Good Money After Bad?

Kenny Brechner - August 20, 2015

This week the NAIBA board, supported by a letter from their NEIBA counterparts, called for a renewed investment in the ABA’s indiecommerce website platform, and expressed pointed dissatisfaction with the current, recently upgraded status quo. The letter asserts that “the customer experience feels as if it’s at least a decade behind other online sites, highlighted by a completely inadequate search engine. We do not expect ABA to offer a site equal to that of Amazon or other online giants, but we do believe the current site is in immediate need of significant upgrades.”
Paul_Oesten_-_Les_DanaidesLet’s spend a moment thinking about how Tantalus and the Danaides spent their time in Hades. Tantalus, inflamed with an extreme thirst and hunger, looked upon a sumptuous feast that moved away from him whenever he reached out for something to eat or drink. The task of the Danaides was to fill a bathtub with water carried thereto with sieves dipped in a well some distance away, thus arriving at the tub with nothing. The strenuous attempts of the ABA, acting under a very strong mandate from members, and carried out by skilled and resourceful staffers, to invest and labor its way toward filling the online appetites and tubs of its constituents has closely mirrored the efforts of our underworld cousins.

I am not an indiecommerce user myself, I use a different ecommerce platform. However, I have a great interest in independent bookselling interactive plug-ins, apps and widgets that are of potential use to all members, and have been involved for many years in utilizing online means of outreach for my own store. Obviously the productive use of limited ABA capital reserves is of interest to all members.
I have no doubt that when the NAIBA and NEIBA Boards complain of inadequate search functionality and other elements, that the complaint has serious merit. Nonetheless, while the Danaides were forced to keep trying to carry water in a sieve, we are not. We do not have to continue throwing good money after bad. Money on digital initiatives does need to be spent, and can be very productive, but it is not an end in itself. Doing something is not the same thing as doing something effective. Everyone knows that about running their bookstores but that point often gets lost beyond their bounds, which is the problem exactly.
Effective online outreach is a moving target from many vantage points, but success is determined by underlying philosophy. I have a strong conviction that the purpose of online outreach is to get people into the store. It should be a dynamic, personal extension of the store designed to promote customer engagement, and result in store visits. Online outreach is not a “set it and forget it” enterprise. It is not a field of dreams. It is not about keeping up with the Joneses. That sort of thinking has been very expensive and unproductive for many years.
As technologies become more user-driven, there is a need for targeted investment, but if one doesn’t have constructive answers to the question, what do you want from your online presence? You might as well be dipping into our trade organization’s bank account with a sieve.
BismarkStill, perhaps I’m too close to this. After all it is a complex issue. So I decided to run it briefly by an expert in these matters, Otto von Bismarck.
KB : Greetings Otto! As Chancellor you united economically, culturally, and socially diverse independent German states into a single nation with incredible skill. What are your thoughts on the ongoing enterprise of independent bookstores pooling resources for an e-commerce platform?
OvB: Thank you for inviting me into this discussion. I am of your mind, Kenny. You must have clear, sound objectives going in, and then think very incisively as to how to bring them about. Now of course independent bookstores have no wish to be united into a centralized state so that the role of their trade organization is sadly circumscribed. Nonetheless, it seems to me, that ideas are of only two varieties, good and bad.
KB: Ah, so it is as the Scarlet Pimpernel indicated?
OvB: Precisely. Mediocre ideas are inherently bad. Good ideas take into account the character and nature of their parties. The term “a means to an end” is often misunderstood. The art of diplomacy is choosing the right means to a prescribed end. For example, you would not wish to create a work environment at DDG in which your staff was reduced to tears at their work stations, reporting on each other to management, and worked nearly to death, even if it helped your bottom line.
KB: Of course not. What an imagination you have, Otto. Even to think of that. We always strive to have a hard working, but fun, and pleasant work environment.
OvB: Hmmn. I know you’ve been busy lately, but you might want to pay closer attention to the news. In any case, my point is that money spent on online initiatives should be targeted towards expression and interaction, the currency of individual bookstores. Incentivizing e-book purchases is a terrible idea, for example, more likely to win a Darwin Award and lose customers than anything else. But using online interactions to engage with customers and bring them into the store is a vital enterprise. The increasing use of mobile devices and customer expectation is a two-edged sword. On the one hand customers are twaddling around on them instead of reading. On the other hand productive interactive interfaces do require some upkeep and development. No doubt about that. Spend, but don’t overspend without return.
KB: Totally agree!
OvB: Yes, independent bookselling is its own peculiar form of diplomacy. The roles of various cultural mediums do change. Newspapers of today are barely related to those of my time, for example, but making strong connections to the community is always a work in progress for those engaged in it, regardless of the instruments they use.
KB: Thank you for your insight, Otto.
OVB: My pleasure.

2 thoughts on “Good Money After Bad?

  1. Spellbound

    Thoughts of two very different approaches to this situation have been roiling about in my mind for some time now, as I dearly want my customers to be able to easily search for and order any title online. Special orders, at present taken by phone and in person, account for nearly 10% of my annual sales and could go up significantly if the process were more convenient. I simply can’t make the numbers work with Indie Commerce, however; tried it for a year and it cost me money instead of making me money.
    One approach would be to entice major publishers to put the resources being used to market directly to consumers on their individual websites into helping ABA build a better e-commerce platform. Hard numbers show that both for actual sales and, sadly, for our “showroom” value, brick and mortar bookstores are good for a publisher’s bottom line. And, let’s face it, what reader out there ever says, “I think I’ll browse what’s new from Publisher X this week”? People don’t shop by publisher. They just don’t.
    Another approach would be to forgo the whole idea of going to one collective site to search for a participating bookstore. What if ABA could (perhaps with the help of subsidies from publishers or some other clever solution) come to an agreement with Ingram to let each member bookstore access (at an affordable rate) the Ingram database with whatever website provider/host the bookstore chooses?
    Nowadays, unlike at the launch of ABA’s e-commerce initiative, websites are so cheap and so easy to put together that it’s really not necessary for ABA to put the resources into designing and redesigning templates, adding and refining bells and whistles. Want a wish list or event calendar? There’s a (free to very inexpensive) widget for that. What we need from our partners at ABA and Ingram, in my humble opinion, is merely access to the book titles and ordering. Perhaps even a consumer-facing landing page similar to what Baker and Taylor offers through their bookstore e-commerce program?
    Those are my two cents. Thank you for addressing it here, Kenny (and Chancellor). It’s a complex situation, to be sure, but one that we need to address soon and with a clearer vision of what exactly our needs are and what (all) our options are.
    Leslie H.
    Spellbound Children’s Bookshop

    1. Kenny Brechner Post author

      Great response Leslie. We go to talks at conferences on decision making, on the importance of avoiding “yes or no” “should or shouldn’t” scenarios but it is so easy to fall into. Something needs to be done of course, but the what element does indeed deserves broad consideration.


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