“This is a really scary time, but it’s also a very exciting time,” Ingram Content Group CEO and Chairman John Ingram told BookExpo America attendees at the Wednesday afternoon keynote, “Shaping the Future of the Book — Insight From Leaders Who Are Transforming How We Read.” The Ingram Company philosophy, he said, is that the best way to predict the future is to try to create it yourself.
Ingram, who served as moderator for the panel discussion, welcomed a group of industry leaders that he said are doing exactly that: incoming ABA President Steve Bercu of BookPeople in Austin, Texas; Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books; Jane Friedman, CEO and co-founder of Open Road Integrated Media; and Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group.
Bercu began by noting that the independent bookstore channel was seeing sales growth, and his own store had logged the best three years in its history and is working on its fourth. “I realized many years ago that there was absolutely no reason for anyone to come to my store to buy a book; anybody could buy a book at home in their bedroom if they felt like it,” Bercu said. “There has to be some value added to the book itself.” To keep BookPeople relevant in changing times, Bercu has made it a point to establish strong roots in the community and has ramped up efforts to keep the store interesting, because, he said, a bookstore acts as the last, but critical, step in the selling chain that leads to the ultimate users of the product.
As an example, Bercu explained how a book on the African country of Malawi led his staff to coordinate a program with local schools that will reach 30,000 students in fourth through seventh grades, as well as their guardians. Teachers are creating modules to teach students about Malawi, and upon their completion, the students will have the opportunity to become pen pals with students in the African country. The bookstore will throw a party and give prizes, and will reach thousands of people in the community, all of whom will have an opportunity to establish a relationship with the store through the program, Bercu said.
Marcus echoed the need to keep kids interested in books and said those efforts must extend beyond content. “We get a lot of our ideas [from booksellers],” said Marcus, who recalled that Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, ran an IndieBound Naperville “Grow Your Heart Three Sizes” campaign that had customers looking for Dr. Seuss’ Grinches throughout the town during the holiday season. The campaign ended with a party that included prizes and refreshments and an opportunity to meet the Grinch himself. Random House has taken notes from the program, she said, and intends to bring it to a national level.
“The key word that we have stapled to our foreheads is ‘discoverability,’” said Marcus. With increased social media and connections to the public, Random House has strengthened children’s book brands and authors to be what readers are looking for, she said, adding that booksellers’ willingness to sell ancillary products, like learning games, that help grow the awareness of books and brands is a factor in their success.
Looking at the ever-growing digital book world, Ingram noted, “It’s not an either/or world. It’s actually an either/and world,” though the introduction of all forms of content can be complicated and expensive. Related to that, Marcus talked about the efforts of some publishers to develop apps to supplement children’s books — an initiative that proved largely unsuccessful.
To respond to opportunities in the growing digital age, Friedman created Open Road Media, a company whose initiatives include taking backlist titles — classics that have been edited, loved, and sold — and aggressively marketing them in e-book format.
As self-published authors become more prevalent, bookstores have learned to adapt to that as well. BookPeople’s strategy is to treat self-published authors the same way it would treat a traditional publisher, since the author is, in fact, the publisher, Bercu said. BookPeople expects co-op funds for events and store placement and asks self-publishers to handle every step that a traditional publisher would. The store offers a printed explanation of its requirements for taking on self-published authors, and the staff has a clear process for vetting titles. “We do expect to monetize, to some degree, the hassle for us of dealing with an individual publisher who only has one title,” Bercu concluded.
“Anyone who wants to publish a book should be able to,” said Friedman, adding that the self-publishing trend, which has proliferated to the point of distraction, will eventually level off.
On the topic of direct-to-consumer relationships, the three publishers said that they try to listen to consumers’ needs and work within their companies to meet them. Responding to these comments, Bercu noted that publishers still have to get the title and the author to the bookstore so the author can meet the reader. “That’s one of the great values of bookstores. We actually get these authors in contact with the people who actually care,” he said.
Marcus said that at Random House one of the core goals of sales representatives is to work alongside booksellers, to bring back to the team knowledge about what’s going on with booksellers, with authors, and with fans. Friedman noted that Open Road wants to work with booksellers and hear from them as to how the company can help them sell books in all formats in their stores.
In response to an audience question about e-books contributing to a bookstore’s bottom line, Friedman said, “The pricing of e-books is going to level out somewhere and it’s not going to be $2.99…We just have to bear with it.” But she noted that a great way to reel in a customer is to sell them one great e-book and have them come back to the store to get the rest of the author’s collection.
Pietsch praised the ABA/Kobo relationship and encouraged booksellers to convert customers to the program. “The cumbersomeness of it will diminish,” he said. “The idea that the community needs to support each other to stay alive is a powerful one that needs to continue to be promulgated and it will get easier for you to sell e-books to your customers.”
And don’t forget, said Marcus, that part of the beauty of e-books is that they can be sold away from the shelves — there’s an opportunity to offer a wealth of inventory that wouldn’t otherwise fit in the store, and it becomes an opportunity to attract new customers and satisfy any book request.