Spring in Omaha: A Forum & Education Program

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On Saturday, April 21, the American Booksellers Association held an education program and a Booksellers Forum & Strategic Planning Session in conjunction with the Midwest Booksellers Association (MBA) at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Omaha. The free program, this year's second in the MBA region, drew about 40 bookseller attendees.

At the kickoff session, "Participating in the Digital Revolution," Len Vlahos, ABA's director of education and BookSense.com, demonstrated how technology is changing the way people are interacting and acquiring information. Digitization of content, social networking, open source, and print-on-demand were among the topics of discussion, and Vlahos showed booksellers how MySpace, Second Life, and blogs can be used effectively to promote a bookstore.

Beth Black, co-owner of Omaha's Bookworm, told BTW, "As usual, the programming was very professional and well done." The "Digital Revolution" session was particularly timely, she said, because of the role technology plays in attracting younger crowds to bookstores.

Staff at Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas, wasted no time putting what they learned at the "Digital Revolution" into practice. Several days after the forum, Watermark owner Sarah Bagby said the store had already created a MySpace page. "I don't know what's on it," she said with a laugh. "We have to flesh out some of the details, but we'll post information about our events. And we'll also have post-event recaps, something we haven't done before, to show people what they have missed. We'll build on what we have, but we'll just use different technology."

Sharon Carey of Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa, said she appreciated Vlahos' explanation of the concept of niche marketing as discussed in The Long Tail by Chris Anderson (Hyperion), as well as his shortlist of book blogs, which included the Written Nerd and Publishing Insider.

"One of the discussions that I thought was really helpful was to make a much more accessible website," Carey said. "I was thinking that our staff picks list that we have on the wall... would be really useful to have on our site."

The MBA breakout session, "It Works For Me," provided booksellers with an opportunity to get a needed "shot in the arm," as Black put it, as they were able to network and continue discussions about technology issues.

During MBA's "Let's Talk" Lunch, each table of booksellers met with several publisher reps in small groups to talk about working relationships and industry topics, rather than discussing specific titles. ABA COO Oren Teicher was included in the rotation and talked to booksellers about Scholastic's My Main Street Book Sense Contest. Starting May 2, Scholastic and ABA are partnering to bring the Main Street Contest -- an essay contest for children -- to stores with Book Sense. The promotion centers on Newbery honoree and bestselling author Ann M. Martin's new series, Main Street. (Read more.)

After lunch, the reps offered their "Picks of the Lists" for spring and summer.

Vlahos then presented "Handselling: Customer Service With Results." The session covered implementing and improving handselling strategies to grow a store's reputation, energize staff, and increase sales. Attracting and training good handsellers, integrating handselling into marketing efforts, and ensuring that customers walk away with a unique and positive shopping experience, were all part of the discussion. Video vignettes also illustrated some do's and don'ts of handselling.

The handselling session was "quite good," said Bagby. "We pride ourselves on being experts, but there were some really good tips I hadn't articulated. Len talked about mentioning how a book makes you feel. When handselling, we can tell you everything about a book, and more likely than not we'll tell you how it makes us feel. But to have him present it in that framework was helpful."

Following the education sessions, Teicher and Vlahos facilitated the "Booksellers Forum & Strategic Planning Session," where they provided updates on the association's programs and initiatives and gathered booksellers' input on the future direction of the association for the next five-year strategic plan.

Following the programming, a reception was held at The Bookworm featuring some of the Heartland's favorites authors, including Jonis Agee, Mark Levine, Laura Moriarty, Andrea Portes, and Timothy Schaffert.

Susan Walker, MBA executive director, told BTW that the event was very successful, with approximately 40 people in attendance. "About 14 stores were represented, and several were brand-new booksellers, or [stores] just on the verge of opening," she said. "A nice mix of experience levels."

Walker told BTW that, because distances between member stores is great in the MBA region, meetings like this are very significant. "It's hard for many of our members to get to [regional] trade shows and many don't attend BEA. For [ABA] to be able to bring something to them is very significant." Walker also mentioned the success of MBA's marketing initiative, Midwest Connections, in bringing member stores closer.

For Black, the gathering provided an important opportunity "to be surrounded by people who share your own concerns and difficulties. It was great." --Nomi Schwartz and Karen Schechner