Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Changes Here, There and Everywhere

Avin Domnitz to Leave American Booksellers Association

I was quite surprised by the announcement last week that Avin Domnitz would be leaving his post as Chief Executive Officer of the American Booksellers Association later this year. To me, Domnitz, with his booming voice and large energetic bearing, has come to embody the trade group that has fought so valiantly for independent booksellers during this past decade.

Domnitz seemed to be everywhere, from the corridors of the large convention halls in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. or Los Angeles at Book Expo America and the hotel lobbies that house the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association meetings in Colorado, to our new fiction section browsing for a book to read while on vacation. He was constantly championing the cause of independent bookstores at these gatherings and he was always willing to speak one on one to booksellers with suggestions on how to survive in this almost impossible business climate.

Over the years, I've had to endure a lot of complaints about the ABA. Booksellers would grumble that the ABA wasn't doing enough to help member stores, the initiatives were ineffective, ABA should only focus on one particular agenda item (the focus always changed with the person I was talking to), and that it was absurd for poor, beaten down booksellers to have to support the large staff infrastructure and high salaries of ABA. Heck, if someone could make money in bookselling more power to them.

I never took much stock in those complaints. The job that Domnitz was trying to accomplish was remarkably complex. The ABA is made up mostly of tiny little almost invisible mom and pop stores while the big glamorous booksellers (like Powell's and Tattered Cover) get all of the press and attention. It's almost two completely different constituencies. Domnitz, through programs like Booksense (now IndieBound), the suing of publishers for unfair trade practices and most recently the litigation in New York to get Amazon to pay sales tax has tried to find the common ground.

I don't think it will be easy to find someone to replace Domnitz. He was simply impossible to ignore. Sure, some booksellers thought he was full of bombast and empty rhetoric, but people took notice when he entered the room. He got publishers to pay attention to independent stores during a time when there were many more reasons for them to cast us aside.

Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops Closing
This headline nearly broke my heart until I saw the glimmer of hope in the articles. Harry W. Schwartz, the venerable bookseller that has been serving Milwaukee for 82 years, announced yesterday that it was going to close its four stores at the end of March. My sadness was personal because my dear friend Daniel Goldin has been the buyer for Schwartz for over 20 years.

Daniel is the smartest, most passionate bookseller I know. He's an amazing reader, a kind soul and he possesses a remarkable business mind. I owe much of my success as a buyer to the advice he has given me over the years. I almost picked up the phone and called him to commiserate before I finished reading the article. Luckily, I didn't. It turns out that Daniel will be purchasing Schwartz's best store, the Downer Avenue location and renaming it Boswell Book Company. If anyone can make an independent book store thrive in an old Great Lake's city it is Daniel.

Still, the news was a major blow to people in the independent bookseller community. After all, Schwartz is one of the great stores in the country (hosting magnificent events under the guidance of another old friend of mine Nancy Quinn) and it has survived rough times in the past including the Great Depression. But this time there was no hope. Sales were down 17 % last year and didn't show any promise of rebounding this year. Carol Grossmeyer, Schwartz's President, said, "we really believe that the multiple-store model that we had become, and that worked so well for us in the 1980s and 1990s, is not feasible anymore."

If she's right then we could be headed for very interesting times in the bookselling community. Barnes & Noble and Borders have taken the multiple-store model to huge extremes. However, Powell's and Tattered Cover also have multiple locations. What are the implications for them? Will they go the way of Schwartz and Washington bookseller Olsson's? I hope not. The results of more closings like this, leading to fewer dedicated booksellers will be truly devastating for authors and readers in addition to booksellers.

The irony that Domnitz got his bookselling experience and made his reputation at Schwartz during their heyday is quite hard to avoid this week. His retirement and the closing of Schwartz seems like a true end of a bookselling era.

Boy, It's a Little Stressful Around Here

We've seen our share of tension here at the store over the past few weeks. It's been a time of reckoning as we try to align our staff and our inventory to the new economic reality. It's also been a time of looking ahead and trying to project what our future holds. Projecting much optimism is nearly impossible.

Fortunately, due to normal staff turnover, we have been able to avoid layoffs. However, we have shifted people's responsibilities, accepted resignations without any hope of hiring replacements and foisted more work upon fewer people. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this transition is that we are struggling to make our young staff members understand the seriousness of the situation. It's been a challenge.

