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The Little Bookstore That Could: Bookmamas in Irvington Survives and Prospers in an Age Where “It can’t be done.”

little engineBookmamas, the little Bookstore in the Historic Irvington section of Indianapolis, has been compared to the classic story of The Little Engine That Could. In that story, a train loaded with toys needs an engine to pull it over the mountain to waiting children.  The train asks several big engines who refuse to pull the train because they think they can’t traverse the mountain pulling the train of toys.  Finally, the smallest engine in the rail yard agrees to try.  It stalls several times as it tries to travel up and over the mountain.  Each time the little engine stalls, it repeats, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” makes it over that rough spot and continues on until it delivers the toys to the expectant children.

Ten years ago bookstores around the nation were closing.  Amazon and online sales were eroding the sales of brick and mortars.  E books were threatening to replace traditional books.  Other forms of entertainment such as video games and television supplanted reading for many people.  The great recession of 2008 significantly slowed the economy.  And I bought a used online bookstore and opened Bookmamas.

What was I thinking?  That’s what my brother, a financial adviser, wanted to know. I was thinking about how our mother didn’t buy me books while I was growing up because I didn’t need encouragement to read.  Now her legacy to me was a store full of books.  I was thinking how great it would be to put the right book into the hands of the eager reader.  I was thinking about how I would love to encourage more children to love books and reading.  I was thinking about all the interesting book lovers I would meet.  I was thinking of book clubs and writers’ groups and author talks. I was thinking of learning more about books, authors, ideas and people.

My cousin Carolyn and I tried everything we could think of.  We sold books online, I exhibited in markets throughout town, I set up small satellite stores, and we sponsored author signings, group meetings, musical performances and lectures.  We expanded into new books specializing in books about Indiana or by Hoosiers.  Who knew Indiana was the subject of so many wondrous books and home of so many great authors? We formed partnerships with other Indianapolis organizations such as the library, Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, Ray Bradbury Institute and Hoosier History Live.  Bookmamas finally merged with a record store —bringing in an entirely new group of patrons.

Every time we had trouble, we repeated the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” and amazingly we succeeded.  Bookmamas is still here and has brought me copious amounts of joy and satisfaction.

By guest blogger Kathleen Angelone, owner of the store

Next Week: Kathleen Angelone reviews a new Civil War book from Hawthorne!

Posted in Book Publishing, Welcome |

A story about a vanished civilization. . .

indiana history bookThe time is 1987. The place: Indianapolis. At several places in the city, there are vibrant, well attended stores which have attractive books on display. A sign outside says Waldenbooks. They are the cornerstones for a business selling best-sellers, classics and children’s books. No coffee bars, no puzzles and quirky games, just books. And customers come in in a steady stream, especially on weekends.

Waldenbooks was a destination for both families and individuals, in this age before Kindles, electronic games, and non-stop kids’ athletic competitions.

And for us at (then) Guild Press, our earlier company name, it was the foundation of a business in regional publishing.  Here’s the story. Waldenbooks went back, surprisingly, to 1933 when a man named Lawrence Hoyt began setting up lending libraries in department stores. In a few years Hoyt converted the libraries to bookstores. Stand-alones began for this company in 1961 and spread across the country. The company was named after Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece of his life by Walden Pond.

Living in the east, I was working on my second book in, I was told, a genre that didn’t exist: the regional historical novel. I was telling the story of my own McClure ancestors, who were among the first to come into Indiana via the Buffalo Trace before the area became a state, 1803. They were Scotch Irish; the story of their migration from northern Ireland into Pennsylvania, Kentucky and into the Hoosier state seemed very interesting to me. I thought others would enjoy reading about it if it could be written into a successful historical novel.

By the time The Movers was finished, we were living in Indiana again and I took the manuscript, almost on impulse to the local Waldenbooks, where the regional manager Roy Thompson, had his office. I had become acquainted with him. Surprisingly, he agreed to read it and here is what he said, “If I had a thousand of these books I could sell them in all the Indiana stores and beyond possibly.”

