The latest Marketing Meetup hosted by the American Booksellers Association covered the different ways booksellers can market their store using a blog. The March 28 Marketing Meetup — one of the biweekly online video conferences hosted by ABA on Zoom.us — featured guest speakers Abby Fennewald of BookPeople in Austin, Texas; Colin McDonald of The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago, Illinois; and Miriam Landis of Island Books in Mercer Island, Washington.
Seminary Co-op’s blog, which is housed on the Seminary Co-op website, began around the time of the 2016 election, McDonald said. “We wanted to meaningfully respond to some of the confusion and anxiety surrounding that election,” he said, “and we did by putting books forward, like I’m sure many [booksellers] did.”
The Seminary Co-op then began posting a series called “Reading is Critical,” which appealed to different politics, ideas, anxieties, and concerns in order to evaluate what reading offers in terms of forming community. From there, McDonald said, they put together reading lists from authors, visiting scholars at the University of Chicago, and staff members.
“We found [putting together those lists] to be a great deal of fun,” McDonald said. “So, we branched out from the Reading is Critical series to books that we thought were important to other reading lists, such as bibliographies, where authors were presenting books that in some way formed and shaped their own work.”
“Sometimes we would invite authors to just kind of cut loose and give us off-topic reading lists that had nothing to do with their research interests or writing interests,” he added, “and that was a great deal of fun, too.”
As time passed, the blog’s content expanded. McDonald said he realized the blog could allow them to share things like show notes from episodes of Open Stacks, the bookstores’ podcast, as well as recordings of the podcast itself. The Seminary Co-op also posts photos and videos of visiting authors and customers browsing different sections in the store. The versatility of the blog, McDonald said, is what got his team excited about using the blog as a home base for various kinds of content.
Now, the Seminary Co-op blog publishes content three times a week, and the Seminary Co-op Bookstores publish a newsletter once a week, McDonald said. He added that his team keeps content organized through an editorial calendar.
Years ago, the Seminary Co-op had used Tumblr to house its blog, said McDonald, but they soon found there was an advantage to having it on the store’s website. When the Seminary Co-op website was created just a couple of years ago, blog functionality was built in. “As much as we can, we [try] to redirect people to the website,” he said, noting that the website is where the stores focus their energy the most, as it is primarily a place of commerce.
“With the dawn of our new website, we were able to display things like our front table and new display sections in a more browsable way than ever available before,” he added. “We really want to alert people to the fact this site is a place they might want to spend time.”
According to Fennewald, BookPeople has three distinct blogs: the general BookPeople blog; MysteryPeople, which has its own blog because BookPeople markets its mystery and crime section as a bookstore-within-a-bookstore; and the Teen Press Corps, which offers a group of local teens access to YA galleys in exchange for reviews. All three blogs use the WordPress platform.
The BookPeople blog, Fennewald said, has a few consistent weekly posts, including new releases staff are excited about, as well as a series called “What We’re Reading Wednesdays,” which, as the name suggests, showcases what booksellers are currently reading. As for the Teen Press Corps, it’s something BookPeople runs because publishers love it, Fennewald said, noting “they like having a little window into what teens are actually reading.”
The bookseller who runs the MysteryPeople blog has personal relationships with many different mystery and crime writers, “so that’s actually the more exciting blog in terms of original content,” Fennewald said. “We’re able to do interviews with a lot of authors and get some guest post contributors from authors around the county.”
She added that, of the three, the MysteryPeople blog is the most heavily trafficked blog by far. “They have a very dedicated group of people who seek out that content, and [that dedication] is specific to mystery readers,” she said. “In my experience, mystery readers are very dedicated to wanting to know more about that genre, and I think that’s also the blog where we post the most interesting content.”
On the BookPeople blog, Fennewald said she typically sees the most success when they can “actually convince booksellers to do a full review, rather than just a roundup of a bunch of things.”
The blog is most successful when BookPeople has a bookseller who is really committed to it, Fennewald added. “For our marketing office, it’s seen as kind of an extra fun thing and sometimes we will go out of our way to make sure there’s long content about either a specific title that we’re excited about or an event that’s coming up,” she said, “but our blog at its most successful really happened when we had a bookseller who was going out and specifically approaching booksellers about writing things about books she knew they had read.”
Now, the blog is seen as more of a creative outlet for booksellers, Fennewald said. Three booksellers handle the weekly content for the BookPeople blog, and the MysteryPeople blog is run by the crime fiction coordinator, who, Fennewald said, is the “mystery buff” on staff.
Island Books’ previous owner, Roger Page, wrote for the Island Books blog for eight years but has recently taken a step back. Housed on Tumblr, the blog is the brainchild of Landis and bookseller James Crossley; their original goal was to give it the same personality as the store.
“We didn’t think about it the same way we think about Facebook and Twitter and all those other things,” Landis said. “We didn’t think about it in terms of selling books, we thought about it in terms of the personality of our store and to sort of let people feel connected to us when they’re not in the store.”
Keeping that in mind, Landis said, the content on the Island Books blog centered on the personal stories of the bookseller writing the post. Books that meant something to that bookseller were then tied in to the story. “One year,” she said, “we did something called Book Fairies, where we secretly left packages and books [and a holiday letter] around Mercer Island for people to find, and we did a whole blog with pictures of that.”
The most successful posts on the blog were more community-oriented, Landis said. “We always talked about books, but it was more about the community that we’re in,” she said. Posts that featured a conversation between booksellers about a book were also popular with readers, she added.
While the store used to post twice a week, it now publishes two blogs a month, which are composed of the Indie Next List e-newsletter and the store’s general newsletter. It’s run by two booksellers who alternate each week to write the posts. “It’s become less, but it’s still an important touchstone, so people can feel like they’re seeing their favorite booksellers without actually being there,” said Landis.