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.


Anonymous said...

Given that this was the first sales call with Edelwiess, which is an extremely powerful and multi-faceted program, I didn't think that it could have gone any better.

Briefly on the Mea Culpa front, it should be noted that on the heels of the holiday (I was off for two weeks), and you were busy doing Christmas, post-holiday sale, and inventory, so that I didn't request a data feed for those catalogues until Monday, coupled with DSL Outage ay my house, I didn't have time to do anything about the adequacy of the data feed (i.e. comp titles) from Harper, prior to the sales call, leading to the "comps" issue. Honestly, I don't know when we'll fix that, because it's more complicated than you think.

What I'm most impressed with (or as you say feeling empowered by):

1) as a communications vehicle, EW is an opportunity for me to put a great deal more information to my buyer in a more accessible way, working within the program, than I can verbally. It greatly enhances our ability to make a more educated buy based on the variety of conditions that it addresses.

2)The internal communication the "tags" feature that you speak of in the context of thrilling Mandy King in marketing: has the far reaching potential to communicate with all kinds of individuals and groups within the store: book clubs, floor generals, outside sales, you name it.

For example, I could in the notes that I communicate to Arsen, put "book clubs", and Arsen would see the note and agree to put a quick note in himself. When the their Book Club Co-ordinator queried the system for those tags she would be able to draw on a list that had a yes vote from the rep and the buyer.
That's one example, possibilities are limitless. What I'd hope is that it would enhance knowledgibility and efficiency of handsellers on the floor as well many other designees within the store.

3) Playing the stores' hand for a sec. The idea that you can move the buy from Edelwiess to your own system is going to immdeiately save hours of order entry time!

I could do on and on, but the possibilities and implications are more far reaching I'm sure than we have currently identified. All I can say is so far so good, something I wasn't necessarily as quick to trumpet when this whole e-catalogue business was first introduced. As to the e-catalogue replacing the rep and the rep-buyer relationship that we hold so sacred, it doesn't do that, it enhances it.

It is going to take some effort and patience for folks to learn this software, but the rewards really do seem to be there. My biggest question for the moment, is when the inevitable "glitch" that occurs, happens, where do rep and buyer go?

For the moment though, I am "on a cloud" that I hope stays seeded through the challenging start-up time that lies ahead.

Mandy said...

I'm a digital person and this program seems fabulous to me. When doing the marketing meeting with Tom and Arsen, I only saw a few of Edelweiss' capabilities but I was very impressed. Tagging is a marketing person's dream, let me tell you. It was so easy to quickly get a glimpse of all the titles that Arsen and Tom tagged as co-op and display possibilities. No more flipping through catalogs, and having Arsen say, "What page # was XYZ on? Was it in the front or the middle of the catalog?" Because we do all of our co-op on an Excel spreadsheet, I could easily cut and paste the ISBN # and book info from Edelweiss onto my spreadsheet. No more squinting at a catalog and hand typing in the 13 digit number. And in the past, I would often mistype the ISBN so months later when my assistant was trying to plan out displays, she would have to do some detective work to figure out which book I actually meant to display. Arsen mentioned that at this point, Edelweiss didn't save him much time. Already, it has saved me about half an hour's worth of time. Multiple this by every marketing meeting that Arsen and I have with a rep and it would quickly add up to hours. Plus, I've only seen a glimpse of the program. Who knows what other useful marketing features I might find?

Kat J. Meyer said...

Thanks so much for blogging about the Edelweiss experience, Arsen. It's so intriguing. I really hope publishers and buyers will get on board with this. Think of all you could do with adding information that there's just not a way for a rep to usually remember and/or physically carry around. And as far as future applications, there are so many advantages, and as a marketing person, I can see incredible potential for enhancing such a system to facilitate conversations between bookstores and publishers' marketing depts. before the title has even been ordered. The mind races. Really exciting stuff...

Kat J. Meyer said...

p.s. - I don't mean to gloss over your criticisms of your beta experience with Edelweiss. It does sound like there needs to be some overhauling when ATTL takes it back to the drawing board. There are some publisher's (print)catalogs that are a thing of beauty in themselves. Maybe it's way down on the list of things it'd be nice to have applications like Edelweiss do, but being able to let the publishers' catalog designers get involved somehow so the mood and other intangibles that aren't evoked via the copy could get carried onto screen...
Oh, i've got a million ideas, i do!

Eric B. said...

As a result of a conversation with the estimable John Zeck a day or two after his virgin Edelweiss experience, an idea for the use of the "Community" feature emerged. If booksellers using the product were to enter accounts of their success with a title they suspect would be useful to others, many titles otherwise passed or relegated to the "buy a single copy, put it on the shelf and return it in six months" syndrome might have a chance to sell. Every rep and buyer has heard or said, "this was a tremendous success in the (Upper Midwest/New England/West Coast - whatever) region, but just didn't sell anywhere else." The reasons often can be that one bookseller came up with an idea that worked - and would be willing to share that with the rest of the country. Reps might even go so far as to solicit such testimonials when they knew they would have problems selling in a subsequent title from the same author or a paperback edition of a hardcover. How this would work in reality remains to be seen, but it's the kind of idea that's generated by discussion.

To that end, I hope that all users of Edelweiss will not be shy in voicing their opinions, ideas, misgivings or brainstorms about how this new tool could be used to greatest effect.

Finally, I must commend John Rubin and his crew who have been remarkably open, efficient and helpful in fixing problems, considering new ideas and accepting advice. I have watched as a problem was fixed between one markup entry and the next. I don't think I've ever before been witness to that kind of change, literally in front of my eyes. Many, many thanks to you all.

Book Nerd said...

Arsen, this is so exciting! I remember that meeting with Harper last BEA, and you're the perfect person to test-drive this new way of doing things. Kudos to you, John Rubin, Harper and Penguin for taking the plunge. Here's hoping we'll get a chance to try this out here in New York sometime soon.

Sylla McClellan said...

I cannot wait for this. The physical catalogs have their pluses, but eliminating paper, and streamlining the ordering process are even bigger pluses. More booksellers need to embrace technology and change so that the 80% of the ABA's membership (the small stores) survive, and thrive. Thanks for blogging about it and I look forward to using it myself sometime!