Thinking Outside The Bookstore Box
by Judith Rosen
August 31, 2009
A new breed of booksellers, many of whom got their start in the B2B world, are finding success by altering the traditional independent bookselling model. They retain a commitment to independent bookselling and frequently belong to both their regional booksellers’ association and ABA—and they influence the bestsellers by reporting their sales to the New York Times.
Perry Pidgeon Hooks of Hooks Book Events in Bethesda, Md., has a bookstore affiliation, with sales going through the registers of nearby Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. A former marketing director at Davis-Kidd in Nashville, Hooks was hired to work on corporate sales at Politics and Prose more than a decade ago. Soon she found that she was spending so much time organizing events for government agencies like the Department of the Interior that she flopped her work and became an independent contractor, taking a commission from the store.
By 2007 Hooks was doing 48 events a year with Treasury alone and decided to focus solely on her events business. She asked D.C. banking executive Loretta Yenson to join Hooks Book Events as CEO, and within a year they were handling 100 events for $2,500 and up (less for government groups).
More recently, the pair have begun branching out and doing food and wine events, fund-raisers, and salons in people’s homes that include books. “We’re trying to be as creative as we can in places that aren’t bookstores,” said Hooks. With Olsson’s gone and Politics and Prose often booked, she’s also been accepting requests to sell books at off-site events.
Although Hooks cautioned that “not every book is for us,” academic and small press “idea” books often are—like Evan Offstein and Jason Morwick’s Making Telework Work (Davies-Black)—as well as the more commercial Lee Woodruff and Bob Woodruff’s Perfectly Imperfect (Random House). As demand for book-oriented events increases, Hooks is looking for opportunities to grow and recently hired Mary Kate Maco, former head of publicity for Harvard University Press, to open a Boston office. The next city on Hooks’s list is New York.
Going national and producing public events in addition to ones in the private sector is one of the biggest changes in the hybrid bookselling business. Kim Ricketts handled corporate sales for University Bookstore in Seattle before starting her own author-based lecture series. “Many of the corporations we work with are in other cities,” said Ricketts, but she has no plans to add satellite offices in those cities. “The change in my model is, I’m not going to be there. We ask the company to have a person accompany the author.”
When she started her business six years ago, Ricketts produced several ongoing public events like a dinner series, Cooks and Books; in the past 18 months, she’s added more: Words & Wine, which mixes authors and cocktails, and the Good Life, which features conversations with authors on how to create the “good life.” Now Ricketts is doing public events on a larger scale and will handle all of former vice president Al Gore’s appearances in Seattle this fall for Our Choice.
Authors are pleased with the way she maximizes their time, she said, by advance-selling books to every audience member, something many bricks-and-mortar stores often shy away from. For Gore’s talk at Town Hall Seattle, for example, Ricketts is charging $25 for a book and ticket. “Since there are 900 seats, there will be 900 books sold,” said Ricketts, who regards it as a more efficient way of selling and using authors’ time.
Melissa Mytinger, who worked at Cody’s Books for 16 years until it closed in 2008, launched Berkeley Arts and Letters at the beginning of the year with Praveen Madan, co-owner of the Booksmith. She is not quite as sanguine about ticket-book packages in this economy as Ricketts is. Her goal is to recreate the same kind of large venue, large audience community-based programming she did at Cody’s—and to add value for area booksellers. Berkeley Arts, which operates under the tagline “authors, ideas and conversations,” rotates book sales among nearby stores, taking into account both publishers’ and booksellers’ preferences.
Mytinger emphasized that “this is not a Booksmith project, this is a Praveen and Melissa project.” Nor do Berkeley Arts’ author events compete with bookstores. “I’m trying to mirror the community,” said Mytinger, explaining how she chooses authors.
Kate Mattes is looking for ways to satisfy the needs of Boston-area readers who lost a favorite bookstore, in her case Kate’s Mystery Books, which she closed at the beginning of August. Together with former Harvard Coop manager Dick Haley, who has operated an events business for the past three years, she plans to continue a mystery series they started at three local restaurants. She also wants to continue the paperback book exchanges she had at her store and to start several mystery book clubs. In addition, Mattes will devote the coming year to developing an online business. “At the store, I got people from far away who would buy a lot. I don’t know how that will translate to the Net. And I have some customers who want me to keep picking books for them.”
Former Chevalier’s Books co-owner Linda Friedman said that when she was at the store, she got the idea for a niche business doing events because there just weren’t enough booksellers to handle all the requests. Now, through Book Events and Authors Unlimited in Los Angeles, she does a lot of work with libraries and nonprofits like the Association for American University Women—and for publishers that contact her to handle signings.
“With independent bookstores closing,” she noted, “there are fewer options.” In addition to selling at events, she also helps book authors into them. “I created the consulting business, because publishers don’t have the wherewithal to place their authors.”
Whether these new booksellers are expanding the market for books or just adding more forks to the pie that bricks-and-mortar stores already share is not clear. But as Ricketts noted, “It’s like everything else. Things change. The good news is, books are still being bought.”