Booksellers Join the Blogosphere

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Part II of a Bookselling This Week miniseries about web-centric undertakings that will help you stay current -- and stay connected to the tens of millions of people who engage in online conversations about books and reading. (Read Part I, "Booksellers Befriend MySpace.")

Becoming a blogger changed Jessica Stockton Bagnulo's life.

She launched her blog, The Written Nerd, in October 2005 because she was working in an environment where she was the lone book-lover, and she felt adrift.

"I wanted to be talking about books and independent bookstores with other people who cared, so I fumbled around with Blogger [the web-based tool to create a blog] and started writing," she explained. "I sent an e-mail to everyone I knew, and, to my surprise, people actually started reading and commenting!"

Now that she's events coordinator for McNally Robinson Bookstore in New York City, Stockton Bagnulo has plenty of book-people to talk with, but she hasn't given up blogging. Rather, her regular posts (Monday is "links-day"; Wednesday brings book reviews; and Fridays are for longer pieces) have brought her plenty of readers -- and a new direction in her bookselling career.

"I think most of the projects I've become involved with in the book world are a result of the blog," Stockton Bagnulo explained. "I was asked to join the Board of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, speak on panels at BookExpo America and regional shows, and join the Emerging Leaders Council." She also was asked to join blogging group The Litblog Co-Op, and often is contacted by authors, publicists, and booksellers.

Stockton Bagnulo is not alone in her enthusiasm for blogging (keeping a "web log," an online diary of sorts). According to the 2007 Pew Internet & American Life Project, about 12 million Americans age 18 and up, or eight percent of adults online, blog. And 57 million American adults -- 39 percent of the online population -- read blogs. That's an enormous potential audience for your thoughts on books, bookselling, or whatever else you feel like writing about, and a growing number of bookstores and booksellers are launching blogs to raise the identity of the store, handsell titles, promote events, and tap the enthusiasms and talent of colleagues.

And, while 54 percent of bloggers are under the age of 30, according to the Pew study, independent bookseller-bloggers are all ages, and at all levels of bookselling experience.

For example, Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books for 27 years (and a former ABA president) launched the Village Books Blog in June of this year, with the intent of engaging readers with the Bellingham, Washington, bookstore.

"I'd already been kind of fascinated by new media and Web 2.0 and those sorts of things," Robinson explained. "I did some reading and got inspired.... I thought a blog would be a good thing to do."

The books that got him typing: Blogwild! A Guide for Small Business Blogging (Portfolio) and The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing, and Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly (Wiley).

Robinson noted that a central goal of Village Books Blog is to give readers an insider's perspective on the book business. "We talk to a number of book discussion groups when we come back from BEA and have found for several years that they're eager to know about inside stuff," he said. "And everything I've been reading and seeing about all kinds of marketing mentions trying to get a little more linked with customers, having them feel more of a sense of ownership and insidership with the business."

RCBlog strives to connect River City Books with its customers and community, too. The general trade bookstore is located in downtown Northfield, Minnesota, not far from Carleton College (which owns the store).

Store manager Jon Lee said, "We have a pretty active community, with people who are avid readers and who get involved in the arts. We thought it would be a good place to do a blog -- get some advertising out of it, get people to come to our events."

The blog launched two years ago. Lee oversees it, and employee Tom Swift does the bulk of the writing and upkeep (the blog is written in the voice of the bookstore, via spokes-character River City Raven). Some days, the posts are about new books or upcoming events; other days, the blog will highlight staff picks, a specific title that's available at a discount, or a link to a book-centric article. Photos of customers and events get posted, too.

There also are links to other local businesses and events. Lee explained, "In the downtown Northfield area, everyone's already into shopping locally rather than going to a mall somewhere. We have links to other local blogs and sites, and information about things in the area and at the college."

The Inside Flap, the blog for Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is written by a passionate quartet of young booksellers: Jay Johnson, second-hand book buyer (his online handle is Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops); Justin Riley, receiving supervisor at the Downer Avenue store; Stacie Williams, events coordinator at Downer Avenue (aka StarStar); and Sarah Marine, children's bookseller at Downer Avenue.

Johnson was the main force behind adding a blog to the store's online efforts. He said, "The Inside Flap allows us to recommend books (or "online handsell," as we sometimes think of it) at any moment of the day, in any part of the world."

Blogging has helped The Inside Flap team refine their handselling skills, strike up conversations with the authors they cover, and draw customers to the store. And, as Williams noted, blogs can create a ripple effect that benefits the national book community: "Even if we may not directly bring consumers into our brick-and-mortar locations, or even to purchase from our website, readers who come upon our blog (or any litblog) and read about a book that strikes a chord with them are likely to bring business to their own community bookstore which, in turn, supports the broader business for independents, publishing and authors."

Johnson added that he's been struck by how blogging can enrich booksellers' lives by not only improving their bookselling skills, but by providing a forum for increased creativity and professional satisfaction.

"The most important element of the blog to me is the empowering effect it has on booksellers," he said. "The blog allows any bookseller to leave a review of any book.... And, the blog allows booksellers to see immediate publication, rather than submitting a written review on deadline a month or more before it is published."

Marine, who has been a bookseller for a year and a half, can attest to that. "We spend a lot of time at work both criticizing and celebrating our respective reading choices, and it's great to have a proper forum in which to publicly love these titles," she said.

But love takes time -- whether in life or in blogging -- and all of the booksellers who spoke with BTW acknowledged that it can be challenging to fit blogging in with their myriad bookstore-based tasks.

