Reviews of books you’ve already read

Over the holidays and even a bit after them, I took refuge in books with proven track records. The problem with mostly reading new books is that about half the time, I’m disappointed. And for the sake of my mental health, I needed the tried and true to get to mid-January unscathed. Unsurprisingly, I loved many of the classic books I read! Because the reason they’re classic is that many people have already loved them!

I feel a bit silly writing reviews for them, because they’re none of them very new (well, most of them), and in some cases I am literally a century behind the times. But indulge me. Perhaps you just need one more person to tell you to read one of the titles below. Let me be the catalyst, because these books all deserve as many eyes as possible.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (Knopf). If you’ve been in my store at any point in the last month, I have probably thrust this book at you with the eerie vigor of a recent convert. That’s because I am one. This book has changed my life. Well, it’s changed my exercise habits. Which is now changing my life. I have gone from really wanting to enjoy running but secretly loathing it to actually lacing up my shoes on purpose and finding an odd zen in my own wheezing.

If you have no interest in running, have no fear, this book is also a fantastic adventure story of the highest caliber. Just don’t be surprised if you start wondering if you, too, could run an ultramarathon. (A thing I have begun to wonder every day.)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I’m not sure what else remains to be said about a book so beloved that multiple people have told me that they re-read it on an annual basis.  Maybe you, like me, shy away from books with one or more precocious teenage narrators. Try to swallow back your bile for this one. I promise.

As a side note, I read this book on a dark and cold winter night. And, because I was so drawn into the story, I drank an entire bottle of cheap sweet red wine while doing so, much too quickly. I cannot recommend this experience highly enough.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. When Bookdwarf said that this series might be better than the Harry Potter books, I thought she was crazy. Now I no longer think that she is crazy.

Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale by Herman Melville. People have been trying to get me to read this book for years and I have ignored them every time. I am not interested in whales or how they used to be killed, and every time I opened to a random page to get a feel for the writing, I got an eyeful of Melville pontificating on the nature of whiteness and purity or a whale chase.

If only someone had thought to tell me that it is FUNNY! (And that the pontificating on whiteness is actually genius, and the whale chases are actually enthralling.) I could have loved it years ago! If only I had listened to the people who told me that those random chapters on Melville spouting (ha! oh, c’mon, it’s funny) off about random ideas were, in fact the gems of the book. I hope you are not so stupid as me and have already read this book.

The Curse of the Appropriate Man by Lynn Freed (Harcourt). It breaks my heart that the only reason I picked up this book was because it was a remainder at Idlewild Books. I really should have paid full price for it. This is one of the finest short story collections I have read in maybe ever. I’ve already read it twice. Be aware going into it that it’s set in apartheid-era South Africa and so, is incredibly painful to read in places. The racism of the characters is so thick at times that I was cringing and squinting my eyes at the pages. But find it within yourself to accept the injustices of the time and place in order to read through the book, because at its heart this book gets closer to the dark and stormy and perverted parts of the female soul than most.

Also, I think we can all agree that is one of the top ten book titles of all time.

The Prisoner by Thomas Disch (Penguin). Like most thinking human beings, I love the original Prisoner TV series, even the stupid episodes like “Living in Harmony,” and found AMC’s recent attempts to remake the series tragic. However, after reading Disch’s novelization of the original show, I kind of understand where they were going with the remake. It is still horrible. But I see where they were going.

If only they had just remade Disch’s book exactly! I would have gotten cable so that I could watch it over and over. This is the first book I’ve read by Disch, but I’ll be going back for more. I ignored my family for a large portion of Boxing Day to read this book instead (and I actually like my family). I actually wish I had saved it for the train ride home, because this is the epitome of the perfect novel for traveling.

The Untouchable by John Banville (Vintage). Another writer who doesn’t really need my help, but here I am, giving it anyway. I love a good spy novel, so of course I loved an even better disgraced-spy-unmasked-and-hiding-in-his-house novel. Also, it is British. I find that novels about social disgrace are about ten times better when they are British (hi, Anne Perry and Penny Vincenzi!).

