Earlier, I wrote a long obituary on how the internet is killing indie book shops , and I ended it by promising to post some tips on how to market books in the internet age. I intended to include both online and offline marketing tips, but my list of online tips has grown so long that I’m now intending to post yet another followup for just a few offline marketing tips.
So, here are my tips for online marketing for independent bookstores. This is particularly geared towards rare book shops, out-of-print bookstores, and speciality book stores — because I think that those types of shops tend to be more unique and are by nature differentiated from the mega-bookstore juggernauts like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com. But, these tips could work for the independent general book stores, too. So, read on and see if these could be helpful to you.
Internet Marketing Tips for Bookstores:
– Have an online website, and make some of your inventory available for sale through it. I know most indie bookstores have clued-in to this a long time ago, but I’m just saying this for the few stubborn holdouts. Look at it this way: if you don’t have an online front for your store, it’s as though you’re saying that you don’t care to do business with half the people in your city — it’s very nearly a hostile stance in this day and age.
– Integrate with Abebooks  (some folks use Bibliofind, but they have lower usage and not as many participating book dealers, so I only recommend Abebooks). These are the two best sites for searching for collectible and out-of-print books anywhere — they have thousands of bookdealers, and they’re enjoyed as the marketplace of choice by collectors and book dealers alike. This helps make your books findable online. Sure, it’s a pain to upload your inventory, but it’s pretty vital that you tap into the bookbuyers you could have as customers, world-wide.
– Put all of your book inventory online at Abebooks. Many dealers only put a few choice morsels into Abebooks, and don’t bother with the cheaper stuff. I recommend putting everything out there, because there’s lots of the cheaper stuff that people are seeking which can’t be found online at all, particularly ephemera and periodicals. I know the cheaper stuff is a challenge, since it may not be cost-effective to manually enter loads of junk into online databases — I’d just say that you should try to find a way to load as much of your stuff online as possible, starting with the higher-end stuff. Also, many of the online catalog software systems have export features which might make it possible to load your stuff into your own online catalog, and export the data to load into Abebooks. You may need a really cheap student worker temp for book entry, or you might invest in some barcode scanner tech that could be used for OOP stuff.
– Consider buying catalog software or catalog hosting service from some third-party source, rather than building it from the ground-up. Why re-invent the wheel? Try to find software or a service which can be minimally customized to fit your needs. This is an area where there are loads of off-the-shelf solutions, so don’t incur the cost of having your own built. Leveraging a more widely-used service will likely have more features, better support, and better overall security.
– When setting up shop online, make sure you have set up transactions to go through secure encryption (“SSL”). Knowledgeable users will not be thrilled if they’re ready to purchase and they don’t see basic security measures in place to keep their credit cards from being stolen. Once your shopping cart process passes into setting up billing address and payment entry info, the URL should switch from starting with “HTTP” to “HTTPS”.
– Have your address and phone number on your homepage, along with your hours of operation (and don’t forget to include mentioning which Time Zone you’re in). Either on your homepage or on a separate page on your site, include a map making it easier for people to find your store.
– If you have pretty good control and flexibility of customizing your catalog software, make sure the pages are crawlable by search engine spiders. Most book dealer’s catalogs are not crawlable by search engines, resulting in them hiding the products from most users who are searching on them.
– When setting up your online catalog, try to make it so that users can browse through the books in various ways including: by author’s names; by book titles; and by subject matter / genres. Also ideal to allow people to perform keyword searches on your site. Note: if your pages are crawlable by search engines, you could use Google’s free service to power your site’s internal search utility.
– Include a blog on your site! This is a great way to keep up a running commentary on your day-to-day thoughts, and important events in your business and personal life. The best blogs put a human face on a site and business. Some great old booksellers did this same sort of thing in running their mail order business, by including newsletter type content in their printed catalogs. One of my favorites is Chris Drumm , who’s now doing the same sort of thing through his blog. Another great one is Mark Ziesing , who specializes in all sorts of alternative and counter-culture books along with SF, Fantasy, and Horror.
– Include a blog which you can use to enter book reviews into. This could be combined in the general blog I recommend above, or it could be separate. If you have mulitple employees, you could allow each of them access to enter their own reviews of books, so you’ll have the benefit of even more content. Reviews are a great way to introduce people to books that you’d recommend, and ways of drawing interested readers into your site who’ve never heard of you before. Be sure to add a link from inside the body of the review to the book’s product page in your online catalog.
– For book review blogs, enable user-comments so that your customers and other interested netizens can add their comments and feedback about the books, too. This is a great way to build interesting discussions and a book-lovers community.
– Treat your site’s homepage like the storefront it is: include a few choice books from your inventory on your homepage, with pictures and description, and change it out with some frequency (every two weeks, or every month, at least).
– It’s generally great to include some articles on your site about subjects which your store particularly focuses upon or for which you are expert. For instance, if your store is primarily devoted to Mystery books, write articles about the top authors of mysteries, general info about mystery sub-genres (cooking mysteries, cat mysteries, bibliomysteries, historical mysteries, British mysteries, etc.) Even if your store is a general book store, think of articles you could write on various subjects: book collecting, care of books, books as decorative elements, trends in contemporary book publishing, etc. Note: for these articles DO NOT just copy articles from other sources like Wikipedia or whatever — the general rule of thumb is that original content will bring you more traffic and will be treated better by search engines.