But how? We simply got the book professionally edited and put it into print. Then we chose a name for the operation: Guild Press. We wished to suggest the old-time quality and care put into publishing by bookmakers of the past.

With impulsive optimism (as I look at it today) we ordered 10,000 books and a bunch of display cases, popular at that time for bookstores. And, indeed Roy and other regional buyers for Waldens did buy the book and promote it. It went on to win a Waldenbooks award: Best historical novel for the mid-Atlantic states in 1989. And so we were off to the races.

For years both Roy and his district manager, Sue Hicks, bought directly our books, taking on almost every Indiana title we put out and displaying them prominently. In those days when people went to bookstores exclusively to buy what they wished to read, the books were popular and well reviewed (we took time to see to that.) I often appeared at Waldenbooks on author visits as well as running an expanding company. Eventually we hired others and my husband Arthur joined the force. Guild Press of Indiana put out over 200 books, some of them prize-winning, and was sold to Emmis Publishing in 2002. Our small residual company, headed by Art Baxter, was left with us and Hawthorne Publishing came into being to take up the torch of legacy publishing for our state.

Roy Thomson worked much too hard, day and night, to make Waldenbooks a continuing success in a market that began to decline. He died suddenly before the chain was absorbed by Border’s, which as we all know, itself closed as a deluge of internet book-buying took over Americans’ reading habits.  That vanished civilization still has remnants in a few vibrant bookstores that still play a part in a business dominated by a huge giant named Amazon, online. The recent news that Amazon will try some bricks-and-mortar stores shows the old idea is still alive!

by Senior Editor Nancy Baxter

You can order a signed commemorative copy of Nancy Baxter’s novel The Movers by calling Hawthorne Publishing 317-867-5183.

Posted in Book Publishing, Books on Indiana, Cultural History, Indiana History |

What can regional publishers do to sell their books?

Here are the ideas, and they can apply to self-published and to authors whose books are put out by larger publishers:

Know your market. From the first moment we think of writing a book, we need to know who will be reading it. Since it is our associates and friends in the state we care about (usually) we must aim our book and publicity at them. Hoosiers have interest in the arts, but more interest in history, quirky Hoosier things, movie stars from Indiana and state heroes like Ryan White They care about the Civil War and World War I. And that’s true for “niche” books also: define your interest group.  Whatever your book’s focus or interest, you had a reason for sharing it. Aim at the group that will care about it.

Bookstore sales, once our bread and butter, are not going to sell your book. There are only a handful of these outlets in our state, anyway. A few interesting new “boutique” bookstores have opened in the state and you should investigate them. You cannot rely at all on having a “book signing” at Barnes and Noble. These days B&N, which is struggling itself, will seat you at a table by the back rest room and you are on your own. Usually, few if any sales. They won’t turn your down, probably, not wishing to anger the local people. Unless you are a “name,” (in our case Dan Wakefield) very little will happen.

Concentrate on group sales and events where you can count on an interest in your book’s subject. This is intriguing to pursue. Book clubs are marvelous if you can find any way to locate them. You can ask around and let one club lead to another. We ask book clubs to buy our books a month in advance at a discount so the members can read them. The discussion of the book will be lively and well founded if the members have read the book. Ask yourself if your book is suitable for “corporate sales.” That is, are there institutions or groups who will want to present it for gifts to customers, graduation gifts, Christmas remembrances and the like? These people get a 50% discount from us, but sales of 90 to 100 books at a time are worth it!

Utilize the internet. Have an interest group develop before the book comes out, then ask those who surface with interest e-blast their friends and ask them to pass it on. Our authors blog, either on their own sites or on ours. We depend on our website, and update it every week. We push sales to the site, offering our credit card sales only through Paypal on the site. When we are doing niche releases to a certain audience with a book we know will be very popular, we defer placing the book on Amazon until six months have elapsed. Return from an Amazon sale is smaller than our retail. Deferring placement on the wholesale giant insures our bottom line will be favorable. We can also defer the e-book for six months; e-books though convenient for readers, have a very small return to the publisher or author trying to sell books. Eventually your book should be made into an ebook, not only for sales but for digital legacy value.

