Roxanne Coady Speaks Out
The Link Between Booksellers and Publishers
Roxanne spoke at the Yale Book Publishing Course in July, with a presentation titled “The Future of Bookselling.” “I’m thrilled that people are interested in publishing and I’m glad to do my part,” she said of her decision to speak at the YPC.
During her speech, Roxanne insisted on the importance of publishers going to work in a bookstore for a few weeks each year (something that several other presenters suggested, including Program Advisor Robert Baensch). She explained that it is often the case that publishers lose touch with their customers and with the grassroots book market. Actually being in the store, as a salesperson rather than as a buyer, can give publishers a completely new perspective and give them a better understanding of how books make their way off the shelf.
RJ Julia’s Approach to E-books
E-books are sometimes viewed as the anti-Christ to brick-and-mortar stores that have always carried tangible goods. Undaunted by the rise in e-book sales, Roxanne decided that instead of fighting the digital revolution, RJ Julia’s could join it. Roxanne said it was necessary to be responsive to customers, and the store has found a rather successful way to sell e-books alongside their print counterparts. “We’ve had events with tons of cardboard easel backs that feature QR codes,” she explained. “We put a cover image of the book next to a QR code so customers can buy the book through us.”
What’s Coming Next?
Although Roxanne and RJ Julia are already active in their community and in the bookselling world, it’s not enough. One of Roxanne’s concerns is the rising rate and percentage of people that are functionally illiterate in our country. “This is a problem we know how to solve,” Roxanne said during her presentation at Yale. “Somewhere in the industry a group of committed people needs to take this on.” Next month, Independent Publisher will have another interview with Roxanne that will address the issue of illiteracy and how the book industry can help, so stay tuned.
Indie Groundbreaking Bookseller
RJ Julia Booksellers
“A Bookstore is more than Just a Place to Sell Books”
Nestled in downtown Madison, Connecticut, RJ Julia Booksellers is a haven for book lovers. Since the store opened in April of 1990, it has been the recipient of tons of notice and awards, including Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year, the Lucille Pannell award for bookselling excellence and Connecticut Magazine’s Best Bookstore. Don’t let RJ Julia’s quaint exterior and classic book selection fool you; they’re working as hard, if not harder, than publishers to stay on top of the latest technology and marketing in the book industry. This dedication to adaptation – all for the sake of the book – is why they inspired our new column, the “Indie Groundbreaking Bookseller.”
RJ Julia has all of the hallmarks of a great store: first editions, autographed copies, in-store events and an educated and enthusiastic staff. They also have a great website (www.rjjulia.com), multiple book clubs, educational programs, QR codes everywhere and the newly launched Just the Right Book site that sets up readers with perfect books, reviews, and bookselling experts (but more on that later). Sounds like more than just your average bookstore, doesn’t it?
Founder and owner Roxanne Coady has been in the book business for years. She co-edited The Book that Changed My Life, is a frequent guest on NPR's The Faith Middleton Show and is founder of the non-profit literacy program Read to Grow. A “consummate bibliophile,” Roxanne makes it her mission to keep RJ Julia known as one of the best indie bookstores in the country.
With all of the changes happening in the book world, how do Roxanne and RJ Julia react?
“I think there are several useful strategies,” Roxanne said, “but most importantly, you should think of a bookstore as an education place and offer a reading program that is very tailored to your market. People are interested in learning – you might do a classics programs or pick a certain genre or set of authors to study for a few months. There are a million ways to slice and dice it and come up with a program where you provide a service and ultimately sell your books.”
RJ Julia recently held a “Great Reads” program that was very well received. “We modeled the course on the Directed Studies program at Yale,” Roxanne explained. “Attendees read writers like Homer, Plato and Descartes. The 12 month program was limited to 25 people and we brought in professors from Yale to teach.”
Another program, taught by author Sigrid Nunez and based on her book Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag, is already in the works for RJ Julia. “There’s lots of possibility around subsets of Great Reads Program,” Roxanne said.
Not only does RJ Julia feature these programs, but they also have five in-store and eight out-of-store book clubs. In regard to the former, about 15-25 people meet monthly at RJ Julia to discuss their latest reads. And although the out-of-store clubs aren’t on site, RJ Julia maintains a steady presence. “We are involved in choosing and ordering books, and often invite members to read galleys and give RJ Julia and the publisher feedback. We also organize special meetings between authors and book club readers and periodically hold symposiums about books that everyone loves.”
One of the struggles of being a bookseller today is bridging the gap between library and retailer. While that atmosphere of reading reverence is desired, bookstores still need to make sales and turn a profit. Roxanne told me that RJ Julia has tried out a few promotional events, such as giving away paper cups of free ice cream to boost children’s books sales, that have been very successful.
“I think that these events are a good way to get customers into the store. Once they are in the door people are attracted to what we have. Our books and booksellers take care of the rest, and I have complete confidence in our sellers and know our collection is very enticing. You shouldn’t try to sell something unrelated – but having free ice cream or selling flowers can help bring customers into the store.”
With all of the competition from social media, TV, Internet, and of course Amazon, booksellers are finding that they need to step outside their comfort zone and try some new tricks to stay afloat. So here’s the bigger picture: the bookstore needs to be more than just a place to sell books. Stores have always been a part of a community and are a place for thoughtful people to gather, converse, and/or read (and hopefully spend some money). And yet many stores are struggling.
“People think of a bookstore as a community,” Roxanne said. “They want it and need it to be a community, but no one has figured out how to make the change from a commercial establishment. A bookstore is not a bar, nor is it a library. It’s a place where connection and conversation matter. But how does it get paid for? It used to be that customers bought their books in the store, but that’s no longer the case. Now the question is do people want a bookstore to be a community place enough to support it?”
Now, this thought got me worried. People didn’t seem to care too much about Borders, and I’ve seen a decent number of indie booksellers lose their businesses. Roxanne, however, is not concerned and still sees a great future for bookstores.
“There are a lot of ways bookstores can adapt. For example, we have always thought about membership programs in terms of discounts. I’m curious about a membership program that makes sure the bookstore still exists. I call it ‘sin money:’ the members’ sin is that they’re buying their books somewhere else but they’ll still pay their membership fees because they want the bookstore to exist. A bookstore could become a private club, or a showroom, or something else entirely. This is where I think there will be some experimenting.”
But wait, there’s more! (And I saved the best for last.) I promised that I’d tell you about Just the Right Book, RJ Julia’s latest endeavor. The basic premise is that Just the Right Book will be a way for avid readers to get personalized recommendations and books that are particularly suited to their interests. Better than a giant online bookseller’s anonymous suggestions, Just the Right Book directly connects you to a huge network of professional book experts.
Roxanne is very excited about the project. “We just launched our first quiz (and will have more) that acts as a guide to help you find a book. Right now, our goal is to find out what motivates you to buy a book or to pay for a service so we can meet those needs. We’re performing a geographically unleashed approach to independent bookselling.”
Are you packing your bags to move to Madison? I’m ready to. With great books, hundreds of events and a cutting edge approach to bookselling, RJ Julia is one bookstore you can’t miss.
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Jillian Bergsma is a writer and contributing editor for Independent Publisher. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English. She welcomes any questions or comments on her articles at jbergsma (at) bookpublishing.com.