NEBA at 26: Marketing Independents

From the opening workshop on Book Sense to one on guerrilla marketing with business guru Jay Levinson and various panels on e-commerce, the focus of this year's New England Booksellers Association Convention and Trade Show, held October 1“3, was clearly on marketing independent bookstores.

The show, which took place for the first time in its 26-year history in Providence, at the Rhode Island Convention Center, suffered a 12% drop in attendance, down from a high of 2896 last year. Still, according to NEBA executive director Rusty Drugan, just under 1500 booksellers attended this year, and the show maintained "the same 3 to 2 ratio of booksellers to exhibitors" as in the past, making it the most bookseller-intensive regional in the country. It also broke records by collecting more than $6000 for the Rhode Island chapter of Reach Out and Read, by asking members to donate $1 for every book autographed.

While New England has been hit hard with a number of store closings in the past few months, including the Lauriat's chain, Waterstones and Rizzoli, the mood of the show was decidedly upbeat and far less combative than in previous years. Many of the new attendees had either just opened a store or bought an existing store. Surviving booksellers, outside of pockets like Harvard Square, showed marked sales growth, from children's stores to general independents.

Booksellers and publishers alike commented on the spirit of cooperation that pervaded the weekend. There was a clear understanding, fostered in part by Book Sense, that unity is essential. Many independents regard Book Sense as their last hope of proving that they have what it takes to make it as a bookseller. As ABA board member Roxanne Coady, owner of R. J. Julia Booksellers Ltd. in Madison, Conn., said at the ABA Forum, "We're not going to get a second chance to prove our clout." She urged booksellers to support Book Sense publishers such as the Perseus Books Group, which announced at the industry luncheon that it had come on board. Houghton Mifflin used NEBA to announce that it, too, has become a Book Sense sponsor.

While the change in venue may have contributed to some absences, attendees found the setup of the convention center and downtown hotels convenient. Nor did the decrease in booksellers affect publishers' mood. "Overall, it's been pretty good," said Houghton sales rep Debra Lord, although, she added, "I've seen fewer of my customers and I've taken less orders." Still, for Carl Scarbrough, publicity director of David R. Godine, "It's been a great show. We've sold really well."

If booksellers seemed in short supply on the wide-aisled show floor, it may have been because they were busy filling meeting rooms beyond capacity. Both the Book Sense and forums led by Avin Domnitz and Len Vlahos drew more than 150 people. Two panels moderated by PW's editor-in-chief, Nora Rawlinson, on marketing books to and in bookstores and the role of book reviews drew 85 and 75, respectively. The latter, also featuring NPR host Diane Rehm and New York Times Book Review deputy editor Julie Just, was one of the show's most talked about panels.

Many were surprised to hear direct affirmation of a statistic that George Gibson, CEO of Walker & Co., threw out at an earlier meeting on marketing to illustrate just how competitive the book business has become. "For every working day," he said, "there are 250 books launched." It seems that most of those titles end up in the mail room at one or all three of the businesses where the panelists work. Rehm said she receives between 60 and 70 books a week, although she can use only three. Submissions at the NYTBR are even higher, closer to 1000 books a week, while PW gets as many as 1500 to 1600 titles weekly.

Booksellers let Just know how difficult it is for them when the NYTBR jumps lay-down date, even when it seems as insignificant as running the review of the newest Harry Potter three days before the book was available in stores. On the other side of the coin, late reviews do no one any good. Booksellers complained that reviews of children's books sometimes appear more than a year after publication, when the paperback is already out. Regarding the NYTBR's recent review of a proprietary title from B&N, Just responded that the Times was told the book was available at Ingram. "It's a strong policy," she said, "that we won't do books that aren't generally available."

NEBA's Millennial Board was inaugurated at the annual meeting. The new officers are president Donna Urey, owner of White Birch Books, North Conway Village, N.H.; v-p Dana Brigham, co-owner of Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass.; treasurer Linda Ramsdell, owner of Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt.; and clerk Stephen Williamson, Wilson/Williamson Assoc., Belmont, Mass. Annual reports by the outgoing board singled out two new projects introduced last year: The Reader, a seasonal catalogue that is supplied free to NEBA members; and the NEBA list server. In other good news, NEBA saw its net assets increase by more than $110,000 in the last fiscal year.

