The latest marketing roundtable hosted by the American Booksellers Association featured a group of booksellers who help run membership subscription services in their stores.
The September 20 roundtable — one of the biweekly online video conferences hosted by ABA on Zoom.us — featured tips from Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia; Jamie Rogers Southern of Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Cody Madsen of Book Culture in New York City.
During the roundtable, each bookseller discussed the different types of subscriptions their store offers, how they keep track of customers, and whether they feel their subscription service is a success.
Bookmarks launched two different subscription services in January: a Signed First Editions Club and a Young Reader Subscription Service. Customers can choose between a six-month or yearly subscription and have the option of receiving the books by mail or picking them up in-store.
“It’s worked really well so far. A lot of people bought the Young Reader Subscription Service as holiday gifts last year,” Southern said, adding that the Young Reader Subscription Service sees mostly shipments, as opposed to the 90 percent in-store pick-up rate that the Signed First Editions Club sees, because grandparents like to buy it for their grandchildren.
Customers interested in buying the Young Reader Subscription Service are given a questionnaire about the recipient’s reading preferences as well as what their favorite activities are outside of reading; this is used to get a sense of who the child is in order to make the best personalized selection for them.
“As far as the signed first editions go, I feel like it’s something that sells itself,” Southern said. “This year, we’ve had three signed first edition picks that have been finalists for the National Book Award, so that’s always helpful.”
For the Signed First Editions Club, Southern primarily picks literary fiction and nonfiction titles that can be tied into author events Bookmarks is hosting. In May, Southern chose David Sedaris’ Calypso (Hachette Book Group) to read in conjunction with the author’s signing.
“We look several months out to see what the best books coming out each month are,” said Southern, and she tries to incorporate as many under-the-radar titles as possible. “I like to focus on books that we feel very strongly about as a staff.”
Cody Madsen from Book Culture shared that despite the success of Book Culture Selects, the store’s personalized subscription service with over 350 subscribers, the store is currently in the process of phasing it out.
Book Culture Selects offered customers the choice of 12 different genres, with the option to receive a book quarterly, bi-monthly, or monthly. What began as a simple program escalated into a full-time job for a staff manager.
“The model that we built became unsustainable,” Madsen said. “Someone had to make sure that we were getting all of the books on time. We also have a bunch of different Excel sheets that the woman who was running it had to use to be sure that if someone got a different subscription one year they weren’t getting the same book twice from another category. She also had surveys to go through to see if people were liking the selections.”
“Thankfully, our in-house tech person built a series of networked Excel sheets that you could put information into once and that information would populate across several different fields,” Madsen said, adding that everything from previously selected titles to renewal dates were included in these forms. Despite the convenience of these forms, Madsen said that there was still a need for some manual input, which took up a lot of time.
Madsen advised booksellers looking into launching a subscription service at their store to not provide too many options to customers, as the workload quickly piles on. Book Culture is considering re-launching the program with fewer options near the holidays.
Kelly Justice shared her story of launching a membership subscription service, but as a cautionary tale. Despite 10 to 20 percent of Fountain Bookstore’s business coming through online sales, the subscription model proved to be unsuccessful.
Justice decided to offer 10 different services for her customers to choose from. These included a “Fountain Welcome” selection that featured tour guides of Richmond and Virginia; a “Fountain Kids” selection for children ages four through 12; a “Fountain Flirt” selection for romance readers; and more. She noted that after making their initial selection, customers would then be brought to a page where they would need to fill out a form and make even more choices, which likely tired them out.
Like Madsen, Justice’s main piece of advice to booksellers looking to launch a membership subscription service is to keep things simple.
“If you’re pushing something that isn’t working, let it go,” she said, adding that when it comes to something like a membership subscription service, it’s better for stores to not try to appeal to individual customers; tailoring the selection to each customer made the process more time-consuming and complex.
In the end, Fountain Bookstore put 40 to 60 hours of labor and $1,200 into marketing and design. While they were still able to use some of the graphics designed, the service did not end up recouping the initial investment, which led Justice to discontinue it.
Justice noted that one of the successful aspects of Fountain Bookstore’s program was its use of its own Authorize.net to process payments via its IndieCommerce site. “For customers that stayed with us for a really long time…we were able to go through the customer information manager and just charge them once per month or quarter that they were signed up for,” said Justice.
She added that IndieCommerce booksellers who are considering opening their own Authorize.net account separate from ABA’s, which is necessary to use the Recurring Payments feature through Authorize.net, should do so as it is an economically viable option. Booksellers can also use the ABA Authorize.net account to charge a customer to a saved credit card profile by following a few extra steps. Questions regarding this process as well as questions about opening a separate Authorize.net account should be sent to IndieCommerce staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Booksellers who would like to participate in the next 30-minute marketing roundtable video conference can send an invite request to ABA’s Phil Davies. All ABA members are invited to join. Conferences are held at 11:00 a.m. EDT on two Thursdays a month.