Written Lives by Javier Marias (New Directions Press). It is one thing when a book is laugh-out-loud funny. It is another when a book repeatedly makes you laugh out of SHEER JOY. I read parts of this while traveling and kept wanting to read paragraphs out loud to the other people in my train car (I did not, not that they would have heard me over their insanely loud phone conversations).

This book is, for those who love authors, the reading equivalent of dancing a sloppy tango in someone’s backyard after one too many beers on a cool summer night, the wind in your hair and all the good things about life floating around you. If you are a writer—or, through some fluke of nature, a person obsessed with books who is NOT a writer—you should call out sick, go get this book, and read it right away. Right away, I said!

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (Picador). If Written Lives is a tango, The Rest is Noise is a sandwich on thick pumpernickel. Delicious! But very, very chewy, and almost certainly not something to be finished in one sitting. It might be different if you know anything about classical music and its history. I did not, except that I knew I really liked string quartets and Bach and cellos. So it took me two weeks to read through this, one chapter at a time. More than one chapter and my brain closed up shop for the day.

This is the first book I’ve ever read that I think might have been improved by being digital. As it was, I often stopped to go on Youtube and listen to songs and composers Ross recommends (for some reason I missed the fact that the book has a fantastic website until I got to the end). And then, using the music I liked, over time built a Pandora station with all the stuff I liked. I recommend doing this as well. It’s helping me to remember things about the book that I would probably have forgotten otherwise, and has also made my homelife much nicer-sounding.

So, that is the end of me telling you to read books you’ve probably already read. Hopefully you haven’t already read all of them. (But if you have: call me!) And then tell me what book I should read that I have probably already read.

Bookseller jokes

Are there any? If so, I don’t know them. I know a good author joke:

Q: “How many authors does it take to change a lightbulb?”

A: “But why do I have to CHAAAAANGE it?”

but no bookseller jokes. This ends today, because you are all a clever lot.

So, when I say:

“How many booksellers does it take to change a lightbulb?”

You say:

Help us, fun, you’re our only hope

Last night at this event, I gave a short talk. The focus was optimism about publishing and so on. Below, I have posted said talk in its most recent incarnation (it has been altered several times, including 5 minutes before I was on stage, so it might change here again). The point of the sort of talk it was, namely Pecha Kucha, is to talk for exactly 7 minutes with 20 PowerPoint slides in the background advancing every 21 seconds. This should, in theory, lead to a number of visual jokes, but because I am more of the narrative sort, my slides were simply pictures of WORD’s basketball league. So I’ve posted a few in the text to give you the flavor of the thing.

ETA: There is also video available if you prefer listening to reading, which I will try not to judge you for.

Without further ado:

Read more »

Review: You Are Not A Gadget

You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier (Knopf, 1/10).

Let’s just get this out of the way: I really like this book. This book changed the way I think about the Internet and intellectual property, and I think could change a lot of minds, but only if a critical mass of people start reading it and talking about it. So this is my Queen’s Gambit. (I apologize in advance for not citing page numbers with quotes, but as I was reading a review copy, I have no idea what the actual page numbers will be.) This review is long, so if you are in a rush and have some faith in my book recommendations, just go out and buy it in January and meet me back here when you’re done.

Okay! There are too many ideas in this book that I underlined and starred and ?ed and yes!ed to count. I’m just going to touch on a few, and especially the ones that made me think of books and publishing.

Probably the most interesting idea in this book, especially for the book world, is how the Internet’s push towards the hive mind (also known as the noosphere, a word so creepy that I almost become a Luddite every time I read it) has already damaged and threatens to essentially destroy art as we now experience it. As Lanier puts it:

“The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush.”

A thing, I’m sure we can all agree, that is not great for writing, which pretty much lives and dies by things like the strength and believability of an author’s individual voice.

