The American Booksellers Association and Book Sense members have many reasons to celebrate Book Sense's fifth birthday—it will be a focus of BEA this week—but the icing on the cake may be the best news about market share that independents have heard in at least 15 years. The latest Ipsos BookTrends results, released earlier this month, show that independent/small chain bookstores' share of the market, measured in unit sales, rose to 16% in 2003 after stabilizing between 14% and 15% in the four previous years. (During most of the '90s, indies' share dropped precipitously as chain stores, online booksellers and nonbookstores gained share.) By another measure—dollar sales—indies did even better: in 2003, their share rose to more than 18%.
ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz, who at ABA's annual meeting in 2001 predicted that Book Sense would reverse indies' market share erosion, told PW, "Coming during the fifth anniversary year of Book Sense, these numbers are especially gratifying, as we are hearing from a wide range of booksellers nationwide about how the program continues to contribute to their success."
Market share growth in exceedingly challenging times is just the most tangible result of Book Sense, which counts more than 1,200 members, representing a majority of the ABA's membership. Booksellers contacted recently by PW expressed enthusiasm about the program, with a few quibbles. But this is appropriate for a program whose motto is "Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds." As Domnitz observed, "The object of Book Sense is not to create sameness but to celebrate difference."
Elaine Sopchak, co-owner of the Book Rack and Children's Pages, Essex Junction, Vt., called Book Sense "on the whole, an absolute blessing." Her greatest compliment: "I don't think a lot of us could have survived as well as we have without Book Sense."
For her part, Karen Spengler, owner of I Love a Mystery, Mission, Kans., said, "Since becoming a Book Sense store, we've gotten a lot more respect from publishers."
Work in Progress
Over the five years of its existence, the program has changed and expanded and is now, as Domnitz put it, "based on four legs": the bestseller lists; Booksellers Picks (formerly the Book Sense 76); the gift card/certificate program; and Booksense.com, the Web site. In addition, the program includes monthly white and red "goody" boxes, annual awards, national advertising and joint projects with several companies and media entities.
One of the important reasons for creating Book Sense, Domnitz emphasized, was to help booksellers market better and to make a connection "between good marketing and sales. With better marketing, there are chances for better sales and improved profitability."
Most of the program is free, with the exception of Booksense.com. Book Sense members can use any or all aspects of the program they want as they want. Domnitz said, "We offer a menu. Certain elements are better for larger stores. Other aspects of it are good for smaller stores. We try to keep the offerings flexible."
Michael Barnard, owner of Rakestraw Books, Danville, Calif., was one of many booksellers who appreciates this approach, adding, "Book Sense has been flexible in its requirements. It's like a buffet table of possibilities."
Louise Knapp, owner of Word Is Out Women's Bookstore in Boulder, Colo., offered several examples of how a store can pick and choose among Book Sense components. The store has found "gift certificates and the bestseller lists the most useful." Knapp makes shelf talkers using blurbs of books from other booksellers; "I don't pick everything on the list. I pick out what would be of interest to women, feminists, gays and lesbians." She concluded, "Book Sense has enough flexibility to allow me to have a unique identity in my community and still be known as a Book Sense store, too."
Book Sense's bestseller lists are based on sales reported by nearly 500 bookstores across the country. (The ABA continues to encourage more bookstores to report.) The list is weighted so that the No. 1 title in a small store is given the same value as the No. 1 title in a large store. The lists are highlighted in many stores and receive wider exposure, too: some 125 media outlets carry the lists every week. Book Sense uses the data to create specialty lists and regional bestseller lists, which are done weekly in conjunction with most of the regional booksellers associations.
Many booksellers echo Elaine Sopchak of the Book Rack and Children's Pages, who praised the Book Sense bestsellers lists for being "a lot more representative" than the New York Times lists—so much so, she said, that customers look for displays of the Book Sense lists and Picks.
Similarly, Blakely Beatty, manager of Blue Hills Booksellers, Rice Lake, Wis., said her customers "no longer pay attention to the New York Times bestseller lists. They are reading books on the Book Sense lists instead." She added, "People who use Book Sense are the kinds of readers who try to find good literature that has more bite to it than the New York Times bestsellers."
Domnitz stressed that the Book Sense list differs by "50%—60%" from the New York Times list and is "fresher," often picking up earlier on the types of bestsellers that appear first in independents.
For her part, Roberta Rubin, owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka, Ill., particularly "loves the specialized lists, which more people are using." (In the past year, these have included—besides expected categories like biography and memoir, poetry, and mind/body/spirit—literature of the American West, Holocaust studies, beach books and baseball.)
Domnitz pointed to these specialty lists as one of the ways in which Book Sense addresses the needs of specialty bookstores; the lists also highlight how important it is for bookstores to report their sales to Book Sense, the basis for all its bestseller lists. "We all run on data," he commented.
