Booksellers Befriend MySpace

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Part I of a Bookselling This Week miniseries about online endeavors that will keep you on trend and put you in touch with the tens of millions of people who engage in online social networking. Coming up next week: bookseller-bloggers, and why you might want to become one.

Teenagers and musicians worldwide are near-obsessed with their MySpace pages. They log on to the social networking site several times a day to send and receive "friend requests," write blogs, post photos and music and video, and generally maintain the multimedia face they present to the online community.

But MySpace isn't populated solely by rock bands and young adults posting photos from spring break. Rather, there also is on MySpace a vibrant community of readers, people who want to connect with people and entities that share their interests. They're authors, booksellers, publishers ... and your customers.

MySpace says it has 174 million registered users, and the average MySpace page is visited 30 times a day. The site can be an effective tool for publicity, promotion, and networking -- its template format makes for speedy setup and routine maintenance, and MySpace's very reason for existing is to help its users connect to one another.

It certainly sounds as if MySpace is a good place for booksellers to be -- but, as in the general population, there are those in the bookselling community who are skeptical about MySpace's value to their businesses. Last year, Neil Strandberg was one of them.

The manager of operations for Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver, Colorado, explained, "I'd certainly been aware of it, and I visited it a couple of times -- but, being a 40-year-old, I gave it a big 'whatever.'"

Then, a 20-something manager at Tattered Cover's Cherry Creek store began a campaign to change Strandberg's mind: "He kept bugging me about MySpace. He did a lot to educate me about how it works, and showed me that there are many communities. So, there are drunken inebriates on there -- but that's not all."

Strandberg still needed some convincing, though, so the manager proposed an experiment. "He made a challenge to me, and to himself, that he could promote local poetry in a way we'd never seen it promoted before. He put together three slam events. Each one drew 25 to 75 people -- and the only promotion was on the MySpace page," Strandberg said.

This outcome was "very compelling," he said, and played a role in the direction the store took during an internal reorganization in late 2006 and early 2007. One outcome: Patty Miller, who's been with the store since 1980, was assigned to "manage our Internet presence on as many social networking sites as seems reasonable and is consistent with our message," Strandberg said. Miller now oversees the store's Internet social networking development.

Miller laughingly said she had to "enter a very steep learning curve all of a sudden, because I'm way older than Neil," adding, "it's been a lot of fun, and I have enjoyed every minute of this."

She said five younger staffers do the blogging, and she posts events, handles friend requests, and makes and seeks out photos and videos. The sites she frequents: MySpace, FaceBook, YouTube, Craigslist, and soon, Flickr. Miller said of those sites, "I'd been to YouTube before, because I'd linked from news stories. The rest were completely new to me."

A team approach regarding Internet social networking sites is employed at each of the five bookstores featured in this article. For example, at Mysterious Galaxy, in San Diego, four booksellers have added MySpace maintenance to their routines.

Co-owner and Publicity Manager Maryelizabeth Hart said Samantha Wynns, Mysterious Galaxy's young adult program coordinator, approached her boss to say the store needed a presence on MySpace. "She came to us and said, 'All of my friends are asking why we don't have a page.' She said it's good to be in that community, and it's free promotion.'" Hart agreed, and now, Diane Bader does regular maintenance, with assists from Hart and other coworkers.

Inkwood Books' MySpace story began much the same way, Co-owner Leslie Reiner confided. "We put our page up a year and a half ago. Full disclosure: our younger staffers said we should have one and asked if we'd mind if they set it up. Carla [Jimenez, co-owner] and I are of the older generation. It was on my radar, though I was more aware of people doing it, rather than businesses."

The Tampa, Florida, bookstore has a variety of content on its MySpace page, such as a photo slideshow, contact and store-hours details, contest-winner information, and copy that encourages visitors to support local businesses. And, in keeping with the principles of online community-building, Jimenez said, "I'm taking what I've learned about MySpace and applying it in other places: our independent business alliance will have a MySpace page in a few weeks."