A he writes, “Authorship—the very idea from the individual point of view—is not a priority of the new ideology.” Which is pretty well borne out by a quick glance at Wikipedia (an entity to which I am not opposed, by the way). The argument on behalf of the hive mind is that many many people working together will come up with a better answer, and faster, than individuals working alone. Lanier pretty conclusively demonstrates that this is not always the case, even for things to which humanity already knows the answer. And what about novels, of which there is no clear question, let alone a clear answer? Read more »

In which I get frustrated and plead with authors

You’re on notice, authors. You are totally harshing my winter-is-here-curl-up-and-read-a-lot mellow and it has got to stop. How? I’m so glad you asked!

1. Please, for the love of Pete, STOP only mentioning the race of a character if that race is not white. I know you are trying to embrace diversity and create a more realistic world, but the fact of the matter is this. If I meet five characters (say, your main character, her mom, her sister, her best friend, and her other best friend) and you describe them but DON’T mention their race, and that is followed in the next few chapters by a black teacher, or a cute boy who’s Hispanic, that doesn’t prove to me that you embrace diversity. It proves to me that you assume all characters are white unless otherwise announced; that white is, in other words, the default race in your fictional world and by extension, the world in general.

More importantly, it annoys me so greatly that it yanks me right out of your book and then I spend five minutes reading the back cover again and wondering how much more time I really want to devote to your book, and frankly I am sick of wasting my time that way. From now on whenever it happens I’m just going to stop reading, period.

I’ve been thinking about writing this for awhile, especially ever since I read The Lost Symbol a few months ago (Dan Brown is so proud of his decision to include noble characters of color that it practically drips off the page into your lap), but it’s really come to a head recently, since this has happened in the last five books I have picked up. So, authors, quit it. Either create for me a completely colorblind world, or, create for me a world in which race is a noticeable detail because it’s a very basic physical descriptor of a human being, but in which ALL races are a noticeable detail. Otherwise it’s just uncomfortable and weird.

I feel like this problem could be really easily solved in almost every book I’ve ever read if authors would ask themselves these questions when they finish a manuscript:

  1. have I mentioned race in my book at any point? If so, then
  2. have I mentioned the race of my protagonist?

Make sure that if your answer to a. is yes, that your answer to b. is also yes.

2. This one is for YA authors in particular, and I am begging you, all of you, please, please, before I have to give up on YA as a genre because really I am on the verge of breaking a window with all the books I am flinging around my apartment sometimes:

QUIT IT WITH THE MAGICAL PIXIE AWESOME HAS SO MUCH SELF-ESTEEM TALL SPORTS-PLAYING FASHIONPLATE BEST FRIENDS. JUST QUIT IT ALREADY. PLEASE!

(And while you’re at it, STOP MAKING ALL BEST FRIENDS REDHEADS. Let me tell you something: if there was a secret cabal of awesomesauce adolescent redheads, I would have gotten wind of it at some point in the last decade. There is not. So stop using red hair to stand in for actual character development.)

To go a bit further: look, I know WHY you create these mythical best friends, these girls who wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care, who pair Converse with tutus, who play viola in the morning and varsity soccer at night. It’s because they make your protagonists seem normal and relatable. Of course we all think other people are cooler than us (especially when we’re 14) and of course this is a good way to impress upon your reader that your main character is “JUST LIKE YOU!”

But if you read as much YA fiction as I do, you must have started to wonder something: why don’t these jaw-dropping doyennes of girlhood ever get their own freakin’ books? They seem a lot more interesting than the seventy plain-Jane-hiding-I’m-just-me girls I’ve read about so far this year.

Let me answer my own question, actually. First, I know that a few of them DO have their own books, but man oh man is the balance ever out of whack. But the real reason is that most of these best friend characters are completely over-the-top and two-dimensional, and therefore could not support their own books without veering heavily into the realm of the melodramatic and unrealistic. And supporting character or not, that sort of flat character creation is going to bring a book down every time, which is what keeps happening in books I am picking up.