Giving Gift Cards
While more than 200 booksellers have signed up for the electronic gift card program (the paper gift certificates continue to be used by many more stores), which rolled out last year, some have been limited either because they are members of other gift card/certificate programs or because the program is not compatible with the store's software. But several stores contacted recently by PW said they anticipate signing up for the electronic cards in the near future.
Several booksellers offered comments similar to those of Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Blytheville, Ark., who noted that the cards have been very popular this spring "with teachers and students as end-of-the-year gifts. Kids especially love them." When the store uses up its paper gift certificates, it will sell only electronic gift cards.
Domnitz is particularly enthusiastic about electronic gift cards. "Historically independents, especially in the area of technology, have been in the position of having the wave engulf them and trying hard to swim up the back of the wave," he said. By contrast, electronic gift cards are "happening right now" and booksellers can easily meet growing consumer demand for this type of gift card: "For a modest amount of money and the acquisition of no new equipment, independents can be part of this huge trend." He predicted that as booksellers hear of other booksellers' positive experiences with electronic gift cards, their adoption by stores will grow dramatically.
No Pans for Picks
Book Sense's book recommendations recently underwent a major change. Formerly known as the Book Sense 76—emphasizing the independence theme—the list appeared every other month. Some booksellers thought it too comprehensive and sometimes out of date. As of this month, the new Book Sense Picks list features 20 titles on flyers plus another 20 available online. As with the 76 titles, the Picks are nominated by booksellers, who write reviews. Publishers do not determine titles that appear on the list, but can support them after they've been chosen by doing an ad in the New Yorker, doing an insert or in other ways.
Kris Nugent, manager of Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., called the restructuring of the Picks "really good." Because the new list is smaller than the 76 lists, "I can display it at the register, near the books, all over the store."
The new Book Sense Picks flyer is printed in a way that also makes it easy for bookstores to stamp their names on it, a move Domnitz called much more "user friendly."
Booksense.com, which allows any bookstore to have a presence on the Internet, uses Ingram's iPage data for its consumer information. Ingram and Baker & Taylor do direct fulfillment. Booksellers can customize much of the material, and there are currently seven templates, four of which are geared to mystery, children's, science fiction and travel specialties, with more in development. Costs for Booksense.com include a $350 setup fee, a $175 per-month fee and a 4.5% commission on wholesaler-fulfilled orders.
The e-commerce component of Book Sense has more than 200 users, a figure that has remained constant for some time. (Many stores have created their own Web sites or use other programs.) But because it "built a lot of features at great expense," as Domnitz put it, Book Sense is looking for more Booksense.com subscribers and is offering a four-month free trial.
Several booksellers complained that they had seen few sales via their Booksense.com sites, but Domnitz argued that Booksense.com's value is as much about being "an efficient way to communicate and market" as it is a sales channel. He also described Booksense.com's cost as "far under market," although he acknowledged that having a Web site is "an expensive project" for smaller stores.
Mary Gay Shipley noted, "I could never have afforded a Web presence that looks as sophisticated or is as easy to use as the one we have through Book Sense. I get compliments all the time."
Book Sense continues to tweak the Web site. Just a month ago, for example, it introduced a "store bargains" section that can be used in whatever way stores want. More information can be also added to the "main events" page.
The Book Sense Book of the Year awards, made in five categories, grew out of the old ABBY awards; these are also voted on by booksellers and are a focus of the ABA's programming at BEA. This year, to commemorate Book Sense's fifth anniversary, booksellers also voted for their favorite Book Sense picks from the last five years. Domnitz noted that as Book Sense becomes better known and "part of the vernacular," the Book Sense Book of the Year award will become even more important.
In a related new endeavor, in September Newmarket Press will publish a compilation of 125 favorite books from independent booksellers. Promoted as part of Book Sense's fifth anniversary celebration, the title will be called Book Sense Best Books, Volume 1: 125 Favorite Books Recommended by Independent Booksellers.
Domnitz said that publishers large and small have been "magnificent in their support of Book Sense," to the tune of between $1.8 million and $2 million annually.
Advertisements and marketing access are the two main avenues of support. One of these programs—the white box—has become so popular that it was expanded just this month. While in the past, each month stores received a large white box containing galleys, promotional materials and other information, now Book Sense will send a white box and a red box. The white box will have books, galleys, ARCs, publisher catalogues, sell sheets, postcards and shelf talkers, while the red box will contain time-sensitive marketing materials that sometimes "got lost in the mass of stuff," as Domnitz said. It will also include information and messages from the ABA and Book Sense.
Another program allows publishers to send e-mail blasts to Book Sense participants. For between $50 and $100, a publisher might choose to notify booksellers about a book or request that booksellers who want to read a galley e-mail the publisher. Domnitz called this an example of how Book Sense "gives publishers a way to speak to more than 1,200 bookstores with one voice."
