Just a Click Away
Judith Rosen -- 9/11/00
What booksellers want and publishers are providing to stay competitive on the Web
"The Big Three"--Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Fatbrain--with Borders a distant fourth, continue to dominate bookselling on the Web, but increasingly independents are making their Web presence felt. A few, like Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore., The Booksmith in San Francisco, Calif., and WordsWorth Books in Cambridge, Mass., have been on the Web since Amazon was just a glint in Jeff Bezos's eyes. In the past year, many others have taken the plunge via Web services like BookSite.com. Hundreds more are taking the challenge to enter the brave new world of clicks-and-mortar through BookSense.com.
But getting a Web site up and running is only the first step, as those who have been there, done that can attest. Web sites can be expensive to maintain and content can go out-of-date faster than Andy Warhol's fleeting vision of fame. And with bookstore staff often limited at best, many stores have been forced to add Web site management to the job descriptions of overburdened store managers and events coordinators. For time-challenged staff, posting new material may be problematic, but removing dated promotions can receive even less attention. (A recent check of indie sites found numerous links to Valentine's Day and Black History Month promotions past.)
Fortunately, a number of publishers have started to heed booksellers' calls for help in getting timely information and financial support. To find out what booksellers want and publishers are providing, from book jackets to co-op, PW spoke with a number of newbies as well as folks who have been online since the beginning of Web-retailing time.
Penguin Putnam uses a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) site (http://ftp.penguin. headland-media.com) for getting out publication information to the online bookselling world. Accounts wishing to access the FTP site should contact their reps for password information. "Booksellers need to use any FTP software to access the site. We have it divided between juvenile and adult and frontlist and backlist," said Tim McCall, manager of sales systems and online customer support. "We try to get things up two months before publication date." Like many publishers, Penguin is happy to respond to bookseller requests for cover art or copy, but it d s not push unrequested information to them. "There's not a huge enough number of independents there to merit a huge outreach," noted John Lawton, online sales and marketing manager, the other half of Penguin Putnam's online sales team. He was quick to add that "all the information we provide to the Amazons and Barnes & Nobles and Borders is equally available to the independents through the FTP."
In addition, Penguin Putnam reaches out to content sites on the Web that will help sell books, according to Lawton. For instance, Penguin d s a regular series of "Face to Face" author Webcasts in conjunction with Yahoo! Virtual events with streaming video and audio are available at PenguinPutnam.com for popular authors ranging from Nora Roberts to Lance Armstrong.
At Random House Trade Group's commercial Web site (www.atrandom.com), content is available for the taking. "Our policy," said Greg Durham, director of online, "is anything we post on our site, whether it's flap copy or an excerpt or a Q&A or reading group guides, is okay to take as long as it's to promote the book. We tried different ways to get the word out that this is available. We have a weekly e-mail newsletter, Random News at 11."
While Houghton Mifflin d sn't have one person specifically dedicated to online marketing, "it's a big component of our marketing efforts," commented Teri Kelly, v-p, director of sales. "We have salespeople calling on all online retailers, and we make sure our publicists are aware of online sites with editors that review books. Sometimes we hire outside Web publicists. It's part of the overall effort."
St. Martin's, too, is on the Net largely for the publicity. Jill Kaderly, Internet marketing manager, characterized her company's approach to the Web as something of a slow process. "There's a feeling here that since we don't do direct sales to the end consumer, our presence is less important. It's more of a sales-lead type of thing, like a brochure." She looks at online promotions as a way to drive sales to booksellers and posts Web sites for bestselling authors such as LudlumBooks.com and StephenCoonts.com. "Our books are so diverse," she remarked. "How do you promote Jane Heller and her comic mysteries and a book about pet care?" It may slight some areas of St. Martin's extensive lists but stmartins.com provides comprehensive information on the imprints that booksellers do best with on the Web. There is also a dedicated bookseller area on the site, broken down by imprint, with terms of sale, forthcoming promotions, and other items of interest to booksellers.
However, when it comes to really assisting indies on the Web, HarperCollins was the first out of the gate. It is the first publisher to have a full-time person dedicated to assisting independent booksellers online and is the most push-oriented publisher on the Web. "We felt we wanted to be in on it early, so we can grow as the industry grows," said Josh Marwell, v-p of trade sales.
Harper has an e-mail newsletter that features groupings of books from the Harper family, including its client lines, with hot links to HarperCollins.com for instant content. A recent summer issue suggested further witchy reading for adult Harry Potter fans like Sheldon Cashdan's TheWitch Must Die and Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.
The company also offers booksellers contests and promotions that they can use on their own Web sites. For instance, booksellers could order Top-Flite golf balls and T-shirts to use as prizes for a Harper-generated golf quiz based on Hubert Pedroli's Let the Big Dog Eat: A Dictionary of the Secret Language of Golf. For Josh Koppel's paperback original graphic novel Good/ Grief, Harper e-mailed booksellers a hot link to a click-through slide show, similar to a PowerPoint presentation, originally created by the publicity department to get review attention (http://www.harpercollins.com/hc/
coverlettersales/). Up to now, however, Harper's strategy has not been an unqualified success. Although it has contacted 400 bookstores with online components, Marwell estimates that currently only about 15 accounts work actively with Harper online. Anita Bhavnani, director of online sales, qualified this figure, noting, "Some of the accounts are slowing down. They are waiting for BookSense.com."