All I’m saying is, I’m starting to get to a lot of third chapters and wondering if maybe the author chose to write about the wrong character in the story.  And I’m starting to get to a lot of seventh chapters and wondering if it is actually possible that there are this many people involved in the writing and editing of books who are painfully clueless about race. I wish that would stop happening. Authors, please make it so. I don’t like it when reading makes me this cranky.

Thank you!

Obituary for a chain bookstore

This is not an indie bookseller dancing on a chain bookstore grave. This is me pouring one out for the folks who taught me to love bookselling.

Borders Group announced last week that, by the end of January 2010, they expect to have closed 200 Waldenbooks bookstores (most of which at this point have been branded as Borders Express, actually). One of them is located at 268 Montgomery Mall, and it’s where a young Bookavore got her start.

As soon as I got my working papers, the Montgomery Mall Waldens was my first stop. My mom had worked there before her writing career took off, so it was easy to get hired. And, like most new hires in a bookstore, I was pretty sure I knew the drill: look at the books, read behind the counter, occasionally shelve when there was a cart of books around, have witty conversations about new fiction with cute guys, take home a stack of books at the end of the night purchased with massive employee discount.

(Here I pause so any bookseller reading can giggle a bit.)

Instead, here is what the drill was: Work hard. Enjoy yourself. Read on your own time.

A short list of bookselling skills I learned there would begin with the first lesson I learned on my first day (“if the book is in stock, then by God, you walk over to the section and you take the book off the shelf and you put it in the customer’s hands”) and would also include:

1. Every customer should be treated with respect, regardless of what they’re buying.

2. If you’re going to have to say the same spiel to every customer, practice until it’s 100% natural, and that way you won’t sound like a robot. (One of the managers would actually give us regular breaks in her office (by which I mean the mall hallway) to practice talking about the reader discount program, the special order process, etc.)

3. It’s okay not to like every book you read, and it’s double okay to tell customers when you don’t like a book, just don’t be an asshat about it.

4. You have to read to be a good bookseller, and you have to be familiar with what your co-workers read as well.

5. Chocolate truffles are a valuable bribery tool.

6. There are many, many creative ways in which to stack 400 copies of the same new hardcover.

7. Always double-check with someone before you say a book is out of stock. People often have their information wrong and it takes two people to figure out what the deal is. Also, the computer will be wrong half the time no matter what you do, so it’s worth it to look again.

8. Though computers make things more efficient in some ways, sometimes you just have to go with your gut when you’re ordering.

9. It doesn’t always matter how much foot traffic you have or how famous an author is: sometimes book signings just go terribly wrong.

10. People like their bookstores to have personality.

Does the last one sound like I shouldn’t have learned it under the corporate bookstore wingspan? I probably shouldn’t have. But I had a rogue manager. She ordered books from Koen when they weren’t available at the Waldens warehouse. She ordered books directly from Arcadia, stacked them on a table at the entrance because there was no section in the store in which to shelve them, and got an award from the Home Office for increasing “Local” sales by ridiculous amounts. She ignored mandated endcaps in order to keep a permanent endcap of her staff picks, which sold out the door in stacks. And she squished fiction to the side so that our receiver could have his own section. I think it was called “Weird Reads”—it was my introduction to The Sandman and Palahniuk and House of Leaves before those all became cool.

In their press release, in addition to using the reprehensible word “right-sizing,” Borders Group assures us that most of the 1500 people losing their jobs are part-timers. But that’s not true of most of the folks who taught me a lot of what I know about my job and, even more kindly, put up with me as a teenager. Not only are they full-time booksellers, but they’ve been working there for years and years, and they’re important to the community they serve despite the fact that they work for people whose ideas about bookselling I disagree with, and I am just as sad about their loss as I am when I read about an independent bookstore shutting its doors.

