BY CAROLINE BAUM
First let me tell you how I got the job, as it’s indicative of a new way of doing things. I’d been freelancing in the book world for over a decade. After presenting a book show for ABC TV and then for Foxtel, I’d been writing author profiles for papers and hosting live events at festivals. As founding editor of Good Reading, I helped create the template for the magazine (creating sections for reader reviews, bookclubs etc.) and set the tone for it as a popular monthly that made no distinction between literary and popular fiction, something I feel strongly about.
I’ve long believed that one mistake traditional media (especially print and radio) made was to segment readers along lines that were obsessed with category demarcations – the publishing equivalent of the class system. You never saw much popular fiction in the former broadsheet book pages, and you never saw so-called literary fiction much in the then tabloids. The approach to book reviewing in conventional media left a lot of people feeling excluded from the conversation. The web has changed all that.
Following the GFC, freelancing had become a much more tenuous proposition with a lot of my regular client publications cutting their space and their contributor budgets. I started to diversify online, blogging for arts companies about the rehearsal process and contributing to sites like The Hoopla, enjoying the immediacy of the feedback.
For months I had been ignoring Linked In invitations. I had no interest in networking and didn’t really understand the site’s use. But when a successful freelance colleague pointed out that I was making a mistake and should at least post my CV on the site, I deferred to her wisdom and did so, spending an hour pulling together my qualifications as an editor, journalist, producer and presenter. That was on a Saturday afternoon.
On the following Monday morning, I got an email from the CEO of Booktopia (at that point I was only dimly aware of the company), Tony Nash, saying ‘I think there might be a synergy between what you do and what we do. Would you like to come and have a chat?’
A week later he offered me a job that was tailor-made to my love of reading, sharing that enthusiasm with others and my desire to work from home. It was never advertised.
Booktopia is Australia’s largest online bookseller and last year sales grew by thirty per cent, which must be unique among Australian independent booksellers.
It operates out of a massive warehouse in Sydney, employs locals in its on-site call centre and has a total staff of sixty. It discounts all titles by ten per cent and books listed in the monthly newsletter by twenty per cent, often selling them in cheaper imported foreign editions (I know, I know, a much vexed issue). It has five million titles listed on its site.
Booktopia is family owned and operated, started by Nash after years in the recruitment business. He is not a big reader, but is a keen collector of rare first editions. What sets him apart in the industry is that he has real entrepreneurial flair and is not afraid of the future. He’s more of a brand savvy ‘bring it on’ kind of guy, excited by the technology of ebooks and the data and analytics that deliver a better competitive edge. I don’t always understand what he tells me, fresh back from a US trade fair, but the energy and vision he brings to the role is a tonic when everyone else is talking doom and gloom.
My day to day dealings with the company are with the formidably tall and well-read John Purcell, Head of Marketing and Chief Buyer. He’s a former second hand bookseller with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the classics. Earlier this year he caused a minor sensation in book world when he outed himself as the author of the bestselling erotic trilogy The Secret Lives of Emma, written under the innocuously bland pseudonym of Natasha Walker. Nash was in on the secret and kept it extremely well. I had not a clue, and was a little unsettled by the unmasking but it provides plenty of opportunity for teasing (and a little envy: the guy has sold 50,000-plus copies!).
‘It’s the cover,’ he explained. ‘It’s brown’.
My role is as a niche advocate, championing books to the market I know best, the readers I used to speak to as a broadcaster and now meet at literary festivals – in other words I am the boutique end of Booktopia, which is otherwise an unapologetically mass market operation. I’m glad to say we’re achieving significant market share on many of the books featured in The Buzz.
It’s taken a while for us to settle into the right fit and find a way of directing my kind of readers as to where to find me on the site in the newsletter where I recommend between ten and fifteen books a month. I also produce a number of exclusive filmed author interviews for the site, to provide a unique dimension to the online shopping experience.
The reading aspect of the job is relentless and means I rarely read for pleasure now, but there is a genuine thrill in discovering authors I was unfamiliar with: people like the native American writer Sherman Alexie, and new local talents like Courtney Collins. Then I just have to be patient until other people have caught up and we can compare notes.
I’m learning a lot about how book retail works online, what sells and what doesn’t. One thing that has really been a revelation is that covers are arguably even more important online than in a traditional bookstore.
Earlier this year I put all my faith and energy into praising a first novel I thought had real potential and strong appeal. Original, with a distinctive, fresh voice, a powerful story and a compelling central character, I unhesitatingly chose it as my book of the month. But John Purcell was not as enthusiastic. ‘It’s the cover,’ he explained. ‘It’s brown’.
Well, perhaps. I thought of it more as sepia and while a sepia photograph may sound dated, I didn’t look at the book that way, perhaps because I am so used to reading proof copies that come without finished art, that I never judge a book by its cover and forget that many people do, at least in the first instance.
In most traditional bookshops, those books would be stocked spine out, that is to say, with only the bound edge of the book showing. The beauty of online is that every book appears showing its face.
The reality is Booktopia hired me to sell books and I am now part of the click economy. This requires me to take off the journalist’s hat which protected me from the glare of commerce. Championing a title with no cover appeal does not shift much stock. If I don’t sell books, I don’t justify my salary. So I chose a book with a more appealing cover as my favourite that month, which fortunately still allowed me to support a local talent I really wanted to endorse.
It took me a few months to find the courage to tell the publisher of the ‘brown book’ but I felt they needed to know what might be holding the book back. Fortunately, they took it well.
It has become clear to me since that cover art plays an immense role in attracting readers like bees to flowers. So for example, in the online world, embossing is an irrelevance, because texture has no place. Bright colours work well but more important is a strong colour contrast.
Increasingly I am noticing that literary fiction is borrowing from commercial fiction and making the name of the author and the title stand out in bigger, bolder print. Online is not the place for subtlety.
Recently US author Elizabeth Gilbert put the decision about the final cover of her new book The Signature of All Things to the vote on her Facebook page. She offered three designs and colourways to her followers and they made preference known unequivocally. I like the fact that authors are consulting their readers that way, I think it’s a really healthy dialogue (as long as authors don’t start consulting their fans about how a book should end).
Most of the books I write about for Booktopia have no advertising budget to support them. It’s still something of a mystery to me as to why you would invest all the faith and effort in getting a book to market and then leave it to fend for itself there, like a foundling abandoned on a doorstep.
These books rely entirely on editorial coverage and on what in the world of traditional independent bookshops is known as ‘hand selling’, the personal recommendation of the bookseller. I am proud of giving books that otherwise might fail to find the readership they deserve a better chance.
Just don’t expect me to pick the brown ones.
A former TV presenter, producer and broadcaster, Caroline Baum is Editorial Director of Booktopia, Australia's largest online bookseller. She reads between 15 and 20 books a month for the Buzz monthly newsletter and to film exclusive author interviews. Caroline is a contributor to My Mother My Father, an anthology of writing on losing a parent, published by Allen & Unwin (October 2013). Her website is carolinebaum.com.au.