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Wither Physical Space? A Bookstore Mystery

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Cafe-Librería El PénduloThis past week there were a number of articles that addressed the fate of bookstores, mainly announcing their impending demise. While this is nothing new—the topic has become a perennial favorite in the publishing industry now that the Digital Age is in full-scale disruption mode—this latest round struck a chord with me. As someone who spends many of her non-work hours in these shops—browsing, buying, going to readings—I give a lot of thought to the future of the bookstore.

I work for a publishing house, as do many of my friends; many of my other friends are booksellers and still others are authors. Admittedly, I have a stake in the bookstore’s survival beyond mere personal enjoyment.

I’m also aware that by living in New York City, a place teeming with bookstores, I am spoiled and possibly have a skewed view of their place in society. Nearly every one of these stores hosts an author event most nights of the week, giving me and the local community a reason to show up other than to buy a new book. They are a place to congregate, to catch up with friends, and occasionally meet new ones. They’re where you meet your favorite author and listen to poignant conversations among writers.

So, while I praise bookstores for doubling as neighborhood spaces and expound on how wonderful it is to have access to tens of thousands of square feet of books within a 10-mile radius, it would be narrow-minded of me not to acknowledge that there are people outside of my urban area who might not have one bookstore within driving distance. For that reason—among others—I am grateful for online retailers and ebooks.

Many detractors of bookstores often cite the seemingly infinite selection of and ease with which they can buy both print and digital books online as the main reason why bookstores are bound to go belly up. The first article I read was a recent post from Seth Godin. I’m a huge fan of Seth’s and always take what he says seriously, even if it sometimes makes me uneasy, like “The End of Books” did.

The death of the bookstore is being caused by the migration to ebooks (it won’t take all books to become ‘e’, just enough to tip the scale) as well as the superior alternative of purchase and selection of books online. If the function of a bookstore is to stock every book and sell it to you quickly and cheaply, the store has failed.

My argument is that the bookstore is not there to carry every book under the sun; they are there to curate a modest selection based on the demands of the community, the owner’s tastes (more so in independent bookstores than chains), possibly the staff’s tastes, and yes, based on the commercial success of a particular title at any given moment. Many stores, it should be noted, also sell ebooks through their websites and are happy to order a physical book that is not on their shelves.

In a recent episode of the Adventures with Words podcast, co-host Rob Chilver, a senior bookseller at a university branch of Waterstones, a British book retailer with nearly 300 stores in the UK and Europe, shared how he, as a book buyer for the store, decides which titles to stock.

When asked by people how he knows what books to buy he says, “It’s kind of a gut feeling. You get to know your shop. You get to know your customers. You get to know what people buy. … We occasionally get to see reps, these are reps from publishers. They walk you through the catalog, you can ask a few things.” He reads trade publications, pays attention to what’s getting covered in the media, and relies on an internal website where his coworkers discuss books they’ve read and what they’ve enjoyed.

Mike Shatzkin, a publishing theorist who specializes in digital changes in the industry, also discussed the future of the bookstore this past week in his post, “Losing bookstores is a much bigger problem for publishers than it is for readers.” He said:

The obsession with the false dichotomy between printed books and digital ones is beginning to give way to attention for the more important shift taking place between purchasing books online and purchasing books in stores.

… Online book buying — whether print or digital — takes business away from bookstores. So bookstores close or reduce shelf space. That decreases both their attraction and their convenience, which makes online buying increase even more. So bookstores close or reduce shelf space further. (This is called a “vicious cycle”.)

Shatzkin goes on to say that in this new world of online book discoverability—as opposed to the old way where people found books in stores—puts publishers on the defensive where they now have to explain how and why they’re still of value to authors. I can think of many: editors, publicists, sales reps, marketing and art departments, and distribution.

Shakespeare & CompanyHowever, the question of physical vs. digital availability is an important one. The future of the bookstore depends heavily on merging the physical showroom with digital technology. Interactive screens where stores maintain their curatorial nature—giving prominent visual space to select titles—but allowing an additional layer for increased selection is something I would like to see. With those screens would come a delivery service where those with ereaders could download books immediate, purchasing them from the store in which they stand. This latter part would be enforced either by blocking competitors’ sites within the store or by the honor code.