Schwartz's Riley said, "At this point, the blog is purely a labor of love and, at times, takes a back seat to the work I do on a daily basis." However, even when he's not blogging, ideas are always percolating: "As the shipper/receiver in my store, nearly every book (finished or galley) passes through my hands. It's a great opportunity for me to find the next book I'll feel like talking about."

Arsen Kashkashian, who writes Kash's Book Corner, works on his blog from home, too -- mostly on weekends, when he's not at work as inventory manager and head book buyer at Boulder Bookstore in Boulder, Colorado.

Kashkashian draws from his in-store experiences to craft thoughtful, essay-length posts about books and authors, as well as vignettes about his family, vacations, and the like. He said, "While at work, I'll be talking to a rep and I'll be thinking, 'This is so absurd, I have to blog about it.'"

No matter the topic, though, Kashkashian offers a personal take -- which generates strong reader feedback. "I think what's changing in journalism, and blogs are part of this, is that people seem to me to not value or want that complete objectivity anymore," he said. "I love to read book reviews, but for a lot of people they're a slog to get through. If there's some personal hook, it makes it easier for them, and gets a narrative going. I think people react to that much better."

Like Stockton Bagnulo and Kashkashian, Megan Sullivan writes her Bookdwarf blog as a personal endeavor. She, too, frequently mentions her employer -- Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is head buyer -- but she emphasizes that the blog is her own project.

"I do know that some people in the area read my blog and come in to the store asking for Bookdwarf," Sullivan said. "I mention my store all the time on my blog, but it's not part of my job. It's mine. I try to keep it separate."

There is, however, an inevitable overlap between her life as a book-blogger and her work as a bookseller. "I think of my job as separating the wheat from the chaff, the chaff being all those bad books with which Barnes & Nobles and Amazon clutter themselves," Sullivan said. "That's what makes my store so much better. I suppose I try to do that with the blog as well -- writing reviews or notes about books that I would want to read."

And, while Harvard Book Store may not necessarily need the additional publicity Sullivan's blog brings, she noted, "If I were a smaller store, I certainly would start a blog, to get my voice out there. It's important for people to see the store as not just a bookstore, but a bookstore with an opinion."

She added, "Barnes & Noble is faceless. Amazon is faceless. The independents are not -- that's what makes us better than them. I'm not sure we can always prevent people from going to these places, but having a good online presence can surely only help. Perhaps people come to your website to see what events you're holding and someone at the store has read the book and written about it on the blog. That's a connection you're making."

Those connections are invaluable, of course, and often lead to longstanding relationships with customers and authors, online and in person. Fortunately, blogging doesn't have much of a barrier to entry: If you have the interest, the ideas, and at least some time to devote to regularly posting reviews, news, anecdotes, photos, or links, you can become a blogger.

Stockton Bagnulo offered these encouraging words: "It's not as hard as you think, and it's not as time-consuming as you think, and it's free, and it won't hurt you."

After all, she noted, blogs and independent bookstores are a natural fit: "They're an individual voice in a world of corporate media. Having a blog is really an extension of what you do as a store: connecting with customers on the level of relationships, offering something unique in your opinions and discoveries, creating a little corner of the world for people who love books, making connections between writers and readers, making a space for conversation and creation." --Linda M. Castellitto

Better Blogging

Booksellers' recommendations for setting up, maintaining, and holding forth on your blog.

Make a commitment. River City's Lee acknowledged that blogging can be time-consuming, but "the number-one thing is, if you can't commit to doing it well, it's probably not worth doing. If things are stale, people won't come back."

Share the fun (and work). Schwartz's Johnson said, "Get as many people involved as possible, because it's fun, rewarding, and it makes generating content much easier."

Make a connection. "Reach out to other book blogs," said Schwartz's Riley. "Our site has links to some fellow book lovers and even some of our customers' blogs. At an independent store, your customers will, more often than not, be more in tune with technology and more aware of the electronic aspects of communication than big-box and retail-superstore customers."

Get the word out. Lee broadcasts the RCBlog name in a variety of ways: "We have posters about the blog, do bag-stuffers, link to it from our e-newsetters, and list it on our bookmarks. At events, chairs and tables have fliers on them that list the blog and e-mail and everything else. We try to publicize it as much as possible."

Experiment. Johnson said, "There are so many excellent free web apps and tools to customize your blog; dig around and see what other blogs look like, what features people use, etc."

Blog like you mean it. Boulder Bookstore's Kashkashian said, "I think you have to [blog] because you like it. If you do it because you should, it's going to run out of energy and steam.... If it's something you enjoy, it will show."

No link-grubbing, please. BookDwarf's Sullivan advised, "Don't e-mail around and ask other bloggers to add your link to their site -- that's lame. I only link to people I read. It takes a while to gain an audience. I suggest reading other blogs for a while and adding comments" as a way of building visibility.

Keep an open mind. Village Books' Robinson said, "I think there are no hard rules out there about what a blog has to be, so I think it really does give a lot of freedom to do all sorts of things."

Brush up. Read the ABA Education report, "Blogs, MySpace, and the Independent Bookseller," which includes details about various blogging platforms. Visit the blogs mentioned in this article, and look at authors' and publishers' blogs, too. Here are a few of Sullivan's recommendations: Bookslut, Bookninja, Galley Cat, Light Reading, Litminds, and The Litblog Co-op (she and Stockton Bagnulo are members). Robinson likes Scobleizer, among others.

For easy reference, here's a list of all the blogs mentioned in this story. Happy blogging!