As I listened to Barack Obama's inaugural address this morning and he discussed putting aside petty recriminations and choosing work over leisure, I couldn't help thinking of the hurdles that our staff faces in these coming months. I can only hope that we can rise and meet our challenges.

Meeting these enormous challenges despite the obvious difficulties is truly our best option. I think I echo most of our staff's feelings when I say that I've had enough change for one year and it's only Jan. 20.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

To Go Where No Buyer Has Gone Before

I got a glimpse into the future this week when I bought the HarperCollins children's and the Penguin adult hardcover lists using the electronic catalog Edelweiss instead of the paper catalogs provided by the publishers. Edelweiss, an offshoot of the popular bookstore data analysis program Above the Treeline, is attempting to position itself as the industry's catalog repository of the future.

Why should each publisher have to develop their own ecatalog when Treeline can create a format that will allow them to just plug their title information into it? Overjoyed buyers would only have to learn one program instead of dozens. At least that's the reasoning of Treeline's founder John Rubin. Rubin has been working furiously since last June's Book Expo America in Los Angeles, when HarperCollins announced their ambitious plans to rid themselves of paper catalogs, to get his product off the ground.

Rubin was in my office for the HarperCollins children's buy along with my Harper rep John Zeck. Zeck and I have been two of the biggest proponents of Treeline over the last few years. It's a program with an enormous amount of potential to revolutionize how bookstores and publishers relate to each other. Publishers can see nearly real time sales data at stores on a title-by-title level as well as their aggregate sales.

Much to my frustration, the industry tends to use Treeline, which has the analytical power of a Maserati, as a child's tricycle. Publisher reps timidly suggest that stores buy a title here and there based on Treeline data. Instead, the publishers could do something truly useful like allot co-op dollars to stores for the year based on the Treeline data. Get one more marginal title into a store or save hundreds of hours of extra labor? Seems like an easy decision, and yet every publisher has opted for the extra title so far. In my experience, only Random House has made some attempts to use the true power of the program.

Rubin is smart enough to know that his program is under-utilized by the industry and saw a golden opportunity to position Treeline front and center as publishers looked for ways to save catalog costs. It's a bold step but one that might be necessary for the long-term survival of Treeline. When the cost-cutters at bookstores and publishers start snipping their budgets, it's easy to imagine Treeline, a program filled with potential but short on results, just might go by the wayside.

Well, after two full days on Edelweiss, I can honestly say that Rubin is well on his way to changing the industry in a drastic way. Each buy took a little longer than it would have taken using a paper catalog, but I should be able to get that time back when I dump the order directly into our Point of Sale system rather than having to enter each title of the purchase order by hand.

Edelweiss is organized by catalog just like the publisher's mailings, and that's how I bought the lists. It is possible to reorganize the catalogs on Edelweiss and look at a publisher's whole list by category or date. That's what I planned to do with the Penguin hardbacks, but I was thwarted. When I brought up all of the fiction titles, the rep's notes, which contained co-op incentives, disappeared. It was frustrating, but an email to Rubin resulted in the glitch being fixed by the end of the day.

The more challenging and entertaining appointment was the Harper's children's buy. Zeck and I have a routine (we are both gregarious East Coast guys) that usually distracts everyone else in the office. The day is spent thrusting and parrying over the merits of Harper's books, co-op, publishing philosophy, as well as our bookstore's buying policies, independent stores' reluctance to change and whatever happens to be in the news that day. Add in the fact that I hadn't bought a major children's list in over a year, the confusion of learning Edelweiss and Rubin's high energy presence and it was quite a day in the office.

The next day Penguin rep Tom Benton and I were able to power through the Putnam, Viking, Riverhead and Penguin Press catalogs in just over four hours. His appointment was noticeably calmer then Zeck's. We were both a little more familiar with the mechanics of the ecatalog and Tom's demeanor is much more low key. Instead of a fencing match, our appointments are more like a civil conversation between old friends. We trade ideas about what songs to download from emusic and consult the baseball schedule before making our summer appointment. Also, with Rubin off skiing in the Colorado high country, we were able to proceed more like a normal appointment.

During the Harper meeting, Rubin quickly typed in notes every time Zeck or myself stumbled over a difficulty in the program. Why can't we assign department categories to books when we are in the title list view? How can we tell whether a comparable title mentioned by the publisher is a hardback or paperback? Shouldn't this page load quicker? What is this buyer rating feature?

