Store Newsletters: The (Mostly) Pros, and Cons

Elizabeth Bluemle -- December 3rd, 2009

Every year, The Flying Pig creates a 16-page full-color newsletter (to be precise, it’s a book-recommendation catalog, but we’ve always called it "the newsletter"). It’s a mammoth project, containing somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-165 short reviews, but we’ve done it for 13 years, and it brings huge numbers of people into the store while selling boatloads of books. Customers keep it for months, even years, and every holiday season (which is when we publish it, for obvious reasons), they come in with it marked up as a wish list by every member of the family.

A bookstore newsletter is personal, store-specific, and completely independent, but it’s also a time- and resource-consuming effort. Is it worth it? For booksellers wondering, here are some of the pros and cons, and a little Q&A, about creating your own printed piece for distribution.

Con: It’s a LOT of work. A lot a lot a lot.
Pro: For the reviews, you can get help from your staff. The more viewpoints you have, the richer your newsletter, and the more invested your frontline booksellers are in the books they’re handselling. For the design and layout, you can learn to do it without hiring a designer. I just noodled around on InDesign and Photoshop, learning. In 1997, we started with a one-color, four-page newsletter, and over time, the thing grew in accordance with my own learning.

Con: It’s expensive. Ours costs about $1.06 per piece. Postage is extra.
Pro: Once you’ve decided on your titles, you can get publisher co-op for many or most of them. We never choose titles based on available co-op, but your mileage may vary. Send your reps the newsletter with their books circled and a list of titles included, and claim that co-op! It makes a nice dent in the printing and mailing costs.

Con: Did we mention it’s expensive? (Following are several pros that, in our opinion, justify the expense.)

Pro: Whenever we send out the newsletter (our current mailing list numbers around 4,500), we get long-distance and website orders—usually for several books at a time—that otherwise would never have been placed with us. The newsletter reminds our far-away customers that we’re still here, we’re still reading and loving books, and that we fulfill orders like any online book source. We’ve even found that it’s a great tool to get busy local customers to make a point to stop in; people’s commuting patterns shift, and any concrete reminder of what they love about your bookstore helps bring people back in.

Pro: It’s wonderful to have something to hand to new and potential customers. It makes an instant impression, and gives readers a sense of the store’s unique character. We also use them at author visits, teacher booktalks and in-store interactions, offsite events, and in mail orders. It’s print advertising that lasts far beyond a single day or week.

Pro: The newsletter can serve as an extra frontline bookseller. It’s very handy when the store’s particularly busy and more people want recommendations than we have staff available to help them. In those cases, we can hand them the newsletter, open it to a relevant page, and invite them to browse through those books on the newsletter display case we set up (during November and December) while they’re waiting for further assistance. Often, the newsletter turns out to be enough help for people to make buying decisions.

Pro: You can find ways to cut costs. Paper and color choices can have a big effect on prices, and your printer can help you find the most affordable options.

Here’s one of the best pros about doing a store newsletter:

Pro:
It’s as local as "Shop Local" gets. You can use a newsletter to celebrate local authors, share news about the store and your staff, celebrate regional authors. People really, really value the newsletter.
Con: You will inevitably forget to include a book you meant to include, and you will hurt someone’s feelings. With so many thousands of books published each year, it’s tough to keep track of every new book by local authors (especially new or unfamiliar folks), and so you risk alienating someone whom (and whose work) you care about. Happily, most authors understand, and we try to make it up to them on our website and/or in the next newsletter.

Q&A

Q: How do you choose what goes in the newsletter?
A: Booksellers, you already know the answer to this: you choose the books you feel most strongly about, the ones you love to handsell, and you strive for a balance of genres and diversity while thinking of the full range of your intended audience.

Q: There are regional catalogs and association catalogs available. Why not just use those instead, especially since they can be imprinted with your store name?
A: We still use those catalogs, too, but have found that our own brings in a significantly higher number of sales. Bookstore customers grow to trust and even depend upon recommendations from the booksellers they know, so there’s a native advantage to providing a source of those recommendations over even the finest catalog from an outside source.

