Podcast: Innovative bookselling, part 1: Outside-the-box partnerships

For this three-part summer series on innovative bookselling, we're talking with booksellers across Canada who are proving that there's more than one way to sell a book. In part 1, we dive into some examples of outside-the-box partnerships where three brick-and-mortar bookstores work with a publisher, a podcast, and even another bookstore to reach new readers and sell more books.

In this podcast episode, @BookNet_Canada dives into some examples of outside-the-box partnerships where three brick-and-mortar bookstores work with a publisher, a podcast, and even another bookstore to reach new readers and sell more books.


Zalina Alvi: Welcome to the "BookNet Canada Podcast." I'm your host, Zalina Alvi, and this month we've decided to launch a summer series celebrating everything retail. You may have heard that we recently released an updated edition of our Canadian book buyers study, which looks at the buying habits and preferences of Canadian book buyers, including how they find the books that they buy, where they shop, what they're buying, and lots more. We've also been working on a brand new study based on surveys with real booksellers who told us all about their bookstores, what they're selling, what features and promotions they offer, and the challenges they're facing when it comes to ordering, hiring, and everything in between. That study should be released later this summer.

To celebrate all of our new and upcoming research on book retail, we thought it would be fun to chat with some of the people from across Canada who have been particularly innovative with their approaches to bookselling. And since we obviously found so many examples of smart, creative booksellers doing interesting things, we're breaking it down into a three-part series that we'll release over the next couple of months.

To start things off, this episode dives into some examples of outside-the-box partnerships where three brick-and-mortar bookstores work with a publisher, a podcast, and even another bookstore to reach new readers and sell more books. First up, we have Liv Albert, creator and host of the podcast "Let's Talk About Myths, Baby!" who partnered with her local bookstore in Victoria, BC so her listeners could support the show by sending books.

Liv Albert: I have a podcast, and people were really interested in donating to me via books just because what I do is so book-heavy and, you know, I was often talking about how expensive it is to buy all the books that I need. And so people kept asking me if I had an Amazon wishlist so that they could buy things off of it. And I don't support Amazon for book reasons amongst many other reasons of their business model, and so I was looking for other ways to get this to happen with my listeners that weren't gonna go through Amazon. And eventually, I was speaking with some people I used to know or that I'm still friends with, I used to work at Penguin Random House, and the people that I still talk to there ended up hooking me up with Munro's, which is already my favourite independent bookstore in Victoria because it's just iconic and beautiful and happened to be the one that could totally make this work for me. And it ended up getting me so many books so quickly that people were so eager to do it, even though it's a bit more work than Amazon. And they were just so happy to do it. It's wonderful.

Zalina: So how long ago exactly was this that you started?

Liv: I think I put the book list up maybe a month ago. Like, I think max a month. Everything is kind of blurring together now. But, you know, I was working out the logistics and stuff and then getting the books on it. And I announced it first just on my social media, so just Instagram and Twitter. And then that day alone, people put in orders for five books. And then by the time I'd actually talked about it on the podcast, I think I had 10 coming in. And I think that I have...I think I've picked up now at least 15, and there just seems to be always more coming. And the people at Munro's are getting to know me and all that. It's awesome.

Zalina: So how was it working with Munro's? Like, was it pretty easy to set up the list and to arrange for pickups and stuff like that?

Liv: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's a really small operation there. That's what makes them great. You know, it's just a small independent bookstore in Victoria. And their website is pretty, like, old. It's somewhat primitive and it still works perfectly. I don't wanna insult their website. It's just, you know, it's not the highest of tech because they don't need it to be. And it still has made it so easy. So yeah, I set up the list. It's easy to do. People have a link to it. I have to even give them explicit instructions just because of how it works on Munro's back end. But that hasn't caused a problem at all.