A recent episode of the Twist Image podcast addressed online shopping more broadly. Host Mitch Joel spoke with author and “retail futurist” Doug Stephens about the future of retail in our digital world. Stephens explained the impact of pervasive technology on consumer behavior and, in turn, on retail space. Because people can find what they want online he asks what the role of a physical store is now: “Is the job of a retail store still to distribute products? Or is it about distributing brand impressions? Is it about distributing relationships or connections?”

Just this past weekend, The New York Times took a look at the other side of retail development. Technology reporter Jenna Wortham explored in her article “Hanging Out at the E-Mall” one challenge facing online sellers: how to create a social experience.

The Web has yet to duplicate the real-world feel of a mall, where shoppers can pop in and out of multiple stores, easily browsing racks of clothing, display cases of jewelry and shelves of housewares. And online, friends can’t join you in a dressing room to help you avoid buying fashion faux pas.

Jenna highlights the problem of online discoverability and shows how a new crop of entrepreneurs are attempting to remedy it:

as more companies and shops migrated to the Web, it became harder to find cool, stylish and quirky items, giving entrepreneurs an opening. … The [new] shopping sites do not sell one type of item or good — instead, they mimic a bazaar where people can browse through bins at their leisure. … In addition, most social shopping sites let their users find and follow their friends and favorite brands or shops, which creates a feed akin to those on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. The feed is filled with new items that they might like to buy.

It’s often said that with disruption comes innovation. Do I think bookstores need to get creative if they’re going to survive, let alone thrive, as we become increasingly digitized? Absolutely. Are they doomed? I’m not ready to concede that just yet. I like to believe I live in a world that values in-person interaction and that readers, although a group known for its introversion, sees the benefit in moving these spaces into the future.

**Disclaimer: I work in publishing but am not a spokesperson for my company.

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Written by Gabrielle

August 20, 2013 at 6:51 am

Brand Thinking with Debbie Millman

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Brand ThinkingThere’s a lot of talk about “brand” lately and, while I can’t claim this to be a new phenomenon, with the rise of social media the notion has extended beyond the walls of advertising and marketing meetings. Now that nearly everyone is on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and a host of other online forums, the term has come into public consciousness. People are asking how they want to present themselves to the world: what do I stand for? What should be public and what should remain private? What will build a reputation and what might destroy it? In essence, what is their “brand”?

There are many skeptics when it comes to branding. Those who view it negatively see it as insincere, disingenuous, and manipulative. But it doesn’t need to be this way. There’s a case for genuine marketing, a way of creating a strong, decided presence in order to connect with an eager audience.

I work in book publishing and constantly have to remind myself that not everyone knows what an imprint is: a subdivision of a larger publishing house. For example, Vintage is an imprint of Random House; Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster; Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin; and St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan.

For some who live within this bubble of publishing it can come as a surprise that not everyone looks at the spine of a book (where the name and logo of the imprint is located) when they walk into a bookstore; to us insiders it’s practically second nature. However, knowing what an imprint is and becoming familiar with what they publish can be incredibly useful to the general public.

Oftentimes you can tell the tone and quality of a book based on which imprint publishes it. If you’re looking for a business book, Crown and Portfolio are good bets; if you’re looking for something more literary Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Knopf might be the way you want to go; or if you are looking for something quirky in paperback, Harper Perennial, Three Rivers Press, and Plume will probably do the trick.

For those steeped in book culture these imprints are shorthand or, for those who like an air of exclusivity, secret code. It is this subsection of the book buying community that publishers—through social media and traditional advertising—can use branding to connect with and expand their audience.

What marketing naysayers might not know is that there are a number of professionals who are passionate about their branding projects, think deeply about their craft, and who don’t approach awareness-raising with cynicism.

In Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, Debbie Millman, partner and president of the design division at Sterling Brands, President Emeritus of AIGA, and chair of the School of Visual Arts’ master’s program in Branding, sits down with leading thinkers and designers in the field to get their thoughts on advertising. Throughout her interviews, Millman asks poignant and tailored questions. These unique conversations allow for a diverse range of definitions, anecdotes, and views of the industry.

In her introduction, Millman explains that “branding is a history in flux, and [her] hope is that this collection of conversations can provide a time capsule of the second decade of the 21st century.” Throughout Brand Thinking, humanity and storytelling are common themes; nearly everyone who creates campaigns has a desire to explore what brands are and what brand awareness means.

Debbie MillmanOne of the participants is Dori Turnstall, an Associate Professor of Design Anthropology, an area of study she explains has two components: the practical dimension, how to design products based on our understanding of people, and the theoretical, understanding how “the process and artifacts of design help define what it means to be human.”

From cultural critics Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell to designer Karim Rashid to entrepreneur Seth Godin to a number of industry executives, Millman asks her subjects to explore the notion of “brand.” Each come to varying conclusions while sharing years of experience and knowledge.

Here are just a few excerpts from a book full of fascinating answers.

As mentioned, marketing expert Seth Godin was interviewed for the book. Here he defines brand:

I believe that ‘brand’ is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.

Wally Olins, Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants of London, Madrid, Mumbai and New York, and author of a number of books on branding, has this to say about different mediums throughout the years (something to keep in mind as we’re flooding with information about the Internet and mobile devices):

Television didn’t kill radio; film didn’t kill theater. There will certainly be huge changes. But one medium doesn’t kill another. Each new medium actually makes the previous one better. Radio no longer resembles what it was before television. Television no longer resembles what it was before the Internet. All these things will change, but they give us a multiplicity of choice.

Anthropologist and author Grant McCracken, formerly a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and consultant for Coca-Cola, Chrysler, and Kraft, says this about understanding culture:

Designers—or indeed anybody who’s interested in business change or social change—need to make a knowledge of the culture and the social world in which they work the first condition of their provocation.

Regarding storytelling, former Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather Brian Collins, who now runs his own communication and branding firm and whose clientele history includes Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft, says:

I think the secret to working with existing brands is to help them find their intrinsic story. And then amplify the stories for new generations to share. Brands have become the best device for perpetuating mythic archetypes. …

We say we want information, but we don’t experience the world through information—we experience the world through story. … Stories are how we give meaning to what happens to us. When we call upon them, they activate archetypes—”archetypes” as defined by Carl Jung. They remind us of eternal truths, and they help us navigate through our lives.

Stanley Hainsworth former VP of Global Creative at Starbucks and Former Creative Director of Nike says:

For me, it’s all about having a story to tell. This is what will enable you to create an experience around the brand. … You go back to the essence of the brand. Why was it made? What need did it fill? Go back to the origins of a brand and identify how it connected to consumers and how it became a relevant, “loved by families” product. What were the origins of this story?

And Cheryl Swanson, founder of brand consultancy Toniq says:

A brand is a product with a compelling story. … The brands are totems. They tell us stories about our place in culture—about where we are and where we’ve been. They also help us figure out where we’re going.

President of Innovation at Sterling Brands, DeeDee Gordon, discusses the need for the audience to feel like they’re a part of brand:

It’s not enough to produce great creative work. Consumers won’t automatically like an idea just because a brand says so. They need to be part of the creative process—a process that is fluid, organic, and on their own terms. A process like this produces the most useful insights and allows designers to think about products in a whole new way—oftentimes, they’re introduced to entirely new ideas. Consumers can be designer’s biggest advocates, but only if designers will let the conversation happen and give consumers the respect they deserve by allowing them to have a say.”

Whether you’re in an industry that sells books, food, clothing, or some other object with numerous competitors, Brand Thinking will start you on a path to exploring a way to differentiate yourself from the pack, one that’s light on cynicism and heavy on passionate belief.

When you’re finished reading, Debbie Millman hosts a podcast on Design Observer called “Design Matters” where she speaks with innovators and creatives in the design field in the same manner featured in Brand Thinking. These thoughtful and stimulating conversations are an excellent compliment to her books and will keep you tide over until the next one.

