Thursday, May 25, 2006

Secretly Starbucks Owns This Blog

I’ve come to the opinion that secretly Starbucks actually rules the book world. No, not because there is a Starbucks on every corner or because I may have sold them my soul yesterday for a Venti Caramel Macchiato (which is sad because for much of my life I was a peaceful, tea-drinking person). My belief stems from there being a Starbucks in every Barnes and Noble, luring the bookish folks to grab a mocha before finding their book of choice, and a Seattle’s Best (owned by Starbucks) in every Borders taking over the café half of the business. Any day now I expect to see a Publisher’s Weekly article on the B&N-Borders merger headed by Howard Schultz and Jim Donald (who took the place of Orin Smith), bringing coffee and books together forever.

The logo for the new super chain would be the little fishy woman holding a book.

Were this to happen, indies would scream, the apocalypse would begin, I would get better health insurance and that book industry would never be the same because Starbucks is in the business of taking chances even if it doesn’t look like it on our level.

But this is not a blog about Starbucks.

In the May 22nd edition of Business Week, Stanley Holmes wrote an article called, “Into the Wild Blog Yonder,” about Boeing (and Boeing’s Vice President of Marketing, Randy Baseler) opening up to the internet community and criticism by starting a blog. They (Boeing and Randy) took some hits in the beginning (they didn’t allow comments right away), but soon they started offering information on the world of airplanes and airlines that hadn’t been available before and—more importantly—some accountability to the public by making themselves accessible. They also started using blogs internally so that workers could publicly (well, as public as a private, only-for-the-company’s-use forum can get) post their questions and reservations anonymously. Suddenly the lowliest low’s opinions could reach the tippity-top without going through a whole chain of managers. Did these blogs make a difference? Boeing thinks so, and it’s not the first to use this system, apparently Disney, McDonald’s and General Motors do as well.

But this is not a blog about Boeing, Disney, McDonald’s or General Motors.

This is a blog about books, and bookstores, and readers and authors. It’s not supported by my chain, or a reflection of it, which is why I blog anonymously. It’s not something I get paid to do (although believe you me, if I could figure out a way to make some ethically viable money off of it I would ‘cause I’m greedy like that, and, well, poor), but something I do because I love books and I love looking into the book world’s future and drawing conclusions. And my conclusion here? We, bookstores big and small, could learn from Starbucks and Boeing. Does this mean that I think that Stephen Riggio and Greg Josefowicz (have they found anyone to replace him yet?) should open themselves up to every Tom, Dick and Harry with access to the internet? No, they wouldn’t get anything done, but should these companies have a way to make themselves accountable via something more than the customer service hotline? Yes.

In the Boeing article Charlene Li, who’s an analyst for the Forrester Research Inc., said, “Companies are nervous about creating external blogs because they fear the negative comments. But negative comments do exist. A company is better off knowing about them.” If you know about them you can address them, you can deal with them, and you can reshape company policy if the issue is big enough. You won’t get blind-sided…or at least not as much.

Of course, as we’ve discussed before, the community on the internet is not always reflective of the community as a whole. But the internet community is where companies are trying to win the battles now, it’s where the news is getting picked up, sent out and disseminated. For a small scale Indie this may or may not make a difference. The most important thing is for an Indie to be part of their community, not necessarily subject to the whims of the whole nation like nationwide stores. But nationwide chains have stores in communities. They should acknowledge and conform to the wants and needs of their customers like Indies have the freedom to do. They should form relationships with the other stores in their area and work towards providing the best books available for their customer.

Customer loyalty comes from happy customers. Happy customers come from California Cheese giving them what they want with good service, no judgment and a smile. We can argue all day about deep discounts ruining business for Indies and pulling down Chain profit margins while they try to compete with Target, Walmart and Costco. We can point fingers and call each other whiney, or uncaring, or overwhelmed.

This won’t get anything done.

What will is to look ahead, take chances, embrace the different, the local, and the large and small scale.

Embrace our customers.

Embrace the publishers and writers that bring business to our stores.

And in the middle of all this embracing and book lovin’ build a community that keeps people coming back, keeps stores—Indie and Chain—open, and keeps us all reading.

And if we need to use the internet, public signings, fire-eaters, newspapers, and our voices to do that, then let’s do it.

So I ask you, dear reader, what would make your book buying experience better today?


Jane said...