People literally just, they purchase them. Munro's either orders them in or if they have them in stock, they just put them aside for me, and I've just gone to pick them up. And, you know, I just walk in. They have books under my name. And now I've gotten to the point where the last time I went in, one of the women that was...well, she was training a new employee, and she's been the one emailing me, so she knew me by name. Like, "Oh, you're Liv, it's so nice to actually meet you" as I'm picking up, like, six books that day. So they've been wonderful people to work with. And I'm just so thrilled that it has worked out as well as it has. I wasn't expecting it to be so many books so quickly.

Zalina: Yeah. And I love hearing that it really came from your followers to, like, wanting to support you in this way. Do you think something like this would work with...like, could this be a model for other podcasts? Maybe ones that are very research-based as opposed to others or like any projects with, like, an invested following of people who wanna support the creators in some way that's not like a tip jar?

Liv: Yeah, I would think so. I mean, I have...it's fun because I have many other ways for them to support me through money, but people were just so eager to support me in the form of books. And I think it gives them a better sense of what they're getting. Like, you know, when they give me money, it helps me with the podcast, but, you know, it's not necessarily explicitly linked to an expense for the podcast. So when they can donate books...I sort of presented it as well as, "Well, you know, if you want me to cover a certain myth that's harder for me to find or a certain play that I don't already own, like, this is the way for you to kind of influence what's in the podcast." So people have been able to sort of pick out a book they love or that they're interested in and then get it to me that way.

I think that it would work really well for anyone doing this kind of thing. When it comes to really researched-based projects, it's just a matter of having the independent bookstores have that kind of backend that they can do it through. I kind of just googled around myself and hadn't really found anything. I didn't reach out. I probably should have. It took my friend Sarah just straight up talking to the salesperson out on this end of the country and they suggested Munro's. It made it happen. So it was very much helped out by Penguin Random House. But, you know, I think that as long as there are these independent stores that can make that happen, it's amazing. Of course, I go pick it up. I think probably they could facilitate shipping them to me if they needed. But this way my listeners also have free shipping, which is great for them. And I just go pick it up.

So I think, you know, with the right stores and everything, it would be an awesome model. I think a lot of research-based things are doing it via Amazon. You know, they don't necessarily have the desire to not work with a company of that size that works with books in the way that Amazon does. So I have the background of having worked in publishing and having some knowledge on that and not wanting to work with them. So I've reached out to Indies. I've also made that really clear to people about why I use Munro's, of, you know, I don't support Amazon through books. And, you know, kind of explaining why, and then, you know, "This is why you should support me through supporting Munro's." And I've also even put a picture of Munro's on my website on that spot being like, "This is the most wonderful little independent bookstore you're helping by helping me." And I think that really helps people. It makes them happy.

Zalina: So, it may be hard to assess this kind of thing, but I'm gonna try. I wonder if the people donating the books through Munro's are becoming new customers of that bookstore or maybe they've never heard of it before or they have, or by donating these books they're discovering other books while they're on there. So I'm just kind of wondering aloud about the trickle effects of the wishlist. And if you want to speculate at all about its potential larger impact on the store as a whole.

Liv: I actually have a great example of that. So we don't have a lot of listeners in Victoria. I wish I had more, but most of my listeners are in the states, so they don't necessarily have, you know, a knowledge of Canada at all. But I've certainly made whatever I can to sort of make them aware of Munro's to the point where I had someone on Twitter tweet at me the other day saying that they were so excited because they just booked a Disney cruise and that cruise stops in Victoria and they can go visit Munro's, the bookstore I always talk about. So even an example of that, like, I mean, it really helps that Victoria is on a cruise ship line and that Munro's is walking distance from where the cruise ships come in. You know, all those things considered, like, there is a random person from America who's now gonna stop by Munro's because I've talked about it.

Zalina: That is magical for sure.

Liv: Yeah, it's really convenient, like, series of, you know, things that led to that, but it's really fun to hear.

