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Why bookstores offer a place to sit


Quite some time ago, I signed up for Quora. It was an impulse thing because I got an invite from a friend. Every so often, I scan through my emails from them and look for questions that interest me, or things that friends have written. Up until today, I’ve never felt the impulse to sit down and type out an answer.

Then I saw the question, “Why do bookstores have reading areas?” That’s a question that I pondered occasionally back in the days when I hung out in bookstores but didn’t own one. It became more pertinent when Kathy and I bought a bookshop. So I wrote an answer:

When I bought my bookstore more than 13 years ago, it was tiny. The whole store fit in less than 500 square feet, yet the previous owners had made room for two well-worn but comfortable armchairs. Over the years that I’ve owned the store, the amount of seating has ebbed and flowed: couches have come and gone, we’ve had wicker chairs, benches, and stools. Today, we still have those two threadbare armchairs.

The reason is simple: if people can sit down and look through the books, they will stay in the store longer and they will buy more books. Why do people shop in physical bookstores in 2014? Because they want to interact with physical books and talk to book lovers. They want to heft the books. They want to compare similar books to decide which one(s) they want. And every study says that the longer they shop, the more they buy.

As Drew mentioned in his answer, stores want to be the “third place” in your life after home and work. That’s why we have a tea bar and many other bookstores have coffee shops. That’s why we have game nights. That’s why bookstores love to host book clubs. That’s why bookstores bring in authors for signings and talks. We want to offer something that a website can’t offer, and we want to provide a comfortable place to do it.

The optimum amount of space is a fluid thing. If our seating areas are all filled all the time, we add more. If there are empty chairs around the store all day, we replace them with tables or shelves filled with products. I don’t think there’s a single answer to that part of the question.

Free riders? In the years I’ve owned the store, I doubt if there has been a single person that’s read an entire book in my store without buying it. In contrast, quite a few people have picked up a book, spent an hour browsing it, and ended up buying that book. And then coming back for another book by that author. And another. And another.

TL,DR version of the answer: we offer reading space because it makes our customers happy and helps us to sell books.

Sometimes, people just want to get out of the house for a while. We hope they’ll want to do it in our store.

Couch with Pookie

Having our giant teddy bear Pookie on the couch makes people more likely to sit there. Kids love to sit in his lap and read.

Author talk

For author talks and readings, you’ll typically need to add some extra chairs, but having a defined seating area gives you room for small in-store events.

Benjamin the bookstore cat

If you have a bookstore cat like Benjamin, he’ll greatly appreciate comfy places to sit, and even help to show off books. But you’ll need to clean off the fur on a regular basis!

The Wrong Way to Promote Your Book


I originally wrote this article for Writer’s Weekly back in 2003. It can be seen in its original form on their website. I’ve placed it here on my blog because of something that happened last month that got me thinking about it. See that story at the end of the article.

Websites for writers and publications like WritersWeekly.com are filled with information about scams perpetuated upon writers. We see everything from “contests” that bilk money from aspiring writers to markets that never pay the promised compensation. One subject that’s rarely discussed is scams perpetuated by writers.

Often, a new writer will come up with innovative “out-of-the-box” ideas for promoting a book without realizing that (a) they may actually hurt sales and (b) it’s been done many times before. “Scam” is probably too harsh a word for many of these ideas, but some of them are downright unethical and illegal. That’s what we’ll focus on in this article.

The book buyers at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders have seen it all. It’s hard to pull anything on them that hasn’t already been tried. You may assume that owners of small, independent bookstores exist in a vacuum, but that isn’t the case, either. Over 1,200 independents are members of the American Booksellers Association, and members communicate through newsletters and online members-only message boards.

Do we really do this? Yep. There are regional book shows around the country, and owners of bookstores do sit around and share tales of scam artists and unethical book signing conduct. If you own or manage a bookstore, I’d recommend joining your regional association. My home state of Montana is claimed by two regional associations: Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA).

Some authors have placed false orders for their own books through bookstores, hoping to pump up sales. Since most POD (Print On Demand) books are non-returnable, they figure the store will be stuck holding the bag and that they can pocket the royalties on the “sales.” This is actually inaccurate. Bookstores that are the victims of this scam WILL return the books and they WILL receive credit from the distributor or publisher. If they don’t, the bookstore will alert their fellow bookstore owners and everyone else in the industry to not do business with that distributor, publisher, and author. If your book is involved in this type of scam, you can kiss your future as an author goodbye, because nobody will do business with you. There are blacklists of authors in the industry and they are shared.

