Ci8 Education: Store Voice, Online Sales, and Profitability

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On Wednesday, July 15, at the American Booksellers Association’s virtual Children’s Institute (Ci8), booksellers attended an education session devoted to store voice, online sales, and profitability. Logged-in booksellers can view a recording of the session here.

Guest speakers included Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstores in Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Maryland; Kathy Burnette of Brain Lair Books in South Bend, Indiana; Danny Caine of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas; and Javier Ramirez of Madison Street Books in Chicago, Illinois.

Ramirez kicked off the conversation by asking the panelists to talk about how they’ve developed their store’s voice. Burnette and Caine noted that their own personal voices have become their stores’ voices. 

Burnette noted that when she was first cultivating the Brain Lair’s voice, it was hard for her to delve too deep into her own story. Likewise, she didn’t want to appear on video. “But every time I’m on video, it gets a lot of hits. People are commenting,” she said, noting that she still prefers to be the snarky voice in the background. 

“A lot of the Raven’s voice comes from me and my passions and my beliefs,” Caine said. “I think that’s a good thing. One of the things we can really sell is our story and our personality. Our biggest and scariest competition is marked by an absence of personality.” 

Caine said Raven Book Store’s brand includes the following: a fierce resistance to corporations and corporate bookselling; bookstore cats; and having a sense of humor. 

Voice won’t develop overnight, he added, but it’s worth cultivating and working on. And by experimenting with store voice on social media, booksellers can gauge how and what their audience responds to. 

Depp said that her store’s voice stems from her early experience in book-themed Twitter conversations. Loyalty Books grew as an extension of that experience, and celebrates BIPOC voices while also “removing the myth that People of Color are not reading.”

She added that until recently, she was the only person running the store’s social media. “It can be really exhausting, and I do find that if I find myself obligated to’s not as inspired,” she said. “I decided it doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be real. It has to be us. So, there will be days where I post maybe one thing and days where we’re just on there chatting.”

Burnette uses Later for social media management on Instagram. She also themes her social media on a monthly basis, which helps her create posts. She noted that her store has different posts across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, based on the audience she has on each platform. 

Additionally, she likes to frame some posts around what people in her community might be experiencing, which might not have anything to do with books. “I try to have a balance between transactional [content] and ‘here’s to you/I love you’ kinds of posts.”

Caine said not every post will sell a book, but that’s okay because those posts are where store voice comes from. “Everybody does new release Tuesday posts...and everybody posts about events,” he said. “So, if you’re only doing those two things, you sound like every other bookstore.”

Depp also said that on social media, her store uses the royal “we” because they’re a team. If the post is more controversial, she’ll tag herself in it so she’s the one that takes any possible hits. Before tagging other staff members in posts, Depp said that it needs to be discussed with staff as a whole, since privacy concerns can arise.  

Burnette noted that she has someone else posting on social media, and they meet often to discuss content before it’s posted to be sure it’s in line with the store’s voice. She added that she decides on some days she’ll be more active on social media than others, and will sometimes enlist volunteers, like her daughter, to help. 

Caine said that he runs the store’s Twitter and Instagram himself, and having one person handling those accounts helps develop store voice. He also recommended stores make friends with each other on social media, which can help booksellers both generate ideas for content and gain followers. 

Depp added that stores should look for resources about how small businesses should use social media online, and then tweak those tips to apply to the book business. “Find tools that will help you understand your analytics, and set aside time in your regular operations schedule to review that stuff,” she said. “But remember, it won’t be the same across the board for everybody and that’s okay.”

She also recommended booksellers take control of their Google My Business page; tutorials for doing this can be found online. Social media handles can be connected to Google My Business.

Caine said he’s had success posting screenshots of his tweets to Instagram, because “people like to read tweets, but they don’t like to be on Twitter.” 

Burnette and Caine said the sideline that performs the best for them on social media is store merch. 

For non-book items, Depp noted that working with local printers and designers has been helpful to increase margins. She also recommended stores use Linktree in their Instagram bio and Bitly to shorten links to make social media shoppable. 

Caine shared that Raven ran an experiment during the beginning of the year to see if the store could send a book to all 50 states via website orders. Updates were posted to a map, and it turned into a fun bookselling game. The idea was inspired by A Room of One’s Own Bookstore in Wisconsin

While the experiment worked, most of the store’s orders come from eastern Kansas, where Raven is located. “I think that’s how it should be,” he said. “While it’s great to have a national’s very important for us not to lose touch with Lawrence, Kansas, and the eastern Kansas area. That’s our bread and butter. That’s who we need to serve.”  

Ramirez shared that his store saw a boost in online sales while it was closed due to the pandemic, and Depp said that her store saw a boost from people looking to support Black-owned bookstores over the last few months.

“It was interesting because we had customers from outside D.C. who were eager to support, but they wanted a cookie for supporting a Black bookstore as a white customer. They were [also] usually new to supporting small businesses to begin with, so there were a lot of issues with them not understanding we’re not Amazon,” she said. 

Depp noted that there are people who support small businesses, and there are people who are interested in supporting small business but might need to be taught how. She added that she looked to Raven Book Store and A Room of One’s Own to learn how to do that teaching. 

This plays into the store’s voice, she said, noting that antiracism measures in-store, such as allowing employees to stay home when they don’t feel safe or allowing employees to attend protests, might mean that customers’ orders ship late. This is something she communicates with customers publicly. (Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colorado, made a short blog post explaining why antiracist books were backordered and what that means, which was met with success.)

Caine and Depp also recommended talking to authors on Twitter, especially if you’re interested in holding an event with them. Before direct messaging an author, booksellers should check their website first to see if there’s a better person to contact. 

Overall, building a store’s voice takes time. “You have to remember that you have to find your voice,” Burnette said. “It doesn’t just happen. The more passionate you are about something, that’s what you should be talking about the most, because people can feel your authenticity.”