At the industry luncheon, Adena Siegel, sales representative for Harvard, MIT and Yale University Presses, was given the Saul Gilman Award. She donated the $1000 accompanying grant to the Goshen [Mass.] Public Library. "For a kid who loved giving book reports," she quipped, "I have the best job in the world."

Playwright Arthur Miller, who received a President's Award for a lifetime contribution to arts and letters (he donated the $1000 prize to the PEN American and PEN New England Centers), spoke about the importance of bricks-and-mortar bookstores. When the bookstores on lower 4th Avenue in New York City closed, he said, "My friends had thought the world had ended. It's ending now with the Internet. I just hope a way can be found to preserve that kind of engagement a bookstore is. If there's any bit of encouragement I can give, I want to offer it for those who still have the nerve to open a bookstore."

As in the past, the 1999 convention was definitely not all work. The popular Saturday and Sunday breakfasts were repeated, with authors Nuala O'Faolain, Thomas Kenneally, Ann Hood, Sara Paretsky, Howard Zinn and Dava Sobel, as was the children's author/illustrator dinner, which featured Mary Azarian, Tomie dePaola and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. On Saturday night, booksellers and publishers were surrounded by rare books and artifacts as they rocked and rolled to the beat of the '60s at the Culinary Archives and Museum of Johnson & Wales University.

--Judith Rosen

NCIBA Speeds Toward the New Millennium

The mood of the 850 booksellers at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association trade show at the Oakland Convention Center this year was serious and workmanlike.

"It was the first time in the four years I've been coming that I saw booksellers with notebooks jotting down titles they wanted to buy," said Steve Metty, publisher of Quilldriver Books in Fresno. "It felt more like the ALA, where librarians take copious notes as they move around because they are interested in filling in their collections."

Hut Landon, executive director of the NCIBA and owner of Landon Books in Mill Valley, Calif., confirmed it was very much "a working show." Although somewhat fewer booksellers attended compared to last year ("Last year we had about 1000 people," said Landon, "They're probably down a bit because BEA was in L.A. this year."), the number of orders placed at the show was the same -- a figure the NCIBA tracks using a raffle it conducts each year with the order slips.

"The Friday workshops had the highest attendance we have ever had -- 110 booksellers," Landon told PW. "We've never had over 100 before."

The success of the workshops may be attributed to the popular nature of the offerings. For the second year, "One Good Thing I Did in My Store That You Can Do Too" drew a full contingent of active participants. But, unlike last year, the suggestions are not going to be heard only by attendees. NCIBA Board member Michael Rosenthal of Modern Times Books in San Francisco is compiling the tips into a "Book Sense Bible," to be distributed to NCIBA's membership.

Two other standouts in the roster of workshops were "Feng Shui in the Bookstore," a standing-room-only discussion of the flow of movement and energy within a commercial space; and "Staging the Retail Experience," a presentation of practical guidelines for creating a theme that attracts and extends customer involvement in a store.

The following day's workshop on Internet sales tax gave the membership a taste of what one of the NCIBA's major focus will be as it enters the new century. Rosenthal summarized it best: "Our books cost more online than the same titles sold by Internet bookstores because we pay sales tax. We believe that Internet sales tax is going to emerge as one of the crucial issues facing booksellers in the near future. And, after educating themselves, they will need to educate their customers."

Six billboards, compiled by Andy Ross of Cody's Books in Berkeley, outlining the different aspects of the issue, stretched the entire length of the stage upon which the NCIBA Board conducted the meeting. Among the bulleted points were: "All non-taxed sales online starve states and localities of sales tax revenue" and "Local bricks and mortar bookstores hire locally, and we all pay county taxes and income tax."

Orin Teicher, who attended the show along with four other ABA staff members, referred to the sales tax kit the ABA mailed to all its members in early September. "The voice of independent business has so far been silent on this issue," he said. "We need you to send letters to your governors and your representatives. This is not a done deal -- and won't be until next year [a three-year moratorium on Internet taxes ends October 2001]. It's still a work in progress. Do not underestimate your ability to impact policy."

Finally, Neal Sofman of A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, San Francisco, added,

"This is a political issue and it's going to take numbers. If business bleeds to the Internet, and community business suffers, the drop in sales tax revenue will start reflecting on our schools and teachers."