So this one’s for you, Sharon, Karen, Lisa, Laurie, Eric, and all the rest. I haven’t seen you in a few years, but I think of you every day at work, and I wish you all the best as another era in bookselling comes to an end.

Cookbookavore returns: Butternut squash and black bean soup

ETA: This soup has a new name. It has been re-named Mysterious Benedict Society Soup by the delightful Nora of I’ve Bean Thinking (due to, I believe, my mention that I was reading it during the first incarnation of this soup, but frankly that is such a good book that way more recipes should be named after it). Thanks, Nora!

Yesterday on Twitter I mentioned a delicious soup and was asked for the recipe, so here it is. Sort of. I made it up as I went along and didn’t measure anything, so it’s my best guess. Luckily, it is really difficult to mess up soup.

You’ll need:

—one butternut squash that’s 8-9 inches long and not too fat on the bulb end

—one can of black beans (I used Goya)

—vegetable broth (I use the stuff in a carton from Trader Joe’s, and highly recommend keeping vegetable broth around all the time if you don’t already. It is GREAT for making rice/couscous/quinoa)

—honey

—cayenne powder

And then you:

Cut the squash down the middle, scrape out all the seeds and whatnot, and put it on aluminum foil on a baking pan. Put it in the oven at 380 (Bittman calls for 375, I don’t think there’s a huge difference). I didn’t add any butter or oil, though you can. I am honestly not sure how long I baked it for because I was reading (The Mysterious Benedict Society!) and just kept peeking at it. Probably 45 minutes or so? In any event, you’ll know it’s ready when the skin is puffy on the outsides and the flesh looks sort of dry. Poke it with a fork. If the fork goes right through, you’re probably set. Take it out and let it cool. This is a good chance to read some more.

After it’s cool enough to hold, peel the skin off. It should come off very easily. Slice the squash up into chunks, whatever size you like, and put in a saucepan. Add the beans. Cover with broth plus another half-inch or so of broth (though you could do more). Turn the heat on medium and let it warm up a bit (aka: read some more) and then put in honey. I think I made three or four spirals worth, but add to taste. Then just 2 or 3 shakes of cayenne, but you could do more. Mix it up, put the lid on, let it simmer for awhile, and voila! Delicious soup.

You could probably double this and make it in a bigger pot. Also, I think next time I might soften an onion in some oil in the pot before I add in the squash. Or maybe some potatoes. So many options!

Review: When Everything Changed

It’s been a long time since I wrote a book review here, mostly because I’ve moved the bulk of my book commentary to Twitter. But I just finished a book I need more than 140, 280, or even 560 characters to talk about.

Over the last three days I’ve been devouring When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present, by Gail Collins (Little, Brown; just released). And I think it might have changed my life.

Let’s get something clear at the outset: I am, in almost every way, the grateful heir of the hard work of generations of American women who imagined a better life for their daughters and granddaughters. I was raised with flat-footed real-proportioned fake Barbies, and a subscription to New Moon magazine, and a healthy appreciation for women’s history, both in general and in my personal genealogy. In my senior year of college, asked to produce a utopia, dystopia or manifesto for a political science class, I wrote “A Womb of One’s Own: The Muliebrity Manifesto,” complete with grrrl power soundtrack. (Yes, really!)

And so I approached When Everything Changed with excitement, because I have the utmost respect for Gail Collins, but did not expect to be surprised by it. I certainly did not expect it to make me cry.

But I was, and it did.

What Collins has done is taken things that we all know—women used to need their husband’s permission to buy a car, and the Pill was revolutionary, and fifty years ago for a woman to go in front of a judge wearing slacks was completely impermissible, and the story of the Equal Rights Amendment, and so on—and created out of them a narrative above and beyond the typical history-book regurgitation. By weaving the experiences of average women into her chronology of the social and political upheavals, Collins molds the changes of the last five decades into an entirely new creation. God, I found myself thinking over and over, my great-grandmothers and grandmothers really put up with this nonsense? And didn’t snap once? Suddenly, the story of women’s liberation, which had always intellectually resonated with me as a woman, began to feel like a part of me down to my very bones.