Authors may also face legal consequences for scams like this, and it isn’t difficult to prove who perpetuated a scam. Despite the huge number of books published every year, the publishing industry is a small world. Bookstore owners, book buyers, and librarians communicate with each other, and are eager to press charges if it will drive unscrupulous people from the business.

I spoke to one POD publisher who found out that one of their authors had tried this stunt. They instantly canceled the author’s contract and alerted the distributor and the bookstores of the attempted fraud. Rather than building up thousands of dollars in royalties, the author ended up with nothing; no contract, no book and, of course, no royalties. Not only that, but there are now hundreds of bookstores that will never order one of that author’s books, even if they do get it republished (which they probably will not).

I don’t want to imply here that all, most, or even many POD authors behave unethically. The overwhelming majority are honest people trying to sell their books the right way. It’s a shame that scam artists make so many bookstore owners and managers nervous about POD.

Needless to say, this scam can’t be pulled off at all with returnable books. Even if the author’s timing is perfect, and a royalty check is issued before the books are returned, the returns will show up on the next royalty statement, and the author will have a serious problem and some explaining to do to the publisher and bookstores.

There are plenty of variants on this scheme, like the “I’ve been getting lots of people from your town looking for a place to buy this book” lie and the ever-common yet never-believed “I used to live near your store and I have a ton of friends and family that want to buy copies from you.” The common factor in all of them is trying to trick a bookstore into ordering a stack of non-returnable books that they may not be able to sell. And, like I said, they’ve heard it all. I got one such call and told the author if he’d send me the list of people who called him, I’d be happy to get them the books right away. As it turned out, he didn’t even know where my store was located.

One author contacted a bunch of small bookstores and organized book signing events. The stores ordered stacks of books, and the author canceled the events. Now, many stores tell authors to bring along their own books, and they don’t order anything up-front unless it’s arranged through a publishing house they know. The author who pulled of this scheme will never have another book signing.

Another trick is misrepresenting the content of a book. A store thinks they’re ordering a big fat book of local bicycle trails, and they get a 60-page book of trails (and only one of which is within 100 miles of that town). A scam like this might work once, but if it does, your name is mud.

Another dishonest “program” that’s making the rounds is authors trying to get everyone to buy their book from Amazon.com within a 24-hour period in an attempt to get on the Amazon.com best seller list. Trying to twist the outcome of the Amazon best seller list in this way is unethical and does not represent a fair and legitimate tally of daily sales for your book (meaning calling your book an Amazon.com best seller when you tricked the system is being dishonest to your future readers and to the press when using this statement on your press releases). Booklocker.com is one publisher that won’t allow its authors to scam the Amazon.com system in this manner, and other reputable publishers are following suit. The scam is now so well-known in the industry that an author that claims to have an Amazon.com Best Seller is now considered by many to be dishonest unless it can be backed up by data spread over a period of weeks or months.

It’s unfortunate that some authors feel the need to lie to and steal from others in this way. It hurts all of us, and makes bookstores much more wary about stocking POD books at all. When marketing your book, remember that the tried and true methods are the most successful ways to market your books and achieve an excellent reputation: pound the pavement, pay your dues, send out press releases, arrange book signings, take out ads, and arrange radio interviews. I have sold thousands of copies of my self-published books by attending trade shows, putting on seminars, and marketing through my website.

Treat others the way you want to be treated, and market your book to others as you would want other books marketed to you.


So what happened last month that got me thinking about this article? A small publishing house that my bookstore buys directly from gave me a call to tell me about a new book they had out. It’s not the kind of book I normally sell, but it is local-oriented, so I had them throw a single copy in with my next order. When the book arrived, I took a look and decided not to carry it in the store.

A few days later, someone called and asked if we carried the book. I said I had one, and the caller asked me to set it aside to pick up later that day. I set the book on the desk, and nobody showed up to get it. The following week, another call asking if we had it, and another “customer” who never showed up to get the book. This happened four times in three weeks — always people I didn’t know who never came in.

Was it the author (plus friends and family) calling me, hoping to get me to place a larger order? I’ll probably never know. But I most certainly won’t be ordering books for inventory based on phone inquiries like that, and I view that publisher with a bit of suspicion now.

Oh, boy! My book is a textbook! That’s good news, right?


