By Helen Gregg
On Thursday in New York City, a panel of three independent booksellers told a room full of marketers and publicists that free pizza will get teens to read (and buy) a book, that promotional posters and bookmarks are mostly just clutter, and why they aren’t selling e-books in their stores. The event, called “What Booksellers Want,” was put on by PAMA, an association of publishing professionals in the fields of advertising, promotion, and publicity. Moderated by John Mutter of Shelf Awareness, the panelists included Margot Sage-EL of Watchung Booksellers, Francine Lucidon of Voracious Reader, and Stephanie Anderson of WORD.
The three booksellers began the conversation by responding to questions about their own marketing strategies, and how they keep their customers coming back. Ms. Lucidon answered the first question, about appealing to teens, with “free food.” She reported a sharp spike in attendance at her store’s teen book club when pizza was offered. (Ms. Sage-EL then commented wine performs a similar function for adult book clubs.) Having events and book clubs in the store is essential, all three agreed. With the omnipresence, and lower prices, of online retailers like Amazon, it’s “got to be about book culture,” said Ms. Lucidon. There is a need to create a sense of community, selling the independent bookstore experience almost as much as the books themselves. To increase its engagement with the surrounding community, Ms. Anderson’s store has, among other activities, a running group for readers and writers. She remarked that often, customers showing friends around town will brag about the store’s running group, even “if I’d never seen them at running group before.”
The panel then to the publicity materials from publishers, which they agreed they did not have room for in their stores. Ms. Anderson, whose store is approximately 800 square feet, said she usually sends unneeded bookmarks and posters to teachers, then throws the rest away. Online promotional material fared a bit better, with Ms. Lucidon raving about book trailers but Ms. Sage-EL reminding the audience that even e-mail newsletters and Web sites had limited space. The three also agreed that publishers’ promotional material was no match for editorial reviews and word-of-mouth advertising. Ms. Sage-EL said a review on NPR was almost always followed by a marked increase in sales, and Ms. Anderson emphasized the importance of peer recommendations: “It’s about what other people in the community are reading, and recommending.”
The booksellers all strive to buy books their customers will enjoy, stocking local book clubs’ current selections and exposing their regular customers to unique finds with in-store recommendations. But none of the three sell e-books, and the reason is cost. For bookstores that survive on a relatively small margin, they simply cannot afford to take losses on electronic books like large online retailers can. Ms. Sage-EL said that books have been devalued, with customers accustomed to constant discounts and promotions, and do not realize the true price of the content. Clearly separating herself from online discounters, she said that she and they are different types of stores: “It depends on what you want to sell.”
Despite the growing demand for e-books and increasing sales of online retailers, Ms. Anderson still sees a market for the books she and the other panelists are selling. She has had customers who have come in to buy the physical copy of a book after downloading and reading it on their electronic reader, and all the panelists agreed there is still a market for the experience of reading a physical book. Ms. Anderson remarked that the visually-appealing Penguin cloth-bound editions were some of her best sellers, adding: “Even Anthropologie is selling them.”