I found myself welling up at the oddest places in the book. Sometimes I would be moved by the story of a woman Collins interviewed. When reading the section about Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, I remembered my mom telling me when I was younger about how she had been riveted to the TV set for the match, and how proud she’d been when Billie Jean won. Shuttling between soccer, basketball, and softball practices, I had just thought she was a weirdo. Now I realize an entire generation of women (and men!) had been perched in front of the TV that day as well. When reading about the increase of women attending college and looking at the years in which it became allowed for women to attend various graduate programs, I suddenly realized that there was more behind my Nana and Yia-Yia’s incessant harping about my grades than maternal concern. They were also trying to make sure I could take advantage of the opportunities they’d been denied. Both of them would have made very good lawyers. And each time I felt like I would cry—from sadness, from guilt, from the sheer amount of wasted opportunity on display—underneath it all like a heartbeat I could hear my brain: you are so lucky, you are so lucky, you are so, so, so lucky.

I knew many of these things before I started the book, but Collins has taken them and infused them with a passion and an importance that cannot be ignored. The book is perfectly paced, so it’s easy to get a sense of both the slowness and the speed at which many issues of the last few decades have unfolded. And because her aim is to tell a story, rather than to try to make a larger point, the point makes itself: things aren’t perfect, but my God, how they’ve gotten better.

Collins addresses my generation’s blessed amnesia about the gains of women since the 1960s at the end of the book, and the ways in which it’s both proof that the women’s movement has made true gains, and also problematic for the concerns of women that are still unaddressed. It’s my hope that this book can be a partial corrective for that. It can act as a reminder for women my age of what, if not for the tireless and in many cases unrewarded work of thousands of American women before us, could have been.

For me, it certainly has. Reading the book has put my life and its possibilities into sharp relief. I have woken up the last two mornings feeling luckier than I ever have, determined to do something good with my life simply because I can. I hope to feel that way tomorrow morning and again the day after that—and if the feeling ever fades, I will return to this incredible volume to be re-inspired.

A potential future for indie bookselling

Just quick post regarding this item in today’s Shelf Awareness:

“The French National Book Centre awarded more than 400 independent bookstores the new three-year quality label. Bookseller.com reported that booksellers ‘had to respond to a number of criteria to qualify for the LIR, or librairies indépendantes de référence. These included deriving at least half their turnover from the sale of books, proof of independence, diversity of stock, the quality of staff and services, and a strong programme of events.

‘In exchange, they are entitled to exoneration from the payroll tax, or taxe professionnelle (TP), that is levied by local authorities, starting from next year. The label, which was officially launched last April, was one of the proposals in the ‘Plan Livre’ that was adopted by the cabinet in November 2007 to bolster the book business.'”

Ever since someone told me that in Switzerland, booksellers are required to be certified, I’ve been thinking that US booksellers should hop on the bandwagon. (NB: I have no idea if that’s actually true about the certification, but it got the wheels turning anyway.)

Bookselling, in our culture and for the average person, is a retail job. A slightly more interesting retail job, and maybe even a cool one? Certainly. But it’s also a job you take while finishing your MFA. There is very little professional credibility in working full-time for a bookstore outside of the book industry.

Now, you and I and the lamppost know that this is ridiculous. Most people in bookselling are woefully over-educated, and in addition, have a strange skillset that makes them good at their job. We tend to know too much about a few select types of books (collections of 18th century love letters, Russian literature of the mid-1970s, books about the cultivation of oranges, etc). We also tend to know enough to get by while talking about almost any book, and enough to bullshit when talking about the rest. Some of this we learned while completing useless bachelor’s degrees, but the rest we obtained honestly, through hours and days and weeks of time logged behind the counter and on the floor, the way you learn any trade.