Zalina: Next up, we have Alex Snider, co-owner of Queen Books in Toronto talking about the bookstore cart they brought to a local festival earlier this month in partnership with the Penguin Shop, which is a publisher-run bookstore. This collaboration goes to show that there can be perfect bookselling opportunities where you least expect them.

I saw on Instagram that there was like a pop-up bookstore at Meowfest earlier this month. And for anyone listening, Meowfest is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. And it looks like it was co-branded by Queen Books and the Penguin Shop. So curious if you can kind of explain what was happening there. Was that your staff selling cat-related books published by Penguin Random House Canada?

Alex Snider: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So they have the, like, book cart, and they asked if we would be interested in going to Meowfest and kind of being...you know, doing that partnership. I mean, we love doing events, and we sent two of our, like, biggest cat lovers to work it. And it was great. I mean, we're just, you know, happy to kind of do all kinds of different events and, like, be a part of, I don't know, of, I guess the Toronto fabric and different festivals and cultural events. So it was a really fun opportunity.

Zalina: And that was the first time that you guys kind of partnered on this?

Alex: Yeah, it was our first time doing anything kind of along those lines. We've done other pop-up shops, but that was our first partnership.

Zalina: So, I was curious if you chose the books or if they chose the books.

Alex: No, we did. So I just kind of went through and tried to think like a Meowfest participant and, you know, what people would be really looking for. So I knew that there would probably be a lot of kids. So I tried to find some, like, really cute, fun kids' books about cats, and then kind of everything from like, you know, like picture books to, you know, graphic novels for older kids. And then also, I mean, just kind of everything from like the more serious side of like how to look after your new cat since I knew that they'd have an adoption tent set up, and then just, like, really kind of silly, like we had, like, cat mad libs and things like that. So it was a lot of fun going through and just seeing all the books that Penguin Random House had to offer. And then also just books that I thought were really cute.

Zalina: And in terms of just like selling books to people, would you say it was a good return on investment for, you know, the staff time and effort to choose the books and everything?

Alex: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we...because we're so new, really any...you know, as long as we sell, like, some books, we're just happy to kind of be out there and get our name out there a little bit because we're...you know, so far we've had a lot of, like, return customers in our neighbourhood, but it's hard to kind of get an idea of like...since Toronto is such a big city, of how many people actually know that we're in existence. So yeah, it's always...we find it's always worth it, but it was a really great day. And there was a lot of really, you know, excited...people excited to see us there and to get some cool books.

Zalina: Our final segment is a story of two bookstores. One is Blue Heron Books, an Indie bookstore in Uxbridge, Ontario, and the other is a new boutique online bookstore called Briny Books, started by Kerry Clare, the renowned literary matchmaker, author, and editor of the website 49th Shelf. Every season, Kerry selects four extraordinary Canadian novels published by independent presses and sells them on the Briny Books website, with Blue Heron Books both fulfilling online orders and selling them in their physical store. They just launched with their first slate of summer titles. So we sat down with Kerry to talk about her goals for Briny Books and how it's going so far.

Kerry Clare: So I am...I've written a novel. I have been a critic, a reviewer, I've written nonfiction, a little bit of everything. I've been a blogger for a really long time. And I found this was a really unique positioning, actually, because I'm also a reader as well. I blog about books. And so I'm not really an unbiased critic. I'm not only an author, I'm a little bit of everything. And that's a little bit strange, you know, if you're thinking about being biased for writing reviews and that sort of thing, or being unbiased. But this project is something that I think I am sort of uniquely placed to bring together, and because of all of the projects I've got going on. And so, I'm really excited about Briny Books because it sort of brings all the different facets of my writing together.

Zalina: And can you tell me a bit about what the mission is behind it and how you came up with kind of the structure of it?

