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Guest: How an Indie Bookstore Conquered All

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The sexiest bookstore in America isn't a corporate chain, Internet giant or auction site. It's Anderson's Bookshop, a cozy independent retailer in the heart of downtown Naperville, Ill., says book-trade bible Publishers Weekly.

    Anderson's recently took the magazine's coveted Bookstore of the Year award for 2011 — a year that has seen skyrocketing e-book sales and Borders' bankruptcy filing. But there's nothing mom-and-pop about Anderson's strategy. With an outside book-fair division and a second location in Downers Grove, Ill., the company posted double-digit increases during the past decade, driving that growth via a mixture of high-profile events and aggressive market development. A closer look:

    Star power. On any given day, Hilary Duff, Caroline Kennedy or Alan Alda might drop by to promote their latest book releases. Big-name publishers, in fact, look to Anderson's as one of the country's top venues to promote authors, who have gotten audiences as large as 300–500 for booksigning events. Gail Wetta, Anderson's events and publicity director, said the company's reputation for taking good care of authors has helped secure its status. Plus, there's Anderson's relentless promotions. The company publicizes events through its website, e-mail blasts to a 16,000-plus mailing list, ads in the Chicago Tribune, PR to local media, in-store displays, biannual printed newsletters and word-of-mouth. And, of course, the events themselves add to the ongoing promotional effort.

    "These events always bring out the media, so we might get some TV, as well as print exposure, and we do sell a lot of books," Wetta said. "We also try to collect e-mail addresses for our database. As fans enter the signing line by their numbered tickets, the backs of those tickets can be filled out to join our mailing list." The company hosts roughly 300 authors annually.

    Creating a market. To put it simply, Anderson's gets people excited about reading. It hosts biannual book group nights and also spearheaded Naperville Reads, an initiative that unites the community around a book every year. (Anderson's has sold well into the thousands of these titles, which have included Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.) Likewise, many of its events aim to get kids excited about reading, with children's books making up roughly 50 percent of Anderson's retail sales. At its Author-less Tour Events for children, for instance, live actors present a short show and hand out theme-related giveaways.

    Embracing change. While it sounds counter-intuitive, Anderson's is starting to find opportunity in the digital revolution. The company's website, andersonsbookshop.com, sells e-books for virtually every device, expect Kindle, via Google eBooks. Mary Yockey, Anderson's buyer, acknowledged that, at this point, e-books are less a profit center and more of a value-added service, but the company's "quickly ramping up to raise awareness" about its e-book service.

    "Once the awareness is out there, we hope that our customers will continue to buy the books we recommend to them, no matter the format — print or digital," Yockey said. "It’s not hard to handsell our new, favorite books to our customers, but first they have to want to visit us, either in person or online, and that means they have to be able to envision time in their lives to read."

    Zach Phillips is a journalist, business writer, novelist and singer-songwriter. He's also the editor of Music Inc. magazine, which reports on the musical instrument industry.