all anyone wants to talk about.”

And there’s a parallel world of fright going on in the bookstores, although the booksellers seem comparatively sanguine.

It’s a big problem. But a very clever blog post I saw last week got me thinking about another issue that, in my opinion, supersedes the question of how publishers and booksellers are going to sell digital books profitably.

A group of soon-to-be ex-Borders booksellers put together a stunning collection of guerilla signage from their closing stores. Calling it “justified bitterness manifested in the form of some awesome passive aggression,” the website BuzzFeed compiles the best of this sad but pointed gallows humor here.

Best of show: “No Restrooms, Try Amazon.”

Hilarious, yes. But think about it. A restroom is just one of the social amenities a bookstore provides that an internet entity can’t. (Though I wonder what a virtual toilet on a book retailing web site would look like or mean.) The “try Amazon” joke, and the more comprehensive barb behind it, gets to what I think is the really big question facing storefront booksellers:

How to convince customers that the added value delivered over online retailers is something worth paying for? And how much is the added value worth?

Most of the booksellers we reps call on are keenly aware of the price competition they face from internet sellers. One buyer who shall go nameless (oh hell, why not, hi Matt!) marches me through screens showing the absurdly discounted prices he’ll be competing with (and can’t match) on the new titles I’m trying to sell him.

This is also not news to most book customers. Being asked to match a price that turns up on a smart phone is now an everyday occurrence for booksellers.

But that customer needs a cogent, convincing, and short explanation beyond just “I can’t match it.”

There are two parts of the problem: actually providing the added value, and getting the customer to see that it’s worth paying for.

As to adding value, there’s no question that bookstores do it in spades.

- Bookstores offer a carefully constructed inventory built around strong categories, rather than trying to be everything to everybody. Booksellers meet with reps, pore over catalogs, talk to other booksellers and in general work overtime to make sure they have the right books in the right quantities. What is this worth? It’s not a cost that’s immediately apparent to the customer who walks in the door, but it’s worth a lot;

- Bookstores are a venue for informed opinions about books from live people who actually read, as opposed to robotic “customers like you also liked” algorithms, or canned, easily manipulated rating codes. In a recent Atlantic magazine column, publishing wise man Peter Osnos called this hand-selling “the spiritual core” of publishing ;

- Bookstores are a place for a book lover to offer informed opinions back to the professional booklovers behind the counter. People like to talk about what they’ve read, and who better than their local booksellers? Another customer overhears the conversation and joins in, and the next thing you know you’re learning about books you didn’t know you wanted. This is what used to be called social interaction before the phrase came to mean checking into chat rooms;

- A quality bookstore becomes a priceless but hard to quantify community asset for a street or neighborhood. Along with grocery, drug store, bakery, liquor store, and hardware store, my local bookstore is part of my regular shopping routine. I value that routine. I never think about buying products those stores sell from online vendors, nor would I online comparison shop the helpful people at Downer Hardware over the price of a box of screws;

- Every bookseller in North America has been forced to think about interior ambience and customer comfort in a way that prior generations never did, and contemporary internet retailers still don’t need to. (A slick, pretty home page will never match a comfy chair in which to test drive a new novel.) A bookstore is part showroom, part community center. True, you can “congregate,” if that’s the word, on some online sites, but good lighting, coffee, and all the other amenities of 21st century book retailing are added value, and have to be paid for;

- Bookstores support the community. When I got into bookselling we’d occasionally, and sometimes grudgingly, co-sponsor an event with some other organization. Contemporary booksellers have kicked the notion of community partnerships onto another plane. As I perused this month’s events on the Boswell Book Company calendar, there were activities inside and outside the store with two public libraries, a restaurant, a caterer, a local newspaper, a local college, a local opera company, the LGBT Community Center, the Jewish Community Center, Alliance Francaise, the Italian Film Festival, and the Tool Shed, a sex toy shop run by feminists. And that’s just this month!

This mutual support by community organizations is partly driven by the Buy Local movement, of which booksellers have been an important instigator. Some stores even have loyalty programs with customer directed donations to community organizations. And, needless to say, taxes paid on books bought in bookstores stay local.

Many of these bookstore events are imaginative and surprising- indoor farmers markets, violin concerts, wine tastings, cupcake competitions. While attendance can be unpredictable, when they work it can feel like date night. It’s the bookstore as a center of what we used to call social networking, before that came to mean checking status updates regularly. Bookstores are now so eventful that they have a regular subsection in urban entertainment listings;

- And the most often cited competitive edge is the incredible roster of author events, readings, book clubs, and literary groups of every sort that bookstores offer. A chance to meet the author of a beloved book is worth…how much?

Often the cost of staging these events is not recouped with book sales, so in a sense all customers are subsidizing author event programs with their purchases, much like a contribution to NPR supports overall programming rather than particular favorites.

When someone buys a book from a real bookstore, they are in a sense being asked to also support all this activity, as well as staff, overhead, insurance, and the untold other expenses that go into street retailing. But it’s not even a surcharge- it’s just the retail book price. Or less! Even after providing all these extras, most stores still offer generous discounts of 20% or more on select titles.

It’s beyond dispute that physical book retailing offers value added to the simple cost of the book. (Quality college bookstores and art museum shops do the same.) And there are probably dozens of other examples of added value I’ve overlooked.

But the second part of the problem remains: how to convince the customer, or enough customers, to incorporate that fact into their shopping consciousness and to happily pay for what they're getting.

Progress has been made. Every store has a core of loyal customers who are vociferous about their support. We’ve seen stores brought back from near death when communities learned that a cherished local shop was in trouble. And surely the unthinkable demise of some bookselling giants has been a consumer wake-up call.

Some stores have asked, in a straightforward way, for customers to commit to, say, buying one additional book a month. My local food Coop asked members for a 10% increase in purchases a couple years ago and it worked on me.

But the very air we breathe is saturated with price-ist propaganda. To many people, the idea of buying a product at anything but the highest possible discount seems lunatic.

We- publishers and booksellers- have to do a better job of making the case for the true value of bookstores, and their true cost, and for why they wouldn’t exist if they had to sell everything at 43% off.

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