We have always loved and used the ABC (Association of Booksellers for Children) catalog as a supplement to our own, since it’s (1) a wonderful teacher and parent resource fully dedicated to children’s books (ours is a mix of adult and children’s books), and (2) the books are independently chosen by children’s booksellers around the country. "Independently chosen" refers to how the books are selected: most catalogs are funded by publisher support, but in the ABC’s case, we request the books we most want to include, and ask the publishers to support those titles.

We also use the NEIBA (New England Independent Booksellers Association) catalog. NEIBA is our regional trade association, and they put together a diverse mix of books, many of which have a New England focus. NEIBA has a very generous, supportive program for bookstores, picking up a significant amount of the costs of distributing the catalogs (as inserts in local newspapers). Bookstores imprint their own store logos
on the mailing side of the catalog, and many readers think the NEIBA catalog is created by the bookstore that sends them out.

I use the NEIBA catalogs every fall, and am grateful for them because they include titles I might not have discovered or thought to include. At the same time, I really enjoy having a catalog that has only the titles that we at the Flying Pig have read and loved. The one drawback to the regional catalog is that its contents are shaped to a greater degree by publisher input. As I mentioned before, publishers fund the catalogs by supporting titles, and while many, perhaps most, of the included books are also titles booksellers love, once in a while, these aren’t the titles a bookseller might have picked.

Q: Why not just send a PDF to your email list? You’d save money, and it would be a greener choice, too.
A: Email is a fantastic communication tool for the store, but I’m 100% sure that a PDF would not have the same impact as the printed piece. Few people would print out all 16 pages, so we’d lose the serendipitous sales that come from happening upon an item as someone flips through the newsletter. Even more likely, people might glance at it quickly, then delete or forget about it. A hard copy has presence. The green issue is important, and we use a printer with the highest level of green certification that a printer can receive, and choose paper with the highest possible recycled content that still allows for our color.

***

There are many, many ways to make your store stand out, and for us, the newsletter is key. Bookseller colleagues out there: do you produce newsletters? And if so, what makes them particularly special to you and your customers?

7 thoughts on “Store Newsletters: The (Mostly) Pros, and Cons

  1. Elizabeth Dulemba

    I’m with Kate – I’d love to see a pdf. Even though I don’t live anywhere near Vermont, I’m a huge fan of the Flying Pig and would love the opportunity to see the books y’all (ha!) are passionate about. 🙂 e

  2. Kenny Brechner

    Pig Tales is a laudable undertaking, and a stately publication to be sure. For the sake of illustrating a variation on this theme I’ll relate that we take a different approach by producing a Book Section for the Holiday Gift Guide for area newspapers. The papers provide us with extra copies of the insert as well. The guide is also available online at some of the newspaper sites, and well as being a pick list on our site which we transmit electronically to our newsletter subscribers. It’s work, but there’s no overhead cost and the print distribution is quite broad. It also provides the basis for our central in store display.

  3. shelftalker elizabeth

    I struggle with that, Kate. A little piece of my bookselling soul, not to mention my time, effort, and thousands of dollars, goes into the newsletter, and I would hate for people to use it to order from, say, Amazon. I always felt bad, though I welcomed the business, when people brought in their Chinaberry catalogs. At least they were shopping locally. Maybe if I extracted a promise that if people didn’t order from us, they’d at least support an indie bookstore…. : )

  4. Kate Messner

    Is there a link to a pdf newsletter online, too, for folks who live elsewhere and don’t get a paper copy but might want to order books? (I’d love to pass it along to my blog readers if there is!)

  5. shelftalker elizabeth

    Thanks for the suggestion, Katie. In the spirit of shopping locally, we use a (certified green) printer close to home, so our money stays in Vermont and our carbon footprint is smaller. Prices will vary all over the country. Booksellers in the midwest, for example, might find their printing costs are lower, since so many printers are located there.

  6. Katie Davis

    I just had my new school visit brochure printed in full, gorgeous color and on glossy, heavy paper and it was very inexpensive for such a beautiful piece. Have you tried willywalt.com or 4over4.com?

  7. Julianne Daggett

    I love shopping independents for simple things like a newsletter The Octavian from Octavia Books in New Orleans always has good recommendations of books as well as The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, CO. I don’t live in Denver anymore but I still get the e-mail newsletter and last year when my Dad was on a business trip to Denver I asked him to buy me some books from TCB based on the newsletter. An independent newsletter, I’ve found, is usually full of recomendations for great books!

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