Kerry: Well, I've been thinking about it for a long time. And like most people who love books, I have always dreamed of owning a bookstore, but for a variety of reasons, most prominently the fact that I don't have any capital, I don't know if that will happen. And so I thought, you know, "How can I make my bookselling dream translate into something that's realistic?" And so that was sort of how this came about. I read a lot. I'm also an editor at the website 49th Shelf, which really keeps me up to date with what's going on in Canadian publishing and independent Canadian publishing. And so there were certain books that I just really wanna get into people's hands. And so with 49th Shelf and with my blog, you know, I can kind of do it part way. I can be a champion for the books I love, but I thought, "I wanna take it a little bit further. I wanna find a way to actually bring these books into people's lives." And so that was sort of the extension by partnering with Blue Heron Books, and their expertise is selling books, and so they sort of handle that end of things.

Zalina: Great. So can you tell me a little bit about the four summer titles that you debuted with and how you decided on these four titles? I mean, you mentioned a little about how you just sort of...you've got your eyes open all the time, and through your other work you're finding titles, but how did you really decide on, like, these four specific titles?

Kerry: Well, they were just books that I really loved and books that I would really feel confident recommending to a general readership. I think they're smart books. They're sufficiently challenging, but they're not so challenging that, you know, they'll feel like a chore. I think I wanna have a book that I think most people would appreciate. And I think these books have a lot of commercial appeal. They have attractive covers. That was really important, too. It's really fun to try to market books with attractive covers. And they're really excellent. They're beautiful, innovative novels. And last but not least, they're also published by independent Canadian publishers. And so I've not spotlighted that as the primary mission of Briny Books because I don't know if that necessarily is...it makes it sound like we're trying to give people something because it's good for them, you know? These books are excellent and they're published by independent publishers, but the excellence is actually the most important part of why I'm recommending them to people.

Zalina: And so you've chosen to focus specifically on fiction titles. Can you explain a little bit about the rationale behind that?

Kerry: I think people like novels. I think that novels are having a little bit of a hard time selling right now. I've heard this from lots of people that the market for fiction is not quite what it was. And so, you know, these are books that need a little bit of a boost, and I am confident that readers will love them. I don't know if I will only stick to fiction in the future. A lot of this project is making it up as I go along, and learning and figuring out what we want to do next. But fiction just seems like an easy way to restrict. You know, there's so many books out there, so fiction makes it a little bit easier.

Zalina: So, you've partnered with Blue Heron Books, the bookstore in Uxbridge, to fulfill the online orders, but even also been encouraging other booksellers to feature your slate of titles. And you even provide a bookseller toolkit on your website. Have you received any feedback from other bookstores? Have any come on board or any also featuring the titles yet?

Kerry: I know that there are two bookstores. One is Forster's Book Garden in Bolton has been displaying them with our graphics that we sent, which is very cool. And then also a bookstore in Gananoque Way, the Beggar's Banquet, I think it's called. They will be featuring it soon. So that's very exciting. And I also know that, through Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books, that while people might not be featuring Briny Books in their stores, the books themselves are there, and we've given attention to these titles. And so booksellers have maybe...you know, they have a lot of books that they're not just Canadian ones. And so, I think that this has given them reason to pay attention to books that might not have been on their radar otherwise.

Zalina: So it's been about a month since you launched? Maybe six weeks?

Kerry: It's been six weeks. Yeah.

Zalina: Congratulations.

Kerry: Thank you.

Zalina: So I read on your website that you sold so many books since launching that you've had to suspend free deliveries for a little while. And that when you launch the fall titles, you'll be putting a bit of a cap on how many can be delivered for free. So I was just wondering if you can share a little bit about just the challenges of competing with large retailers who can, you know, constantly be slashing delivery costs on top of steep discounts and how you've been handling all of that.

Kerry: Well, that's been a huge part of the story we're telling. In order to make buying books from Blue Heron something that's attractive to people who are browsing our sites and finding us on social media, we had to give them a reason to choose us over a bigger retailer. And so Shelley from Blue Heron was able to sort of finagle the free delivery through her store and sharing costs with the publishers who contributed some of their publicity money for it. But, you know, she really wanted to make sure that we made clear that the free delivery is no small thing. I think we all take it for granted because it's everywhere now, but it really puts small businesses at a disadvantage. And so part of Blue Heron books is also...sorry, part of Briny Books is making people think twice about where they buy their books and why that matters. And so that's also why we've been encouraging people to buy at their own local independent bookseller if they have one. And if they don't have one then to order through our website.

