From behind the sales counter I have a direct line of sight to the shelves holding new releases and two titles always catch my eye these days. Actually it’s not the titles I notice but the distinctive front covers.
Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton and Duty by Robert Gates each feature prominent photos of the authors staring out at prospective readers. Forget any personal opinions you may have about their stories. From a marketing standpoint, the full-face cover is an extremely effective tactic.
For authors and the stores that sell their books, publicity is the spark that keeps the fires of commerce burning brightly. Having worked in the news business, PR, and retail sales, I’ve learned that no matter how much information you fling into the social arena each day a huge number of people never see the message. What that means for any small business is that efforts to expand public awareness of the operation must be ongoing and wide ranging.
Each time a customer says, “I’ve never been in here before,” it makes me realize why big companies spend huge sums of money putting their names on billboards and buying the rights to have their logos on every cup holder in giant sports stadiums.
Consumers can’t make any decision about whether or not to patronize a business or buy a product until they know it exists. And while Annie Bloom’s has been around for 35 years, and currently has a website and a Facebook page and an extensive email list, there is still a vast pool of potential visitors in our area who don’t know about us.
That fact is the motivation for publicity efforts that are now part of my daily routine. What I’ve learned during the past few years is that even with social media platforms and instant access to all kinds of data banks, word of mouth is still a great marketing tool. Every time I make a personal connection at the grocery store, the bank, post office, or even a parking lot (yes, I do occasionally talk to strangers while walking to my car), I try to mention Annie Bloom’s, and in nearly all cases the other person has never heard the name before.
I don’t find this trend discouraging in the least. It’s not unlike mining for gold. At any moment you may strike a new vein. My favorite example right now is Unbroken. Just when it seemed like everyone who wanted to know the incredible story of Louis Zamperini must surely have a copy, Zamperini died and set off a whole new wave of interest in the book and the upcoming movie.
I fantasize about store publicity constantly. Most of my ideas are unworkable but entertaining. One of them involves a huge metal tower and a renegade broadcasting operation called ‘Radio Annie.’ Needless to say the programming would feature a lot of interviews with writers and on-air readings.
I’ve thought about writing some of our representatives in Congress to see if it might be possible to create a national Take A Friend Who Doesn’t Read Much To Your Local Independent Bookstore Day. I should probably wait on that until all the dust settles after the 2016 election.
I also saw a news item claiming that Justin Bieber was at Disneyland recently and had himself pushed around in a wheelchair so he could cut to the front of the lines at each ride. If only there was some way I could contact Justin and convince him to do exactly the same thing on a visit to Annie Bloom’s we would have a publicity bonanza of worldwide proportions.
For now, as the real world turns, I’ll just keep up my one-man campaign. At every author event I encourage audience members to be sure and talk up the store out in their daily lives. I say the same thing to customers checking out at the front counter. Occasionally when I look over someone’s shoulder I notice the faces of Hillary and Robert on the far wall, staring down at me as I make the promotional pitch.
Sometimes it almost seems like they’re nodding and smiling.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a bookseller and booklover at Annie Bloom’s Books in the historic Multnomah Village district of southwest Portland. His relationship with Annie Bloom’s began in the 1990′s when the store’s booksellers enthusiastically sold his two humor collections I’m Right Here, Fish-Cake and It Came With the House. He continues to blog about politics and popular culture for Huffington Post and also contributes to the “Modern Parent” blog at the Christian Science Monitor. His latest collection of commentaries about modern life, entitled Who Am I Today (Subtopian Press), is available through most independent bookstores.