Booksellers Face Up to New Reality

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Booksellers from three stores exploring innovative business methods shared the lessons they learned from consignment programs, a green delivery service, and a newsletter-turned-magazine at “The New Reality: Alternative Business Models for Independent Bookstores,” part of the American Booksellers Association's at BookExpo America, sponsored by Ingram.

Response to Harvard Book Store's year-old green book delivery service "has been underwhelming,” admitted Carole Horne, the store's general manager. “The number of people who are actually having us deliver books is fewer than we hoped.” But Horne still sees a strong future for the program.

Harvard works with Metro Pedal Power to offer carbon-neutral book delivery to customers in Cambridge and surrounding towns. Although the store doesn't guarantee same-day delivery outside of Cambridge, it has been able to deliver nearly every order within 24 hours, said Horne. Metro Pedal Power calculates its rates based on the delivery ZIP code, but “we looked at the pricing and decided we needed to subsidize the price of the delivery," enabling the bookstore to charge customers a flat rate, Horne said.

Despite the limited customer interest so far, Horne thinks the delivery option is an important part of the store's “three-pronged” business plan, along with its Espresso Book Machine and e-commerce website. “Eventually we would like to make any book ever in print available and delivered the same day in a green fashion,” she said.

At Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, the goal was to “do something that was a destination in and of itself,” said owner Chris Morrow. To create that destination, Northshire worked with Zutano, a Vermont-based children's clothing company, to create a “store-within-a-store,” a 250-square foot section of Northshire devoted to Zutano products.

“The key element of this is that we sell everything on consignment,” Morrow said. Zutano manages the inventory and updates it seasonally, and Northshire booksellers handle the sales. “It really was an investment both financially and in staff time,” said Morrow, who explained that one bookseller had recently gone to Zutano's offices for intensive training.

Morrow also described Northshire's newest consignment arrangement, with local publisher Chelsea Green. The bookstore now carries all of the publisher's non-remainder books on consignment, ordering directly from the publisher on a nonreturnable basis. The books are prominently displayed in a special section, and the two companies are collaborating on author events. The goal, Morrow told BTW in April, is two-fold: financial and operational waste will be minimized, and both the publisher and the bookstore will sell more books. “Just in the last month it's been very successful,” he told Day of Education attendees.

Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, has distributed a store newsletter for 30 years, but it's only in the last 15 years that the store has been able to turn this marketing tool into a serious revenue source. “The fact is that we spend a normal amount on marketing every year and we have a negative marketing cost on the bottom line,” said store co-owner Chuck Robinson.

When Village Books worked with a local printer to reformat its newsletter as a magazine, they decided that “it would look a little bit more legit as a magazine if it had ads in it.” Today, up to 25 percent of the quarterly Chuckanut Reader's content is advertising. Much of it comes from other local businesses and that has opened up some surprising bartering opportunities. For instance, the local newspaper advertises on the back page of the magazine, and in exchange it gives Village Books an ad of equal value in the newspaper.

The 56-page magazine takes about 120 hours of staff time each quarter, mostly for production. Much of the non-advertising content comes from reviews and other writing store staff members already do. Thirteen thousand copies of each issue are distributed, and interest remains high. “We have a waiting list right now for advertisers,” said Robinson. “It's more targeted than the newspaper is for a lot of people who advertise with us.”

Another area of innovation for all three stores is print-on-demand: each offers the services of an in-store Espresso Book Machine (EBM). While Morrow, Horne, and Robinson agreed that the machines have their quirks, they have also been pleased by the overall experience. “The machine's probably paid for itself a couple of times over out of the free marketing and publicity,” said Morrow. “Our customers' perception of us as a bookstore has changed.”

Customers have been interested in the EBM's title database, and especially in the opportunities it offers for self-publishing. One area that has been stronger than expected, though, is corporate publishing. “We've had businesses come and say they need to have things printed for their customers, and they need to be customizable,” said Horne, so other businesses have turned to Harvard for a service they can't get at the print shop.

In the end, all three booksellers seemed to agree with Morrow: “We need to be innovating and experimenting. If we're not, we're going to be out of business.”