Closed Captioning HandbookWhen I wrote about this in 2011, I talked about rights reversion and what that means in an age of ebooks. Today, I’m having more of an issue with the whole way textbooks work. With two kids in college, I’m seeing my share of textbooks selling for hundreds of dollars, but the price increase on my own book was still a shock a few years back when it was picked up as a college text.

My editor was adamant when I was writing the book in 2003: keep it under 400 pages or the price of paper will make the book just too expensive. Their target price was $49.95. The final page count was 404 (snicker), and it did indeed release (in paperback) at that price. I still don’t buy the paper cost argument. My bookstore sells plenty of paperback books with far more than 400 pages for far less than $50.00, but the world of low-volume, highly specialized books is different. I get that.

Prices go up over time, so I wasn’t surprised to see the price go up to $54.95 a couple of years later. But when three colleges adopted The Closed Captioning Handbook as a textbook, I didn’t expect the immediate jump to $71.95. Now, it’s up to $74.95, and it has the dreaded word “NET” in the Ingram distribution database.

Net? What’s net?

In the retail book trade, there are a lot of publishers to deal with, and keeping track of everything would be an insurmountable task for small bookstores. That’s why we have big distributors like Ingram Books and Baker & Taylor. Stores like mine buy the majority of our books from a couple of sources because it’s easy and it consolidates shipping and billing.

Discounts are pretty standard in the book trade. For the most part, retailers get the same discount on every book at the big distributors. Sometimes, though, books are “short-discounted.” Publishers may not offer the standard discount to the distributor, or may have very high minimum purchase quantities. It’s common for print-on-demand books to be offered at only half the normal discount to stores, which is why many bookstores refuse to stock them.

But every now and then, that discount field in the database displays as “NET.” That means that the bookseller pays full list price for the book. If you go into a bookstore and order a copy of The Closed Captioning Handbook, that $74.95 isn’t what you pay, it’s what they pay. This isn’t going to be true for bookstores (especially campus bookstores) that order directly from the publisher, but few stores deal directly with technical and specialty publishers like Focal Press. Also, there are many textbook publishers that simply don’t want to deal with what’s called a “general bookstore.” They only offer trade terms to college bookstores.

Obviously, this is a big turnoff to readers. Stores can’t stay in business without a profit, but nobody wants to pay higher than retail. So what’s an author to do? We can beg readers to buy directly from us (here is The Closed Captioning Handbook on my store’s website). We can find out what stores or websites stock our books at a reasonable price (as much as I hate sending people to Amazon, they do have my book available at a discount right now) and send people to them. We can beg our publishers to offer standard discounting to distributors.

And we can ask our readers: if you’re quoted a really high price on one of our books, please don’t give up on us. Take a few moments to check another source or two. We don’t have the luxury of setting our own prices or terms. Thank you!

A Square credit card update


Last April, I wrote about credit cards from an author/bookseller perspective. Since then, we’ve switched our credit card processing from a major bank to Square running on iPads, and invalidated much of what I said.

To provide a bit of background, my bookstore and tea bar have been doing credit card processing through a special deal negotiated with Bank of America through the American Booksellers Association. Over time, we’ve seen that the actual amount we pay is significantly higher than the quoted rate because of extra fees. The customer uses a reward card? We pay more. The mag stripe is worn so the scan isn’t clean? We pay more. Need to enter the card number manually? We pay more. The ZIP code doesn’t match? We pay more. Add in the monthly fees and it’s a big difference.

After my wife, Kathy, attended a seminar on credit card processing at the World Tea Expo this year, we decided to give Square a try. It’s a flat fee of 2.75% of each transaction. No per-transaction fees. No extra “gotcha” fees. No sign-up fee. No charge for the scanner. No charge for the software. Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express are all the same rate. We decided to give it a shot. It was a perfect opportunity to get myself a new iPad for home and take my old first generation iPad to the store as our new credit card processing system.

Square Register


The Square Register running on an iPad, showing sales of Who Pooped in the Park? books.

Since we set up Square, they’ve completely changed the user interface on the register, which threw us off a bit. The system is designed to operate as a full-blown POS (point of sale) system now, which we don’t need. With the bookstore having thousands of inventory items and direct links to distributor databases, we’re better off with the dedicated Booklog software we use.

For shows, fairs, and other events where we are selling books (like my Who Pooped? series shown in the picture), we tap on the items they want to buy and swipe their card. Processing is generally fast, although it’s sometimes a bit slow and glitchy on the old first-generation iPads we use. When we want to use it offsite, we have to either use it on a phone or arrange for a mobile WiFi hotspot.