Be aware of small-town libraries. These places can be good places to speak but you must be quite alert. We put our authors in libraries only if the library has a definite promotional plan in place and seems pleased to have the person come. Then we supplement the visit plan with releases to the small-town paper and radio station. We like to get an interview on the radio. If we don’t take this publicity mini-blitz on for ourselves for a library event, it may be nobody will come. And I mean nobody. It is no fun to sit in a nice gathering room waiting when the hour arrives and—nothing. Historical societies, women’s clubs, Rotary or Kiwanis and the like can be good outlets.

by Senior Editor Nancy Baxter

You can see/order Nancy Baxter’s books by clicking back to the website.

Posted in Book Publishing |

Diagnostic Analytics: The publishing industry

I have been a member of the Indiana Historical Society Publications Committee for many years.  It advises on the books and periodicals (like Traces magazine) that the Society puts out, which are highly professional and interesting. The publications receive good support from donors who underwrite children’s and adult history books and then these books are sold through traditional means, like the I HS History Market store downtown and at book conferences.  I consider the editors and staff at the Historical Society Press as friends as well as co-workers in the fields of preserving Indiana history for the future and acquainting the public with our state’s rich heritage.

At a recent meeting a member of this committee who is in the business world asked this question: Does the Historical Society utilize diagnostic analytics? What is the algorithm you are using?

It stopped all of us in our tracks. I, as a small regional press editor and they as long-time historians were confronted with a methodology that we might have only distant knowledge of. What the gentleman was referring to was the utilization of data amassed through such agencies as Microsoft Cloud to predict trends in business and the results of planning strategies and then the application of such analysis to future planning for success. I know that’s not a scientific definition, but I think in general that is what is referred to.

We in the book industry have been doing this for a while now in a different, maybe old-fashioned Charles Dickens era way and I have even utilized the technique in giving workshops. There are trends we have to look at statistically and they are available on the internet. So—what can it do to help us do books about history that get into the hands of readers? It does give one pause.

We can know (diagnose) that 40% of books today are “Indie” books, that is owned by their authors and put out generally as e-books, a radical departure from the old “Charles Dickens” formula of writing a book, going to a publishing company through an agent or “over the transom” to get your book into many of the tens of thousands of bookstores across America. These books, often in ebook form, are sold without bookstores generally—through the new media.  A website called “Author Earnings” shows how the “Big Five” traditional publishers in America are losing shares of sales in several ways and the decline continues every year. Amazon has no real competition not only for books but in merchandising generally. That means the old formula of companies putting out nice print books for places like Waldenbooks and Barnes and Noble to sell them in a bricks and mortar store (as happened with our company in the 1990s) is—on the skids if not dead.

Where have the independent bookstores in America gone? The answer is into the pages of history. Waldenbooks really built our first publishing company, Guild Press. We won awards for our books at Walden’s, we travelled to Stanford, Connecticut to present our books to corporate headquarters. And they bought, thousands of our books. That chain has been gone for a couple of decades. And its successor, Border’s is gone with the wind too.

Not all bookstores are dead, though. Actually, some analysts see a trend for a little vitality in small bookstores with cozy nooks, coffee bars and entertainment, in short, with personality!  A site called “New Pages” lists twenty in Indiana, with interesting names and I am certain a dedicated, modest clientele. In Indianapolis the three stores that are still active are Book Mamas in Irvington, Kids Ink, a longtime children’s bookstore and a part of Indy Reads, a used and some new book operation downtown. The faltering Barnes and Noble chain is looking at opening smaller, boutique type store under their management that goes in and out through a revolving door. Still, people are buying books, that is clear, and we wonder how that affects the historical book market. It’s definitely worth our “analyzing” and finding an algorithm, whatever that is.

by Senior Editor Nancy Baxter

NEXT: How to keep Indiana history books alive!

Click back to the website to see Nancy Baxter’s new release Cabinet of Curiosities from the Civil War in Indiana

Posted in Book Publishing |