Cheaper books. More clear indication when a book is a reprint. Less trying to trick me into reading a book. Plush Miss Spyder characters. Abolition of street dates (I hate it when a book that I want is sitting in the backroom and the bookseller can't sell it to me. That's craziness). These all impossibilities, but you did ask.

quiche said...

A better and wider selection of titles. A lot of people come in asking for bestsellers or some book they saw on TV but we have others looking for more obscure titles. I work at a big chain store and we carry the stuff that sells but not necessarily what the customer wants. I can see their eyes glaze over when I tell a customer over the phone "But we can order it and have it here in a week."

I'm all for customer service but I draw the line at embracing the customers. Some of the older creepier guys in particular.

Anonymous said...

Booksellers who actually know their stores. Nothing more frustrating than asking for the title, having the store staff person spend a minute or two looking through the exact same section you already combed in great detail, and then telling you the book isn't there (even if it is listed in the computer)--especially if you then manage to find the title yourself, in some place the bookseller never bothered to look (because telling you it isn't there is easier, and because customers ask for things that aren't there all the time; we're a little crazy that way, apparently).

Robin Brande said...

I've had both my favorite and my least favorite experiences at the same chain store.

Favorite: having the person at the information desk not only look up my title, but walk me to where it is, even when there are other people waiting in line. I know it takes time, but every time I get this kind of service it makes me happy.

Least favorite: Sitting in the bookstore cafe, enjoying a cup while I write, and the store's unofficial ambassador feels the need to come over and chat a little with each person in the cafe. I'm one of those customers who only wants to be bothered when I initiate the bothering. But maybe I'm just grumpy that way.

I also agree with Anonymous--a bookseller has to know his or her own store. Otherwise it's like asking the Home Depot salesperson how a particular product works, and having him just read to you off the label. Grrr.

Kendall said...

Most of the time, my trouble is finding the books. I can elaborate on the following suggestions for chains (because they might sound outlandish, but they're for real)....

1. Don't purposely shelve an author out of order just to give better (or worse?!) placement. I can't find book = I buy from a different company (usually online).

2. Most stores try to keep things in order, since idiot customers misplace books. But the Borders near me...I'm not joking, you have to see it to believe it. I don't think they've cleaned up book order on the shelves since I moved here a year ago. Really, their store's a bad joke...I'm about ready to give up on this outlet. Again, I can't find book = I buy elsewhere (usually online)

3. Book shelf life has gotten ridiculous in chains. Stop giving up on the midlist, and please STOCK BOOKS! [Several examples removed for brevity.] Again, I can't find book = I buy elsewhere.

The bottom line is that it shouldn't be so difficult to find in-print books in person (especially #1 & #2, when the computer says it's there!). ;-)

Paul said...

Sad to say, I don't think there's a reason for me to walk into a new bookstore. If I know what I want, Amazon is easier, espcially since their partners mean their "stock" extends beyond the midlist into the OOP that I find I want so much of the time. If I don't know what I want, Amazon is easier with keyword searches. Used bookstores and libraries still offer revelations and surprises - the weird, the whacked, the forgotten - and whoever buys for the Daedalus catalog (mostly remaindered books and records) is inspired. But a new bookstore - chair or indie - means bestsellers and the mass-produced extruded genre products, at least by the square foot.

Kate R said...

I love bookstores. My complaints would be about the other customers. I saw you spill coffee on that magazine, missy, and then put it back on the rack. (No, didn't say anything though)

There is the small indy bookstore in the center of the town where I live--three people who work there are the best people on the planet. The owner refuses to stock my books because they're junk.

Uh, my seven years of buying books there (full price because I support indies) and the fact that she has Gabaldon and several other romance writers made no difference? She didn't even read the copies I dropped off.

So sneering at a patron's choices is a bad idea. Duh.

Anonymous said...

While it's old hat now, the first time I walked into a book store and they served coffee (years ago in Palo Alto), I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. :)

I agree that books are often hard to find in bookstores because they're not always consistently organized.

And one of the best parts about living in the PNW briefly were the wonderful independent book stores. Oh, how I do love book stores. I will always pop in whenever I see one. :)

jmc said...

Did you check out the article in USA Today on Monday about Starbucks' plan to break into the entertainment world -- including books?

Jana DeLeon said...

My euphoria would be people working in bookstores that actually love books. Oh, sometimes it happens, but not near as much at the big chains. I had a sales clerk ring me up one day and say "everyone's buying this. If I read, I'd have to buy it."