As a straight credit card processor in the bookstore, we do the transaction as if we were using one of the old standalone terminals. We scan everything using the POS system, enter the total on the iPad, and swipe the card. If the total is over $25.00, the customer signs on the iPad, and we’re done.

On the plus side, payment is fast, there are no extra fees, it’s easy to use, and we have new capabilities like emailing or texting receipts. We don’t have to pay for extra software (and maintenance contracts) to add another register at the store. Also, the smartphone app that allows customers to open a tab and charge without having the card is convenient for us and the customer.

On the down side, our old receipt printer doesn’t have WiFi, so we can’t print receipts from the iPad. Having to enter the total by hand leaves room for error. When we use Square on an iPhone at an event, the box is too small for many customers to sign in using their finger, so we have to carry a stylus.

Overall, though, it’s a good system, and it has saved us a substantial amount of money since we switched this summer. If you do a lot of credit card transactions, you should look into Square.

Book signing notes from a bookseller to authors


Mark Liebenow

Author Mark Liebenow talks about his book, “Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite” at my store a few weeks ago.

I’ve written a fair amount about book signings here on this blog, starting with my 14 book signing tips for authors, proceeding through 10 book signing tips for booksellers, and covering subjects like credit cards, ethics, funny questions, and my own stupid book signing mistakes. Today, though, after hosting a series of signings earlier in the month, I’d like to write an open letter to other authors from the perspective of a bookseller.

Sales sometimes stink

First of all, I wish I could predict how many people will be at your signing or talk, but I can’t. I’ve had some amazing authors in the store that only drew one or two people, and some unknown self-published authors that drew big crowds. Sometimes, the weather affects attendance. Sometimes, the promotion just didn’t get that viral “click” where everyone is telling everyone else about it. Sometimes, another business sets up an event at the same time. Some friends of one local author called everyone they knew when her first book came out and showed up with a big cake to celebrate. We sold 50 books at that event, for a self-published first-time author.

Low sales doesn’t mean your book sucks. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the store didn’t promote the event. Sometimes, you just don’t catch a break.

Promotion on social media

I want to thank those of you who do your own promotion. It always makes me happy to see your blog or newsletter prominently featuring your visit to my bookstore. That helps both of us. A request, though: If I go to the trouble to set up a Facebook event for your signing and invite you to it, please click “Yes, I’m attending” and share the event on your own Facebook page.

Social media is additive. If my store has a few hundred fans/followers and you have a few hundred more, linking to each other’s updates doubles the exposure for both of us. I may have three times as many fans on Facebook as I do followers on Twitter, but it could be the other way around for you. Even if you are going to unfriend, unfollow, and disconnect after the event, let’s work together as much as we can before the event.

Also, keep in mind that in many cases you are more likely to get a prominent article in the paper than the bookstore is. Editors get tired of interviewing the same booksellers over and over, but when they get a call (or email or press release) from an author saying, “I am going to be in your town doing a signing at XYZ Books and I’m available for interviews,” that’s something different.

Be flexible on talks

Sometimes, an event is all about the talk. When a store books me into an amphitheater, I know I need to be prepared for a formal talk with a slide presentation. When signing in a store, however, realize that sometimes the talk simply won’t happen. If you get a “crowd” of three people, don’t just give up and declare there won’t be a talk. Instead, walk away from the slides and sit down with your fans. They’ll remember that one-on-one (or one-on-several) time with you and it will mean a lot more to them than the slide presentation would have meant anyway.

Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson: He’s a nice guy!

Yes, fans want good books. But you’d be amazed how often I hear, things like “Does Craig Johnson have any new books? He’s such a nice guy!” It matters.

I’ll swap you six books for a cigar and a stuffed bear

Finally, thank you for understanding why I don’t barter. If you spot some books or tea in my store that you like, it makes lots of sense for both of us to just swap some of your stuff for some of my stuff. But that throws off my accounting and recordkeeping. I really do need to write you a check for your books and then run your purchase through my point-of-sale system.

In fact, I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but it bears repeating: If you need to be paid that day for any books that you’ve brought to the signing, tell the store personnel up front. Otherwise you may end up at the end of the event looking for money when the only person who can sign a check has already left for the day.

 

Book signings are a collaborative effort between booksellers and authors. I’ve often said that indie bookstores have a symbiotic relationship with new and local authors. As an author, I know it’s the indie stores that got my books going; Barnes & Noble and Costco had no interest in an unknown. As the owner of an indie bookstore, I know that if the authors don’t support us, nobody will.

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