Start Spreading the News: Booksellers on Creating and Distributing Store Newsletters

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From news of store events and book world happenings, to updates on new title releases and staff favorites, booksellers have a lot to tell their customers on a regular basis.

Even with the growth of social media –– which allows consumers to follow their favorite brands and retailers on Facebook and Twitter –– bookstore newsletters remain a vital link to consumers. Stores use newsletters –– in print and online –– to maintain relationships with customers and to boost sales.

In the first of two parts, five booksellers discuss the types of newsletters they create, who receives them, and what’s inside.

Platform and Frequency

Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, distributes both print and electronic newsletters, said store marketing director Brandon Stout, but the bulk of its communications are via e-mail. An events calendar is printed and mailed to customers at the beginning of each month, and Changing Hands keeps about 1,000 copies on hand in-store. The store has several regular e-mail newsletters, such as the weekly “This Week at Changing Hands” blast, which is sent out every Thursday or Friday; the weekly kids’ blast; a monthly newsletter aimed towards writers; a monthly teen/YA event newsletter; and another monthly newsletter that focuses on education, which is sent to librarians and teachers. Store co-owner Gayle Shanks also sends out her own, more personal newsletter, once a month via e-mail.

Because events change and are added constantly, supplemental newsletters are e-mailed several –– sometimes up to six –– times a week.

“I’m constantly nervous we’re sending too much,” Stout said, adding that he often tries to bundle event announcements in an effort to reduce the amount of e-mails.

“But what I’ve found –– and this might differ from region to region –– is that people are willing to get a lot of e-mails from us.” If customers have chosen to connect with the store through e-mail communications, and as long as the updates remain relevant to their interests, “that’s how they’re going to get their information,” said Stout, “however many it might be.”

At Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a weekly newsletter is e-mailed, said Rachel Cass, the store’s marketing manager, but the bookstore also accommodates a smaller number of customers who prefer to receive news of featured titles and events from fliers sent by regular mail. Harvard also produces a book club newsletter, which goes out monthly via e-mail and supplementary notices about big events, such as the store’s twice-yearly warehouse sale. Also, occasional announcements of last-minute changes to the store’s events schedule are sent as needed, but those are kept to a minimum.

Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine, aims to distribute its e-mail newsletter about once a month, though sometimes it goes out less frequently. On its website, the store promotes its “non-annoying” newsletter, and owner Lacy Simons maintains that quality by intentionally not inundating customers with e-mail. Since Hello Hello was, until recently, a one-woman operation, Simons explained that she has to work to find the time to create the newsletter, which is another factor leading to its publication schedule.

Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, California, communicates with its customers both electronically and in print. Through old-fashioned mail, customers receive a 40-page, magazine-style newsletter that is printed and sent out twice per year –– once in May and once in October, said owner Casey Coonerty Protti. The bookstore also keeps about 2,000 copies on hand, to distribute in the store. Staff members edit, design, and lay out the newsletter, which gets sent to a third-party printer.

Bookshop Santa Cruz also sends out postcards to advertise in-store sales and distributes a monthly e-mail newsletter for events updates.

“We haven’t thought about going paperless for the newsletter we do twice a year,” said Coonerty Protti. “It is a magazine-style newsletter, and we feel it is important to come out with something that is quality and that will survive for a long period of time, something that reflects our full brand.”

At Austin’s BookPeople, a monthly print newsletter is distributed only in-store, said publicist Julie Wernersbach. The store’s five digital newsletters are e-mailed, and their frequency depends on the content. The store has standard weekly and monthly newsletters as well as audience-specific Kids, Teen, and Mystery newsletters, which are distributed once a month.

Building a Readership

All of these stores feature a sign-up box for their newsletters on their websites, and the mailing lists at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Hello Hello Books, and Harvard Book Store are connected to the stores’ rewards or frequent buyer programs. When customers sign up for these programs, they agree to automatically receive the stores’ main events newsletter, though they can opt out at any time.

Changing Hands constantly reminds customers who come into the store about the availability of its newsletters, said Stout. There are reminders to join the mailing lists printed on the bottom of store receipts, as well as on bookmarks that the store gives out with each purchase.­ “It’s actually really effective,” said Stout, who initially doubted a large number of customers would read the bottom of the receipt. “We got a huge rush [in sign-ups] when we started doing that.”

A large banner in the store also encourages customers to sign up for the free e-newsletter, with the word “free” in all caps. “We got a quick rush after that, as well,” said Stout. Changing Hands has boxes throughout the store, where the print events calendar is distributed, and customers are encouraged to enter their e-mail address to be added to receive the e-newsletter. Additionally, there is a sign-up link on the store’s Facebook page. “We try to somehow fit it in with every interaction with the customer,” said Stout.