Harper is also trying to make online life easier for book people who want to track orders and shipments via computer. They have just completed a password-protected extranet site to enable booksellers and wholesalers to access Harper's systems in real time. "Of particular interest to online booksellers is the ability to find and download information on any single title or grouping of our titles," said Ardy Khazaei, v-p of Internet development.
Co-options for E-tailers
Despite the ease of using Algonquin's co-op program, which includes $75 in newsletter co-op per season with no preapproval necessary, Popelars lamented, "I wish more people would take advantage of it."
Similarly, the Perseus Books Group has found few takers for its co-op on the Web, even though booksellers can use the money from their pool for online promotions. "A lot of people feel it's a lot of work," said Matty Goldberg, v-p, sales and marketing.
Holtzbrinck Publishers has noticed the same phenomenon. "We've tried to make our co-op policy flexible," said Alison Lazarus, president of the sales division. "We're treating it like a feature display in a bookstore, except it's online." To make it even easier to use, Holtzbrinck created a program that enables booksellers to order 10 copies of a title, feature it either in-store or on the Web, and receive up to $75 in display allowance. "I've seen two or three accounts use it for in-store displays this year," said Tom Siino, manager of sales administration.
While David Leftwich, account co-op manager at Time Warner Trade publishers, has yet to observe an upswing in online promotions, he says that he d s field "a fair number of questions from booksellers on it, and it's on our radar." Booksellers who do the online equivalent of a newsletter listing--the cover of the book and a brief description for an e-blast--qualify for Time Warner's $50/per title newsletter program, but few use it. Leftwich is planning to help by putting together an e-promotions information sheet to go with the mailing piece he d s on more traditional Co-Opportunities each season.
The Bookseller & the Web
Similarly David Weich, director of content and marketing at powells.com, said that "when we've decided we wanted to push a book, it's done independent of the publishers. We don't do as much co-op as you think."
What's more important to powells.com than co-op funds is publisher assistance in setting up author interviews. New interviews are posted every two weeks and are featured on the store's home page and in its e-mail newsletter, which g s to 150,000 customers. They are also about to be published in book form. (See sidebar, below)
At Watermark Books & Cafe in Wichita, Kans., marketing manager Theresa Wells has found that "most of the publishers have been generous in offering us copy for our Web site and our e-mails." However, she's never asked for co-op for her biweekly e-blast, sent out from watermarkbooks.com, which is filled with news on upcoming events and original reviews done by staff. "We just became aware that we could use co-op for our Web site," she commented.
For others, like Colleen Hettich, events coordinator/pr & marketing, at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., using co-op for her one-and-a-half-year-old Web site is practically moot, since there is very little money left over. "I exhaust my co-op funds every year," she said. Most of her co-op g s toward a print newsletter that promotes the store's many author events. Hettich d sn't want to use co-op online if it means changing the booksandbooks.com Web site, which has a distinctly Cuban/ South of the Border feel that reflects the interests of Miami's large Hispanic population. "Being an independent, I say to myself, Why do I exist if I don't do something different? Why should I do what they're suggesting?"
As anyone who has listened to APrairie Home Companion knows, Minnesotans are different. But when it comes to Web sales, Laura Jensen, manager of Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Duluth, Minn., who is also in charge of norlights.com, resembles booksellers in other states who use their Web sites to enhance foot traffic. One of the problems she has encountered is getting basic information, such as cover art and jacket copy, in advance. "More often than not we scan the book in ourselves and write our own blurbs."
At The Booksmith, Internet manager Thomas Gladysz is quite vocal about the importance of co-op on and off the Web. "Any store worth its salt for promoting its events d s so on the Internet," he said. "We post to related Web sites, newsgroups, and spot advertising."
For him, one of the best examples of publishers reaching out to independent booksellers online is Web rings. He sold close to 500 copies, as a result of the ring for Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary. Currently Booksmith, WordsWorth, BookPeople in Austin, Tex., and Page One in Albuquerque, N.Mex., are participating in a ring for George Saunders's The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (Villard), illustratedby Lane Smith.
Scott Meyer, owner of Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, N.Y., and Volume II in Red Hook, N.Y., has a Web site that he regards "as an enhancement to our store. A majority of our actual orders come from people who know us."
From his standpoint, one of the most important aspects of publishers supplying information online is to help him with his store events. "We do so many author signings," he said. "I need information, and I don't want to type a press release. Now I go to a Web site and download art to make a flyer. It saves so much time."
As Meyer, Jensen, Gladysz, and Kharbanda make clear, booksellers are struggling to make the computer age work for them. Although publishers haven't yet solved all their problems, many are putting systems into place to serve booksellers better. For now, a rep is still a bookseller's best friend when it comes to author events, jacket copy and art, and co-op. But soon the answers to many of those rep questions will be just a click away.
Volume 246 Issue 37 09/11/2000