A Look at Why Booksellers Should Embrace the New Technologies

May 28, 2009
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May 28 – June 4, 2009 Edition

A Look at Why Booksellers Should
Embrace the New Technologies

by Stephanie Anderson
Reprinted from "Namastechnology: The Whys," with permission from Shelf-Awareness.com

In my first two columns, I've talked about specifics, the hows, of technology–how to join in and what the possibilities are once we're there. Now it's time to talk about the why. Why should booksellers, members of a profession dedicated to in-person customer service and paper books, embrace these technologies? Short answer: because much of this technology, social media in particular, is just a new variation on what booksellers already do and presents a new opportunity to connect with current and future customers.

Though almost every ABA educational panel I've attended has been useful, a few really stick out in my mind. If you've ever attended an efficiency workshop (member password needed), you know the shocking truth that booksellers tend to spend a lot of time on reactive, routine tasks (hello, waiting on hold to eport damages) and the least amount of time on things that help build a business long-term: proactive, or high leverage, tasks.

At first glance, it may seem that social media is a wormhole of a reactive task. Have you seen how many ways there are to ask someone to be a pirate, buy someone a virtual drink and rate your friends on Facebook? And, of course, the type of social media platform that's in vogue is flighty. First it was MySpace–now everyone is telling you not to bother. Facebook is big, but recent changes have left regular users frustrated with the best way to use it. And Twitter is still cool even after Oprah mentioned it on her show, but a recent study shows that

people might not be using it as much as was first reported. So why bother learning a new social media every year?

Because social media, used effectively, is a proactive, high leverage task. Despite its quirks and growing pains, people love social media, and by people, I mean customers. More people use social media with every incarnation, and with every incarnation, social media becomes a simpler tool to connect with customers. This is absolutely crucial for independent bookselling. Connecting with customers is our bread and butter and rent money.

Whether you're in Brooklyn or Boise, the number of people connecting online is hard to ignore: most American adults spend hours online

almost everyday. Statistics show that people with higher education levels and women–representing groups that read a lot–are two groups especially likely to be online everyday. So it's fair to assume there's an overlap between people who read a lot and people who spend a lot of time online. In other words, your customers are online, and many of them are online everyday. Most important, they are, without a doubt, online far more frequently than they are in your store.

Frankly, I want to be where my customers are everyday, since I accept I can't convince them to be in my store everyday. It's good

for business, and it makes my life more interesting. (Bookstores attract some strange folks, but most customers are great people. One makes yogurt in her crockpot, which turns out to be fantastic. Another has the same taste in movies as you. Looking to expand the number of sci-fi authors in your store? I guarantee you that multiple customers will have fantastic suggestions.) Social media turns the five-minute conversation you have every other week with a customer into an on-going low-level conversation that's mutually beneficial. You can become friends with your customers, which is almost always a good thing. It deepens existing relationships and creates new ones.

This is also good for business. More and more, people want a true connection with the places they shop and the people who work there. People are always going to be more likely to buy something from someone they like and whothinks their baby is cute. This is nothing new, as you know. Booksellers have always had a vested interest in our communities that goes beyond making money. I've lost count of the number of long-time booksellers who have told me the joys of watching children start with board books and slowly work their way through Ramona and A Wrinkle in Time to the other side of the store. Behind the hashtags and the status updates, social media is about that same connection to community and people.

Social media is, in many ways, good independent bookselling squared. As a bookseller, I read good books and try to match them with the right people. Social media deepens my knowledge–I know what people are reading everyday and what they think about it, so online and in the store I'm better at recommending titles. And being online means I can recommend those books I truly love to twice as many people as walk in the store everyday.

For further proof that social media is unusually good for indies (beyond this recent Ad Age article, shared with me via Facebook), just look at the ways that corporate booksellers have, for all their Internet domination, squandered the potential of social media. Amazonfail wasn't just a matter of Amazon messing up its cataloguing. It was also about the company's poor job of connecting with and assuring their customers when many of them were feeling personally betrayed. Chain bookstores tweet and have Facebook pages, but few large corporations will ever be comfortable allowing random employees the freedom to be themselves online in the way that the best bookstore tweeps are. Corporate bookstores might have won the initial Internet battle by showing up first and claiming much of the available land. But independents can win the next round by showing up as ourselves, doing what we love and doing so for a larger audience.

Want to talk about social media in person? Megan Sullivan of Harvard Bookstore, Ann Kingman of Random House, Len Vlahos of the ABA and I will discuss the subject at the ABA Day of Education

. "Social Media and the Independent Bookseller," Thursday, May 28, 2:45-4 p.m. See Stephanie's blog at http://bookavore.com and visit her on Twitter as bookavore. Reach her at Stephanie AT wordbrooklyn DOT com. Also for follow-up thoughts from my e-ARC column, which ran last month on Shelf-Awareness, click here.

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