For the uninitiated, a typical MySpace page includes information about the page-creator that can range from basic (name, gender, location, number of years on MySpace) to more detailed (favorite books and music, heroes, a motto, blog entries).

A home-page photo is de rigueur, and users may easily upload additional snapshots, type in blog entries, and post additional information in the template's various content-areas. Thus, a bookstore MySpace page might include a bookstore photo, contact information and store hours, details about the store's inventory mix, a list of upcoming events -- and, of course, a link to the bookstore's website.

Those who wish to be a bit more creative might follow the lead of the booksellers who spoke with BTW, and choose or create a snazzy background color or design, post in-store event photos or videos, and add contest information. There's plenty of room for creativity!

The Book Vault, in Oskaloosa, Iowa, is adding to the book-loving community on MySpace, too, via a content-rich page with a groovy color scheme. Earlier this year, Bookseller Tasha Swink said, she suggested that the store create a page "so we could reach the younger crowd. In order to reach that audience, you have to go with the flow."

Swink said the store's MySpace page is "a great way to meet authors, and it's really easy to use it to promote events. I also like to write about what happened during and after events. That way, people will know what they missed, so they'll come to the next one."

Nancy Simpson, co-owner and manager of The Book Vault, recalled the store's first MySpace author connection: "Andrea Portes' Hick is popular in the Midwest because it's set in Nebraska. She's one of the first authors who got onto our space with us, and she's corresponded with Tasha. It's a nice way of maintaining contact."

Simpson and the other booksellers noted that MySpace makes it easy to send "friend requests" to favorite authors (or relatives, or colleagues, or musicians). When a request is approved, a connection has been forged, and the friends may post comments to each other's MySpace pages.

Mysterious Galaxy's Hart said she's made author-friends through MySpace, too. "I met Natasha Rhodes ... her bio in her publisher's catalog listed her MySpace page. We became MySpace friends and did a store event. Fun things can happen in the electronic world!"

Readers find their way to bookstore sites via author sites, too. Hart said, "All of the staff periodically hear things like, 'I was on Christopher Moore's page and clicked over to you,' which is really wonderful." As with websites, MySpace allows for cross-linking between pages. Also, the ability to view MySpace users' friends-lists enables the curious to click around and learn more about their friend's friends ... or favorite authors' favorite bookstores.

Mysterious Galaxy also draws visitors by celebrating an Affiliate of the Month in its MySpace page's blog section. Hart explained, "We really appreciate authors and organizations who have affiliate links to us, and it's not always easy to point to them from our website. This is a really nice way to say, 'If you're shopping for books anyway, why not do it through our affiliate?' We post that once a month ... it's a win-win thing."

Music helps to lure visitors to the MySpace page for Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif. The page helps promote music events (as well as book clubs, readings, classes, and the like) held at Vroman's stores. Promotional Director Jennifer Ramos and her team of four create photos and write-ups of events for the store page, as well as copy about other local businesses.

Ramos said, "We hosted a Summer Author and Music Series.... All of the bands we booked for the series had MySpace pages, so we made sure to link to their pages and their music on our page before their scheduled appearance."

When it comes to posting content on MySpace, repurposing content the store is already producing (e.g., newsletter copy, events information, book reviews) is an excellent idea. For example, Inkwood's Reiner said monthly staff picks are published in an e-mail newsletter, on the Inkwood website, and on the store's MySpace page.

Using content in a variety of venues frees up time for a strategic approach to MySpace page-maintenance. Said Ramos, "When we started our page, we listed every event we had in the store and offsite. We recently stopped that in favor of more targeted listings."

After all, she added, "Our MySpace page is tapping into a demographic that might not always be bothered to log on to our website ... but is constantly logging on to their MySpace page. We are joining those folks in their element and bringing our information to them." According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 55 percent of all online American youths ages 12 - 17 use online social networking sites, and 48 percent of teens visit social networking websites daily or more often.