Other news from by the general meeting: the NCIBA is publishing a map identifying all Bay Area independents to give away to customers; the Bestseller list has added a new "Good Read" category and more than 100 bookstores are now posting the list; and finally, the NCIBA is setting up a new Poppy Award -- a regional literary award in seven categories named after the state flower.

The meeting ended on an up note with the NCIBA's annual Friends of Independent Booksellers awards. This year the recipients were John Creson and Mike Zucksworth of Addison, the creators (pro bono!) of the Booksense identity; and long-distance carrier Working Assets, which actively supported Solar Lights Bookstore when a Borders threatened to open across the street, and also encouraged its customers nationwide to send over 30,000 letters to the FTC deploring the Ingram/Barnes & Noble merger.

-- Roxane Farmanfarmaian

SEBA Honors the Old and Introduces New (Logo)

Although flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in eastern North Carolina forced 15 stores to miss it, SEBA's 23rd annual trade show in Greensboro nonetheless drew an attendance just short of the record set at last year's event on Georgia's Jekyll Island.

The September 30-October 3 show's total turnout was 1750: 790 booksellers from 240 stores; 770 staffers representing 200 exhibiting vendors; 175 authors; and 15 media members. Unlike the glitchy awkwardness of last year's show, almost everything in Greensboro unfolded with clockwork precision.

"We're seeing more booksellers this year than we're used to at SEBA," said LSU sales manager Kristin Casemore. Booksellers were also constantly crowded around the ABA booth for demonstrations of With an array of lively parties and author forums, and even a sneak preview of Universal's Snow Falling on Cedars (scheduled for a January release), executive director Wanda Jewell was not alone calling the weekend "most successful."

The show's forward-looking tone was best captured by SEBA president Emoke B'Racz during her introductions of speakers bell hooks (All About Love, Morrow), Jim Grimsley (Comfort & Joy, Algonquin), William Least-Heat Moon (River Horse, Houghton Mifflin), and Walter Mosley (Walkin' the Dog, Little, Brown) at the Fabulous Friday Supper. The owner of Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., said, "Bookselling is a dream that is always evolving. Changes that are occurring in our industry make us at times weary of the unknown, but changes are catalysts for new things to begin."

One big change was SEBA's new logo, which was introduced at the show. Michael Hill, a Hopkins Group rep and SEBA board member, found the design on the jacket of a out-of-print LSU book.

Still, SEBA's roots were not overlooked. In her supper talk B'Racz cited Horton Books and Gifts in Carrolton, Ga., which opened in 1892, as "the oldest independent we know of in SEBA territory." And in accepting the 12th annual SEBA rep-of-the-year award (named for beloved S&S rep J. Felton Covington), Jim Barkley, National Book Network's regional key account manager, recalled being present 30 years ago at the creation of the Georgia-Florida regional that evolved into SEBA. Funded by S&S, the award includes a $1000 donation to an organization that promotes literacy chosen by each recipient; Barkley's choice was Atlanta's Literacy Action Inc.

The show's two most prized giveaway were LSU's witty poster for The Yellow Sh P ts signed by contributor Fred Chappell and Crane Hill's Charlie the RedCat caps and shirts. But Stewart, Tabori & Chang's Blue Dog Man scored a definite hit as 100 copies were snapped after artist George Rodrigue arrived on Saturday.

Hands-down, though, the show's hottest conversation topic was that Arkansas bookseller's prominence in Malcolm Gladwell's October 4 New Yorker feature, "The Science of the Sleeper," which spotlighted Mary Gay Shipley of That Bookstore in Blytheville (Ark.).

Book Sense marketing v-p Michael Hoynes and others called attention to the article at the Friday branding session he headed. Shipley, a SEBA stalwart as well as MSIBA president, showed up briefly Sunday en route to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the archeological preservation of ancient Indian mounts back home in Blytheville. "I didn't know it was coming, and was probably as surprised as anyone," she told PW. "When I talked with the writer, I thought he would also be talking with other booksellers."

She didn't think there would be much local impact from the article, explaining, "When my mother called, I told her I knew of only two people in town with subscriptions, and the magazine is not sold anywhere here either." Maybe she will have added at least one weekly to her now-famous store's selections by the time SEBA returns to Atlanta next September.

--Bob Summer