So I think we should have a certificate or something, I don’t know what. A school. A quality label. Whatever! Something that would make materially clear what we already know to be true. Would it be very hard to quantify what makes a good bookstore and a good bookseller? Probably. Would it lead to squabbling? Almost certainly. But it’d be worth it, I think.

This is all scrabble-dash, though. What do you think? Would people be reassured to see a pretty certificate in a frame when they walked in the shop? Could it lead to a greater awareness of the greatest asset of the indie bookseller—knowledge—which currently does not seem to resonate with the wider public? Discuss.

Namastechnology +

That’s right, this is extra credit, because I know that in a room of booksellers, at least half are the kid for whom the phrase “extra credit” sends a shiver up the spine.

As you’ll see in my latest Shelf Awareness column, I interviewed Fraser Kelton of Glue in order to write my article. Unfortunately, some of his thoughtful responses to my questions didn’t make the column; I ended up taking it in a different direction than I had anticipated. But I think they offer some interesting perspectives for indie booksellers to consider. This is a good guy to listen to—he’s smart about technology, he loves books, has been nothing but committed to helping indie stores out, and even has a favorite bookstore (Bryan Prince Books). If you live in NYC, I recommend checking out the Publishing Meets Tech Meetups that he organizes.

Bookavore: In what ways do you think independent booksellers could use technology to improve their business?

Fraser: I’m anything but an expert here, but I’ll toss out two ideas:

1) Use technology to create and nurture community. I bet that a major source of business is the offline community that an independent bookseller nurtures and grows. Technology enables independent booksellers to do this on a larger level online. The web is wonderfully efficient and effective for creating and maintaining relationships. These relationships could be with individuals who already frequent the bookstore (strengthening current connections) or they could be with someone hundreds of miles away (creating new connections). The past 5 years has seen an explosion in online social tools that enable one to tap into and join the conversation and it would be great to see independent booksellers embrace these tools.

2) Focus on providing the best experience possible for an individual. A single website will never be the sole resource for individuals interested in books. Even if the majority of people buy from a single online retailer we read reviews on other sites, check out what our friends are reading on various book social networks, etc. Our book experience online spans multiple sites and it’s naive to think that an independent bookseller will ever be THE site for books. With this in mind, I’d love to see independent booksellers embrace this idea and focus on providing the best experience for the individual. Link to other sites. Even competitors. Even Amazon. The better the experience provided, the more likely I am to return to the site. If I knew that an independent bookseller provided links to the best resources online for books I’d most likely continue to visit the site and with time I bet I’d start to transact through them as well.

B: What are the two or three things that you think all bookstores, indie or not, should be including on their websites?

F: 1) Answer the “What Book Should I Read Next?” question.

Offline, indie booksellers provide value by providing recommendations and curating content. By asking a few questions about previous books enjoyed they can provide a patron with personalized suggestions. An independent bookseller can use their relatively small online presence, when compared to Amazon, as a strategic advantage – they can provide these personalized suggestions online. Have a user fill out a quick form and then provide them with a short list of personalized suggestions within a stated period of time (say, 1 hour). This is a great way to build a permission marketing list and to engage directly with a broad base of potential customers. You should be so lucky that the service becomes so popular that you can barely keep up with requests.

2) Enable the community to curate and edit the book pages.

I want a single place that makes it easy to access the best resources online for a specific book. I want to read reviews from book bloggers, browse critic reviews, access summaries, browse inside the book, etc. There’s currently no aggregated page to easily access all of this information. An independent bookseller should publish book pages that are editable by their community. Imagine a blogger being able to add a direct link to their review, or an avid reader linking to a particularly insightful review from the local newspaper’s site. These actions would create a vibrant site and further strengthen the community. The indie bookseller would then become a go-to resource for all things book related. Google has become the dominant company on the web by directing people off of their site and landing them on information that’s most useful. I’d love to see an indie bookseller take this same approach to the book vertical.

What do you think?

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