We spent most of the day in the single title detail screens, going title by title through the catalog. I would have preferred scrolling down the title list screen that shows dozens of titles and then just darting in and out of the detail screens but this just wasn't practical because the title list screen took a little too long to load. Rubin left determined to increase the speed of the list page and was already emailing his programmers with ideas before the appointment ended.

One of the catalog's features is that the reps can rate the priority of the titles and buyers can sort by the priority level. Zeck had rated a couple dozen at high priority, and in the future I would probably start with those titles. Going title by title through the catalog, it was interesting to see which ones popped out as priority titles.

I loved having the comparable books a single click away rather than having to type in the ISBN. The other great thing about seeing the author's previous title in Edelweiss is that the sales and inventory data for the first three months after the book was released come from Treeline. In our POS system if a title is over a year old we lose this monthly data. These out-of-the-gate sales are critical for determining an initial buy, and for the first time ever, I was able to see it on older titles.

I also appreciated that Edelweiss is adding up your buy as you go along. That was particularly critical since I was intent on ordering less this year. During the Penguin buy, I was determined to cut at least 20% off of last year's buy. It was great to have a running tally of the dollars spent as I went along. Unfortunately, Penguin made this task of cutting dollars fairly easy by publishing a pretty weak list this season. Hopefully, the presence of Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Inherent Vice, which Tom described as "the most accessible Pynchon ever" will help redeem the list.

I found that I relied on Zeck and Benton more than usual during these appointments. This might have been because the difficulty of dealing with a new program made it a bit harder to focus on the titles or that I needed more help in deciding which piece of the abundant information to give credence. Harper sometimes listed 25 comparable titles for a children's picture book or teen fiction title. I'd turn to Zeck with a forlorn look in my eyes and he'd invariably tell me to compare the book to Marley and Me which seemed to be listed half the time.

Penguin actually had the opposite problem -- a lack of information. Putnam at least populated its catalog with cover images, descriptions, quotes and an occasional comparable title, but Penguin Press frequently had no information whatsoever accompanying its titles. One piece of information that I had on the Penguin Press catalog was Tom's suggested orders. Those suggestions would have been more effective if they weren't hovering in the middle of an empty screen. Reviewing those titles, I'd look at Tom's lonely suggestion and ask him if it was perhaps based on more information than I could see. We both peered at his paper catalog with its scribbled notes about print runs and publicity and tried to come up with a number.

When my buying appointment with John Zeck was finally over (Harper's children's catalog alone contained 232 items, and that didn't include Greenwillow or Hyperion), we were too exhausted to attempt a marketing meeting. Next meeting I might tell him to just sort out his top 100 titles before we sit down. Tom Benton and I decided to meet with the store's marketing manager after we'd completed all of the online catalogs (significantly fewer titles than Harper) and save the old-fashioned Dorling Kindersley's and Rough Guides' paper catalogs for another day.

As I was doing the buys, I was using Edelweiss' tagging feature to highlight different titles for our store's newsletter, displays and possible events. Our marketing manager opened up the catalog, sorted it by the tags and instantly had the information she needed. She cut and pasted the title and ISBN info from the catalogs, and the marketing appointment took half the time it normally does. I think I can safely say she was an instant convert to the ecatalogs.

On reflection, I don't think too many buyers will choose to use Edelweiss instead of the publishers' catalogs at this point. Buyers, like many people, are averse to change and it's not clear that the ecatalog is advantageous yet. Looking at all the titles and imprints on screen in the same format (a Putnam title looks like a Viking title) gets a little tedious. I think a few tweaks, especially getting the title list page to load faster and being able to order directly off of that page could change things quickly. Suddenly, the ecatalog would be quicker to buy than the paper ones because it's faster to scroll down a page of books that are mostly skips than to turn page after page.

I was extremely impressed with John Rubin's attentiveness to what the reps and I needed and his willingness to make the necessary changes to make the system even better. After all, I was basically the first beta tester and I consider it a bit of a miracle that we were able to do two major buys in the first two days. Hopefully, over the next few months several more teams of curious and intrepid buyers and sales reps will use the program. Their input could mean the difference between revving up that sports car engine he's designed or merely pedaling uphill in one speed.