Book Sense will soon sell ads on its electronic gift cards. In addition, the reconfigured Book Sense Picks flyer now offers advertising space. Domnitz explained that because an important ABA goal is to keep most of Book Sense free for members, "we need to keep finding sources of revenue."
Besides receiving financial support from publishers, Book Sense hopes to impress upon publishers the size and importance of independents. Until now, indies have been underrepresented when publishers analyze sales data—particularly on Mondays, when houses study sales numbers from the previous week and weekend. To try to fill this gap, the ABA has received informal approval from its membership to provide aggregated sales data to publishers, perhaps in conjunction with Bookscan, to which many members provides sales information, or in another form. "We have this information from 470 stores, which represent over 80% of the market share of the independent bookselling world," Domnitz said. "We need to be able to communicate this information."
Domnitz continued, "What's selling in independents is the best-kept secret in the industry." He noted that a comparison of general Bookscan data and independent sales data for the top 200 titles in December showed that for the top 100 books, indies underperformed their market share, i.e., they sold less than 16% of the total—but for the next 100 titles, indies outperformed their market share.
Book Sense has a variety of what it calls "marketing partnerships," with A&E, the History Channel, and Levenger (which makes a variety of book-related sidelines), among others. It runs ads regularly in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. Domnitz described relationships with both publications as "excellent," and said that they and other partners "understand the value of our demographic and who we're speaking to. We're very desirable." As volume increases, other advertisers, who seek a certain critical mass, should become interested.
Domnitz highlighted the Hardcover History program, which Book Sense runs with the History Channel, as a typical partnership that is profitable in many ways. Under the program, History Channel shows that have a tie-in book or that mention a book then recommend that viewers go to their local independent for more information. Booksellers receive marketing material, including displays and bookmarks that "most of them couldn't do for financial or time reasons" and use them to promote History Channel shows and related books. Book Sense and the History Channel also link to and promote each other on their Web sites. Currently, Hardcover History is focusing on D-Day titles. Other tie-ins have included the 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy (which included a bibliography of assassination titles) and John Maclean's Fire on the Mountain. Domnitz noted that "lots of booksellers don't take part, but for some stores, it's really big."
Book Sense the Brand
One of the overall goals of Book Sense is highlighting the value of independent bookstores for general consumers. This message is reinforced through a variety of informational pieces, including posters, decals, bookmarks, and bags.
Roberta Rubin noted that that Book Sense "is becoming like a brand. Customers are finally accepting that independent booksellers are part of an association."
Some stores are playing on this recognition in unusual ways. Michael Barnard of Rakestraw Books said his store helps "hook up" people moving out of the area with good independents in the places they move to. Unfortunately, he added, "we haven't yet been able to talk book-loving customers into selling their houses only to other book lovers."
While making a plea for more attention to university press titles, Gwen Marcum, co-0wner of Capitola Book Café, Capitola, Calif., said that the store has a permanent Book Sense display. "People love the handouts that explain what the Book Sense book is. We even put them on the chairs before events."
The perceived clout of Book Sense has led some booksellers to raise expectations. Karin Wilson, owner of Page and Palette in Fairhope, Ala., would like Book Sense to work with publishers to promote regional author tours, and "make available in one place publishers' information on newsletter co-op advertising and develop some kind of distribution program that would give us better ordering terms from publishers."
Of course, for most of Book Sense's life, Carl Lennertz seemed to be a one-man Book Sense band in helping the program get off the ground and drumming up bookseller and publisher support. Many booksellers expressed their appreciation to him. Now some of the main people involved in the program include Mark Nichols, director of Book Sense marketing; Meg Smith, associate director of Book Sense marketing; Len Vlahos, director of Booksense.com; and Dan Cullen, Book Sense Picks editor-in-chief.
Domnitz noted that Book Sense began in 1999 as a kind of national marketing campaign. "Unintentionally, we were a bit unfair," he commented. "Booksellers expected a big marketing campaign without realizing what it cost" while ABA had always intended Book Sense to be a "from-the-ground-up marketing campaign."
If he could do it over, Domnitz said, he would have reversed the order of what was instituted. While many envisioned something like "Coke or Amazon," he would have started from the bottom and then put "the umbrella over it."
Still, Book Sense has come far in five years. Perhaps the most important benefit is intangible. As Liz Murphy, owner of Learned Owl Bookshop, Hudson, Ohio, put it, "the best part of Book Sense is being part of a whole, being more than just a little bookstore. We have an identity. We have a voice. We're a community. And customers realize there's something going on. It's not just the booksellers."
—With reporting by Kevin Howell, Bridget Kinsella, Claire Kirch, Judith Rosen and Bob Summer