What Aren’t Bookstores Doing?

Jenn Northington

Director, Editorial Operations

Jenn Northington has worked in the publishing industry wearing various hats since 2004, including bookseller and events director, and is currently Director of Editorial Operations at Riot New Media Group. You can hear her on the SFF Yeah! podcast nerding out about sci-fi and fantasy. When she’s not working, she’s most likely gardening, running, or (obviously) reading. Find her on Tumblr at jennIRL and Instagram at iamjennIRL.

I recently attended Book^2 Camp, an unconference that describes itself as “a free series of meetings in New York City and elsewhere where the brightest minds in Publishing and Technology discuss and problem-solve what the next incarnation of the book will be.” It’s run by Ami Greko, Kat Meyer, and Chris Kubica, who deserve several rounds of applause for making sure that the room was not only full of interesting people, but that it was also full of coffee and snacks (and then wine). If you’ve never been to an unconference, the concept is basically that it’s a conference without a set series of speakers and panels. The attendees set the agenda as a group, proposing panels on the fly and partnering up/splitting off wherever it makes sense. And while the description focuses on the book as product, sessions ranged from everything to how to fix “discoverability” to what would happen if all books, everywhere, were free.

I decided on a whim to throw a session into the mix: “What Aren’t Bookstores Doing For You (as publishers, professionals, readers)?” My goal was not to talk at all, but to find out what it was that other people in the industry wished we booksellers were doing. The resulting conversation was fascinating, and I ended up with eight pages of notes. Some of the suggestions are already being implemented at certain stores, both formally and informally, but there’s a lot of food for thought, and I know I’ve got some serious mulling to do as I head back to work. Here are the suggestions made by the group:

  • Let us [the publishers] create emails to your [the bookstore’s] list, offering customers curated book suggestions from our catalog based on what is already selling well at the store. Book sales would go through the bookstore, and the publisher gets more eyeballs on their titles.
  • Find another way to say “Yes” when the answer is, “No, we don’t have that in stock.” Special orders, ordering online, etc.
  • More integration of ebooks into local bookstores across the board.
  • Create better online customer experience with ecommerce platforms, to compete with Big Box/the Evil A in cyberspace — a customer experience more reflective of what it’s like in your store.
  • Surprise and delight me as a customer! Take advantage of mobile devices, send realtime special deals when I’m in the bookstore that are tailored to my interests (Foursquare? other GPS platforms?)
  • Better music!
  • Scannable (QR?) or pulldown (like at the supermarket) coupons and discounts interspersed among the books/shelves.
  • More/better loyalty programs! Never underestimate the value of a free totebag, book, or coupon acquired by cumulative spending.
  • Gift subscriptions/gift baskets predesigned/targeted towards specific demographics (Mother’s Day, kids, Valentine’s Day, etc.)
  • Recurrent, tailored marketing based on past sales (“Since you liked these three authors, we thought you should know that Other Author has a new book coming out this week!”)
  • Personal shopping (like at Nordstrom) either for yourself [the reader] or to give as a gift to someone else.
  • Create situations to enable staff to talk to customers. Roaming sales, like at the Apple store? Get out from behind the register!
  • More curated events specific to learning opportunities (workshops, hands-on demonstrations), like further education/community classes.
  • Ticketed events with book sales! And maybe more high-end fancy ticketed events (e.g., dinner with the chef plus cookbook included in price of attendance).
  • Become a knowledge base for community information and stories.
  • Once-a-day prize or scavenger hunt for customers.
  • Loyalty programs specific to subjects/interests (Gardening, Cookbooks, Genre Fiction, Memoirs, etc.), publisher-provided prizes a possibility.
  • Mine your [bookstore] data in a non-creepy way, curate for individual customers based on past sales [note: this was a recurring theme, as you can see!].
  • Toot our own horns a lot more than we currently do. There’s a genuine information gap between the people who know you [bookstores] well and the rest of the world. E.g., Ruth knows that Jenn loves sci-fi, but why doesn’t it say so on a big whiteboard in the window?
  • Partner with other retailers to share expertise and recommend products based on our respective specializations (e.g., at cooking store, “Oh you just bought olive oil, there’s a great cookbook at the bookstore!”; at the bookstore, “Oh you just bought an olive oil cookbook, they have great olive oil at the kitchen store down the street!”). Related: reciprocal displays and coupons, more cross-marketing.
  • Justify the higher cost of your books to customers, despite all the obstacles, by providing services (like above) that are just. not. possible to get from online retailers.
  • Carry local products (provided by customers with Etsy stores, etc.)
  • Indie sampler-book available only from indies, made in cooperation with publishers (like Record Store Day?).
  • Communicate to publishers that many booksellers are anti-DRM.
  • More booze at events!
  • Let customers write shelftalkers/picks and recommend books to other customers.

    I’m curious, Rioters — what do you think of these suggestions? Which sound the best to you? What did they miss?