Wi5 Panelists Share Practical Ideas for Handselling Online

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Three savvy indie booksellers shared their ideas for using online tools to promote book sales with a packed house at the Fifth Annual Winter Institute education session "Handselling 201: Using the Digital Age to Your Advantage." Panelists Andrew Getman of Politics & Prose, Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore, and Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books presented real-life examples of how they have boosted sales via their store websites, in-house videos, Twitter campaigns, e-newsletters, and more. Also part of the panel was a Skype appearance by Justin Cronin, author of The Passage (Ballantine).

Whatever medium is used, all of the panelists agreed that the most important message is to convey the personality of your bookstore.

Getman, a bookseller and communications manager at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., suggested that booksellers view the store website as a "virtual storefront leading from display window to cash register." His tips for boosting sales included offering unique products online -- event tickets, autographed books -- as well as booksellers' opinions. He also suggested partnering with local schools, museums, and authors who are willing to hyperlink to the store site. Getman also encouraged driving "back or side-door" entrances to the website via Facebook, Yelp, author websites and blogs, and other sites. Getman said that encouraging customer participation by allowing them to post feedback and comments online cultivates community that both translates into sales and visits to the bricks-and-mortar store.

Mulvihill, co-owner and general manager of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, showed several of the store's videos, which are both hilarious and effective at promoting sales. The videos are easy and cheap to make, he said. Each costs about $100 and requires about four to eight hours of staff time, usually scheduled during slower hours. While the videos sell books, they also earn co-op (usually about $200/video plus $50 newsletter co-op), build the e-newsletter subscriber base, and "define Green Apple in a customer's mind as a fun place to go," he said.

The video for Little Bee (Chris Cleave, S&S) helped sell about 100 copies of the title throughout the year, and it led to a store visit by Cleave, who linked to the video on his blog. The video for K Blows Top (Peter Carlson, PublicAffairs) helped sell 10 copies of a tough-sell book the month that the video aired, said Mulvihill, and Carlson then wrote something for the store newsletter.

Mulvhill said that the videos draw more viewers when they are embedded on the store website, blog, e-newsletter (with a screen shot), and linked to on Twitter.

"Personality is what we have to differentiate ourselves from the competition," said Fountain Bookstore's Justice. "The more outrageous, funny, and original we can be the better." Knowing what message to convey is the easy part for Justice. But to navigate the social media platforms, as well as how to best use them, she depends on and highly recommends reading Mashable, the social media guide. "I'm a bookseller. I want to focus on selling books," said Justice. "I'll let experts on social media guide me through the top 10 best ways to tweet. Why reinvent the wheel?"

Fountain Bookstore's new Twitter book club uses the pitch: "Too dang cold to go to book group? Going to be out of town? Live elsewhere? Shy? Join us in our first ever Twitter Book Club.Kelly (@RVABookChik), owner of Fountain (@FountainBkstore), will be our facilitator. The hashtag is #fountainreads."

Justice also provided tips for upping click-throughs for e-newsletters. "The newsletter should tie in to everything else you are doing, and it should look like a website, not a print letter," she said, noting it should have pictures and graphics. "This is my biggest complaint about bookstore newsletters. Way too texty. The term for that online is TLDR (too long, didn't read). If you want it read, keep it at the top."

Session attendee Katherine Fergason, manager and children's book buyer at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, told BTW that she liked that the "Handselling 201" panel focused on the creative possibilities of online handselling. "Booksellers tend to be really creative. Instead of focusing on the doom and gloom, the panel covered how we can explore and learn to do things in a new and creative way. That's exciting stuff."

Fergason came away from the session pleased to learn that videos were eligible for co-op, and with some good ideas for recreating the Bunch of Grapes e-newsletter. "Kelly from Fountain Bookstore said that we should taking advantage of the digital format, and use more links, pictures, and Easter eggs."

Justin Cronin's guest Skype appearance was the "best thing ever," said Fergason. She thought the web-communication platform would work best with small groups, especially since Skype can sometimes be glitchy. "If you lose the connection, and you've got a small group, it's not disastrous. You can put the author on speaker phone and everyone's still happy."

Overall, Fergason considered Wi5 invaluable. "The whole idea of taking advantage of what's new and exciting was the most important takeaway." And as an Emerging Leaders scholarship winner, Fergason declared her love for EL and Unbridled Books, her scholarship sponsor.

Thanks to Wi5 and sessions like the Handselling 201 panel, Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida, said she felt a surprising excitement about some of the new tech-assisted possibilities. "It just occurred to me that this stuff seems fun now, and I didn't realize I jumped that fence," she said. "I'm excited about doing videos. A lot of what I saw in the session is something that I could do now.

"I also realize that we need to make sure our URL is on our information block on our Facebook page, and that our Facebook page is our website. Everything needs to synch, and we're now optimizing that."

One way to help synch those online platforms was something Stefanie Kiper, events coordinator at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire, picked up during the session. "Hootsuite.com allows you to post stuff to multiple networking sites."

Kiper also said she loved Justice's idea to hold a Twitter book club. "I'm using Twitter, but I don't feel like I'd have the time or creativity to come up with a Twitter book club. But Justice gets it done and she has a small staff, so it was inspiring." --Karen Schechner

"Handselling 201" and other Wi5 handouts are available for download on the Wi5 program schedule.