I also wish their computers/salepeople knew the stock better. Can't tell you how many times I've asked for a book, they looked it up and said "we don't have anything by that author/book name, etc. Are you sure you have it right?" And I'm like "Yes, it's a friend and I'm sure I spelled her name correctly. The book released _____."

I admit, I have left and gone home to order from Amazon, even though I hate to knowing most authors make a discounted rate on the sale.

nir said...

I love being able to get coffee and a sandwich at my local Borders/Starbucks.

I love having nice benches and chairs where you can sit and read if you want.

I love it when you bring a book up and the person behind the counter actually knows about the book and either tells you it's great and why they like it or tells you one that's even better that you didn't see (had that actually happen!)

I love and buy most of anything that someone recommends from there, but the experience of going with my daughter and getting lunch and browsing books is what brings me to the bookstore. We both love books and almost always leave with three or four we didn't plan on buying :D

Kendall said...

Jana writes, from Amazon, even though I hate to knowing most authors make a discounted rate on the sale.

I've never heard this -- do you have any references for this? I've heard that remaindered books are a loss for author & publisher (though that boggles my mind). But I've never heard authors make less from Amazon. Also, "most"?! Also, specifically Amazon, or just any bookstore having a sale? Thanks!

Book Nerd said...

I agree with everybody who demands bookstore employees who love books/read books/know the books in their store -- heck yeah, that should be a requirement for doing business! I tend to be prejudiced toward believing that the indie bookstores have a greater tendency to pull this off, but I know it totally happens in chains as well -- Bookseller Chick herself being a case in point.

Thanks, by the way, to BS Chick for being a book person who believes that the internet and blogs in particular can be a force for good in our industry, instead of the enemy of print. You're proving your point with this conversation. Yay for the future of bookselling!

Jane said...

Tess Gerritsen left a comment on a blog once (and other authors) that they all make the same royalty rate no matter whree it is sold. The bookstore eats the discount. It was Sarah Weinstein's blog, I believe

Doug Hoffman said...

I'm finishing up The Book Thief, which one of your readers recommended. A fine book, although it didn't hook me until about page 200. Up until that point, I kept reading because Zusak's writing is that good, but strangely enough, he hadn't engaged me. I'm glad I kept reading.

What could make my experience better today? Fine day to ask, since I'll be going to Borders in an hour or two. I would be delighted if, one day, I walked into a big chain and found a table covered with GOOD books, ones the employees recommend perhaps, not just the Dan Browns and J.K. Rowlings of the bookworld.

NutellaCrepe said...

I would say that in the age of Amazon, a bookstore has to focus on having a really good store experience, and not charge much more than Amazon for the privilege.

1) It's been said already, but know the books in the various genres, know what's going on with the series (e.g. when the new one is shipping), and do your darndest to stock complete series whenever possible.

2) Consider having a used book section, where people can "sell back" anything they bought from you (new or used) for credit (not for cash). The credit can be used for used books, but not for new. This brings people in (past the new, shiny, profitable books), and essentially functions like a non-loss loss leader.

3) IF at all possible, set the store up so that it's a second office/seating area or even a meeting area. People are really hungry for these, and it's a lot of what makes Starbucks a success.

4) I've often thought it would be fantastic if a cute, chic bookstore got a beer & wine license and could have some kind of microbrew and/or wine bar. People may not want to pay 15% more for books in a store, but they'll pay 50% more for drinks when they aren't at home. I don't know why that is, but I'm willing to bet it would make up for a few wine rings ending up on some copies of Wine Spectator. And just imagine the events that could be hosted--a variant on "the museum party," for example, or "wine tasting night" with local wineries providing the goods and you having lots of wine books, copies of Wine Spectator, silly little wine glass charms, etc. If the seating area is separate from where the kids are (people can shop and bring over their stacks to hang out with a glass of wine, hoping for Mr/Ms Right to amble by and say "I just love [the author you're reading]!" Make it all high-end--first off, those are the people who aren't so "sensitive to pricing," and second, it decreases the "drunken lout" factor (which would make the whole thing a disaster--but somehow most restaurants do it).

Cheryl said...

It seems as if one of the Starbucks in Phoenix got the message -- I just had a Guest Post from Michael Murphy who talks about a highly successful book signing with 100 folks in attendance. Good news for the first-time author, great news for Starbucks.