In addition to targeting the content created and posted on MySpace, careful friend management is key. Tattered Cover's Miller said, "I accept 99 out of 100 friend requests because we stand for free speech, but I do go and really look at their sites before I accept them as friends."

She added, "A lot of authors ask to be our friends, but when I go to their sites, there often is an embedded link in their book information. I always write back and say I noticed it, and am wondering if they would like to add a link before we accept them."

Of course, all of these MySpace-related endeavors take time (booksellers' estimates range from two to six hours per week). Is it time well spent? Strandberg is still making up his mind.

He said, "In terms of payroll and time, we are still trying to do this somewhat below a bona fide commitment.... We could invest many, many payroll dollars into something really, really cool, but does someone buy enough books to pay for that?"

Swink noted that The Book Vault's MySpace page is in fact leading to sales. She said, "People contact us through MySpace to order books. It's a great tool for special orders."

Hart said she's finding Mysterious Galaxy's MySpace page valuable in terms of creating dialogue and interaction: "It's always nice to be able to be responsive to customers and readers, and give them what they want in terms of being able to say they are our MySpace friend."

And adding a MySpace page to the bookstore mix does seem to energize staff. There are many ways to contribute to the page, from blogging to making videos to posting reviews to communicating with new friends. These tasks can fit in among existing bookselling duties -- and most of the time, they're great fun.

Miller can attest to that. She said, "This makes my job far more interesting than it had become.... It has been mind opening for me. I feel I understand young people 100 percent better. We tend to stick with our own generation as we move on, so now I feel like I can have at least some understanding of where they're coming from." And another bonus: "I get to know colleagues and young customers on a lot more intimate basis than I do on the sales floor." --Linda M. Castellitto

Make the Most of MySpace

Bookseller-tested tips to help you create a MySpace page -- or perk up the one you already have.

Be tenacious. Or, as Miller said, "Don't let the technology stop you. Keep going back and experimenting."

Keep it current. "If your MySpace page isn't constantly changing, people will stop remembering to visit the site," said Ramos. "Try to keep your pages and sites as fresh as possible."

Delegate. Jiminez says, "I haven't had any qualms about someone else [aside from me] updating the page. I prefer it, actually. Luckily, I have a staff that I have confidence and trust in. Why not take advantage of that?" Simpson agreed, adding: "Don't be afraid to just say, 'I don't know how to do this. You're good, go for it.'"

Promote it. Mysterious Galaxy's MySpace URL is on the store's print newsletter and e-newsletter, website, and in employees' e-mail signatures.

Reuse and recycle. Do you produce certain types of content -- staff picks, store updates, events, photos -- on a regular basis? In addition to putting that content in your newsletter and on your website, post it to your MySpace page.

Experiment. Miller said, "When you are designing your MySpace page, you have to be intuitive. For example, when you're picking colors, you've got to play with the page a little ... It will be atrocious, and you can go back and change colors, and you'll learn that way."

Find free stuff. "If you want wallpaper or layouts," Swink said, "just go to Google and type in 'MySpace layouts.' You'll get all kinds of free stuff. If you want funny spinoff videos, YouTube is great for that."

Make it event-full. "Make sure you use your events calendar," urged Swink. "That's the best thing on there.... Keep it interesting, post pictures from around the store, and use the bulletin feature."

Adjust your timing. Hart said, "Realize that MySpace is very quick-moving, and if you're going to do a bulletin or reminder, you want to do it fairly close to the event. Unlike other media, it's not something you want to tell people about a couple of weeks in advance -- because that's like forever in MySpace time. You want to do it within a couple of days within it happening."

Learn more. Read the ABA Education report, Blogs, MySpace, and the Independent Bookseller. Also, check out the MySpace pages mentioned in this article, and have a look around MySpace at other booksellers' and authors' pages for inspiration. Smith also has a book recommendation: MySpace for Dummies.