And yes, it was really popular. We sort of...I wasn't sure what to expect, and I sort of set my sights a little bit low because I know that selling books is hard. But people were really excited about this. They were excited about having their summer reading picks for them and sort of having a whole slate of books arrive. And getting books in the mail is the best thing. I don't think that ever gets old. So people were really on board with it. And so that was why we had our good news/bad news. The good news was that we were so successful that all the budget for the free delivery got spent. And I'm actually thrilled about that because, I mean, the alternative would be kind of depressing. So, I'm sorry that we had to suspend free delivery, but I'm actually excited about why that happened. And then hopefully when we have our second slate of books in the fall, we will be able to get money to be able to run that for a limited time, which will hopefully compel people to buy the book soon.

Zalina: So given how these first six weeks have gone, it's been really successful, people are really clamouring for them, what are your projections for the next year? Or is it kind of just see what happens?

Kerry: Well, I am very inspired by how positively it's been received. I think there is an appetite for new and fresh things in bookselling. And Shelly Macbeth from Blue Heron knows that and that's why her store is doing so well and why she's so well known in the community, because she's willing to take risks and try new things. And so it was really exciting for me that she was willing to go along with this project. And so now that it has been successful, I feel pretty positive about moving forward and just keep going and keep selling good books. And I hope too that it inspires people to think more about where they buy their books, what kind of books they buy. It might make people who aren't reading as much as they want to be pick up a book and read it. And all of those small actions I think come together, and I think they can make a big difference.

Zalina: And Kerry isn't the only one putting her skills of curation to good use. We found lots of examples of bookstores curating their own subscription services of all shapes and sizes. Like Woozles Gift of Reading programme over on the East Coast that helps customers send books to the young people in their lives.

Nadine: So we came up with a Gift of Reading programme probably about eight or nine years ago. And the idea was to make shopping for your grandchildren or your young nieces and nephews, people who don't live near you, perhaps, and just having it just like anything, a magazine, subscription, how about a page book subscription where you receive something in the mail, which can be very exciting.

We mail them on any frequency you want. Generally, they are once a month, but we can do it six times a year, four times a year, whatever the person would like, and to any age. Sometimes the child has been a newborn, sometimes they're 13. So it just varies that way. We have information from the person who's giving the gift about the recipient. So if they have particular interests or something like that that we can help choose the books. But it really is just us doing some readers advisory work and figuring out what to send to the recipient each time. But we do get good feedback. Sort of once a year when people renew, I get a chance to say, "And how...have they had any comments?" Because some of the ones we're doing right now, I think it's been about five or six years that we've been mailing to some of the families. So it's fun to help do that.

Zalina: That's about all we can fit into this month's episode. So join us again in August for the second part of this series where we'll talk with Canadian bookstores that are connecting with the writers in their communities. For more information on the bookstores or podcast mentioned in this episode, check the links in the episode notes. You can also find a link to our Canadian book buyer study, and an invitation to sign up for a weekly tiny letter all about bookselling called Let's Sell Some Books. Thanks to Liv, Alex, Kerry, and Nadine from Woozles for talking with me for this episode.

I'd also like to take a moment to acknowledge that BookNet Canada staff, board, partners and our makeshift podcast studio operate upon the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Wendat and here on indigenous peoples, the original nations of this land. We endorse the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and support an ongoing shift from gatekeeping to space-making in the book industry. And we hope that our work, including this podcast, helps to create an environment that supports that shift. We'd also like to acknowledge the Government of Canada for their financial support to the Canada Book Fund. And of course, thanks to you for listening.