Harvard regularly reminds customers at author events and through store handouts that the newsletter is a great way to be among the first to know about new books, events, and promotions at both the store and online, said Cass.

When Simons raised funds to purchase Hello Hello Books in 2011 through crowd-sourcing on Twitter, Facebook, and Shopify, the donors were added to the store’s e-mail list. The newsletter is a good way for the donors to remain connected to the store and to see how it is growing, said Simons. Because the store sells used books in addition to new, Hello Hello also has a list of trade credit customers, who share their e-mail address when they receive a credit. Simons has also held an “e-mail address drive,” in which customers wrote down their e-mail address for a chance to win a raffle.

At Bookshop Santa Cruz, the frequent buyer mailing list is constantly updated to ensure that the store has customers’ most current addresses on hand. The print newsletters are mailed to 10,000 of the store’s best customers, those who have spent a certain amount within the last six months.

BookPeople keeps a sign-up sheet at the store’s main information desk, along with a pen. When putting out a fresh sign-up sheet, Wernersbach always writes her own e-mail address at the top. “People are far more likely to put an address down if someone else has gone before them,” she said. The store also collects e-mail addresses at events by having a staff member walk down the line with a clipboard and ask, “Are you on BookPeople’s mailing list?”

“I've found this specific question to be far more effective than ‘Do you want to join our mailing list?’ said Wernersbach. “If you aren’t immediately asking people to do something, they’re allowed to think about it a moment.” Staff reassures customers that their e-mail addresses will not be shared with any other company or organization. Additionally, any time BookPeople holds a giveaway, entrants must fill out a slip that requires a name and e-mail address, which then get added to the store’s mailing list.

Content and Tone

While Changing Hands’ weekly updates and targeted monthly blasts are focused on bookstore and industry news, the monthly letter from co-owner Gayle Shanks is an update in which she discusses the store and its place within the larger literary world, but also her own life –– including her garden –– in a very personal, conversational way.

“People have been following her garden for years,” said Stout. “That is by far our most popular e-mail.”

Harvard’s weekly e-newsletter features a selection of new books, bargain books, used books, and information about upcoming events. It also includes highlights of store news and promotions, and updates of news and events from around the literary world.

Since Hello Hello is still developing its events calendar, the e-newsletter is mainly a mixture of store and staff updates; news pertaining to the larger book world; descriptions of new releases, and Simon’s picks for her local audience; and a handful of interesting odds and ends, often without a direct literary connection.

“Philosophically speaking,” said Simons, “I try to make it as similar as possible to the interaction in the store. I want it to emotionally mimic the feel of actually coming in the store.” This is accomplished by doing the “ambivert bookseller dance”–– the store's passion is clear and Simons believes the content helps develop connections with members of the community. Though Simons said that she expects her customers to know the newsletter is largely promotional, she also tries to make it informative and enjoyable to read.

One of Hello Hello’s most talked-about newsletters was one that included a link to Cat Bounce, a website that is exactly what it sounds like: images of cats bouncing up and down the screen. “It’s really soothing, so I just wanted to share it,” said Simons, “And everyone made a point to mention that they loved it. It wasn’t book-related, but that’s okay. It engaged a lot of people and started conversations.”

Bookshop Santa Cruz’s biannual printed newsletter features a lot of content: a large section of book reviews, event listings, gift item reviews, staff profiles, feature articles, updates on the store, and the contest announcements and winners. The topics of feature articles vary, but past highlights have included the store’s history, announcements about major new developments, community experts’ book recommendations, interviews with authors, longer pieces about specific books that the staff loves, and republished articles about writing. 

Beyond the general weekly and monthly e-newsletters at BookPeople, which are very much events-focused, the Teen, Kids, and Mystery e-newsletters include such general book content as reviews, author Q&As, bits of book news, and book trailers.

“Though the voices differ somewhat” for the specialty newsletters, said Wernersbach, BookPeople aims to present a consistent voice in its general weekly and monthly letters. The Teen newsletter carries the voice of the store’s Teen Press Corps, a program comprised of local teen reporters. Their reviews are excerpted from the program’s blog as much as possible and the tone is generally more casual. The Kids’ newsletter is more “bright and cheerful,” and many staff reviews and quotes are included. The Mystery newsletter is edgier and reflects the voices of the store’s two genre specialists. It also includes a picture of BookPeople’s Crime Fiction coordinator and a personal note from him.

“Whenever possible, we quote our booksellers directly when we’re recommending books,” said Wernersbach. “We like to remind people that we’re people, too, and that what they’re reading isn’t just generic marketing content. Actual booksellers with names and voices endorse these books!”

The second part of this article will appear in next week’s issue of Bookselling This Week, and it will cover the topics of selling or trading ad space, how booksellers measure their newsletters’ reach, and feedback received from customers.