– For selling new books, check out the pricing at other online sites and the sites of your competitors – try to be in the ballpark of what others are charging. While you may not be able to offer price breaks or shipping breaks that an Amazon may be able to offer, there could be other areas where you may be able to make up for it. Advertise promotionals where you might be able to throw in some free books (a “mystery gift”, perhaps) — lots of OOP stores have a cheap/free bin of books, so this could be a good use for them. Maybe you can provide watchlist services, since online sites don’t seem to do that very effectively.
– Provide recommendations about other, similar books to any a user purchases. Amazon does this through automated methods, but you don’t necessarily have to do anything that fancy if you can’t program it into your site. For sales you could jot a note on the invoice suggesting other, similar books for the user to consider.
– Be careful about providing an email address or a form which submits user questions/notes to your email address. While it’s really great to provide your email address for people to contact you, I know that many small businesses neglect to check their email on a frequent enough basis. Generally speaking, if you don’t check your email at least every two or three days, you should not provide that contact info to your users or it just frustrates them.
– Provide a calendar on your site if you have frequent author visits for readings or signings, or if you have childrens book readings or literary meetings in your store. If you can’t do a fancy interactive calendar, just update your homepage or a page devoted to events with the dates, times, and descriptions of upcoming events.
– Consider hosting webcasts of interviews with various authors, where you talk about their new books, and allow internet users to message questions to ask the author. Perhaps arrange to give away one free, signed copy of the book with each webcast, to start building your audience and to help drive up interest in your business.
– If you invite authors to visit your store for signings, readings and such, ask them also to agree to some interview questions which you could post on your site.
– Ask your happy customers to write about and recommend your store on their blogs, if they have blogs.
– Also, ask your pleased customers to go into various sites and give you beneficial ratings and user reviews. Some of these sites should include: Judy’s Book, Yahoo! Local, CitySearch, Superpages, Google Local. For that matter, check out your listings in the various online yellow pages and make sure your info is all correct and up-to-date.
– Run some of your cooler books through eBay auctions — while this may have some level of hassle for you at little perceived cost, consider it a way of advertising really cheaply. Your item descriptions should all be designed on a template which includes prominent mentions of your store and the general types of stuff you carry, and it should link back over to your website.
– Likewise, consider listing some of your cooler items in Craigslist, and in the classifieds sections of the top online newspaper sites found in your state. Always include links back to your site wherever allowed.
– Are there a few top authors which you specialize in? If so, research out and join the top fan forums or online groups for them, as they may be some of your target demographic. Interact with those groups in an honest, low-key manner and familiarize yourself with their online rules and FAQs so that you won’t irritate the groups. If you have built a reputation on those groups, you’ll be poised to later announce when you’ll have the newest books by their authors available in your store, and you may be able to persuade those groups to use your business since they’ll feel a relationship with you, rather than purchasing from faceless, mega-corporation machinery. Two top areas to seek out various online discussion groups are Yahoo! Groups and Google Groups.
– You might consider researching out websites which feature some of your top areas of expertise or authors you specialize in, and contact them to see if they might be willing to post a link over to your website in return for a modest, flat monthly fee. You might be able to tack a tracking ID onto these URLs so that when they send you a user who makes a purchase on your site, your catalog could automatically associate the sale with a particular affiliate, and you could later assess the fee you’ll pay them for the referrals.
– If you are one of the prime patron stores highlighting and promoting a particular author, be sure to ask that author for a link from their site to yours. These various types of inbound links help to build your site’s overall rankings in search engines.
– When loading items into your site catalog, Abebooks or eBay, you should always have a scan of the book cover for higher-end stuff. This increases sales, and for auctions, it increases the final auction bid amounts. If the book has particular points, like an author’s inscription, include a separate scan or photograph of that feature.
– Finally, consider buying advertising in the major search engines: Google, Yahoo!, and MSN Live. You can purchase keywords that your ad will appear in context with, and although it might seem straightforward to buy words like “books” and “bookstores”, you’ll likely get more bang for your buck if you buy more specific terms which relate to your specializations like: “rare books”, “out of print books”, “Hemingway Books”, “cat mysteries”. Be sure to link the ads directly to pages which contain content closely related to those keyword terms. In this way, you’ll likely end up paying for ads which are more likely to result in purchases on your site. Unsure how all this works? Start out with smaller purchases to get your feet wet. The cool thing about this ad medium is that you can buy as many clicks or as few as you want.
The lot of the independent bookstore owner is a difficult one, filled with intense work, multiple headaches, and intensively-increasing competition and market pressures. I have the highest regard for those bookstore proprietors who are towing the line and working hard to keep afloat. I’m aware that my list is full of yet more work and complexity for owners to work upon, but if you’re an indie bookstore owner please don’t despair! Just as with any other list, break it down into pieces and just try one or two things at a time.
Check back here soon for the rest of my tips for offline marketing of books.