::[Links]::
Buy Brand Thinking from your local bookstore
Visit Debbie Millman’s website
Listen to Design Matters

Written by Gabrielle

July 23, 2013 at 7:00 am

Life Hacking 101: Just Don’t Call it Self-Help

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Art of DoingThe other day I sat in a room full of colleagues and said something along the lines of “I don’t read self-help books.” Note, I did not say this disparagingly; it was simply just a matter of fact, or so I thought. No more than an hour or two later I realized I was wrong. Leaving aside that one summer between my junior and senior year of college when a bad breakup brought me to If the Buddha Dated, I found I could come up with a number of recent examples: Dale Carnegie, John C. Maxwell, and David Allen, to name a few authors. The thing was, I hadn’t associated them with the self-help genre.

While Carnegie is shelved in self-help, often taking up full rows, I was surprised that he had not been placed in business instead. As with Maxwell and Allen’s wildly popular books, I saw Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, as a treatise on work relationships rather than something for one’s personal life—although it helps with that as well. I had thought of all three, along with Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki, as part of the life hack family.

Life hack is a relatively new phenomenon—at least in name. According to Wikipedia, “life hack refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency … [it’s] anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way.” The origin of the term is credited to computer programmers in the 1980s who devised “tricks to cut through information overload and organize their data.” Today, it’s associated with almost anything that increases personal productivity and helps navigate workplace situations, as illustrated by the popular website Lifehacker where you can learn about the best apps to help you through your workday as well as interpersonal skills that will help advance your career—even in the trickiest of situations.

So, as it turns out, I do read self-help, sometimes voraciously.

Recently, I learned of the book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well after coming across an excerpt of Mark Frauenfelder’s tips for creating a successful blog. As the founder and coeditor of Boing Boing, a popular website for techy-types and genre fans, Frauenfelder exudes authority on the subject; it would be wise to listen to what he has to say.

What might come as a surprise to some, given the computer-geek culture associated with the site, Frauenfelder’s last piece of advice is to “keep it real,” that “the best material for the blog is usually found in the real world from real-life experiences.”

The Art of Doing is full of these surprising anecdotes and aphorisms, often from unlikely sources. How the editors came to collect them is seemingly simple, they asked “successful people how they do what they do.” They asked for “work habits, turning points, experiences, insights and goals” and wound up with a handy reference book that can be opened to any page and read in any order to obtain words of wisdom—and inspiration—for life in all its many forms.

While gathering stories and expert practices from contributors, the editors, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, “began to see patterns” and noticed that “people shared core principles and practices.” Among them were dedication, intelligent persistence, community building, listening, testing, managing emotions, evolving, and cultivating patience and happiness.

For 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, “It’s important to create the environment where everyone wants to contribute so that moment of inspiration can happen, because sometimes, you’re just one step away.” The band OK Go urges readers to ignore the false line between promotion and art, believing that the elevation of “one type of creativity over another is crazy,” saying that “You can call making videos, posters and other visuals crass commercial promotion, but all of our creative ideas are connected and promote each other.” They “see no line between the music and the work that supports it.”

The advice is as varied as the participants: from neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak on optimizing your brain; to Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York, on being “the most fabulous you;” to Philippe Petit, high-wire artist, on letting life be your teacher.

Whether you call it life hacking or plain old self-help, the goal is the same: to become the best at what you do. In this day and age—as we move further away from the Industrial Revolution and deeper into the Digital and Social Age—that often means becoming the most creative, innovative person you can be, to think far outside the box and to help those around you do the same. The Art of Doing is an excellent look inside the minds and practices of people who have strived and succeeded, and who continue, every day, to be better. Pick it up, read it, hack life.

::[Links]::
Buy The Art of Doing at your local bookstore
Read Mark Frauenfelder’s excerpt at Fast Company
Read Lifehacker
Find useful articles at 99u
Listen to Seth Godin’s interview with Krista Tippett

Written by Gabrielle

February 26, 2013 at 6:51 am

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