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Selling literature to go with your lifestyle (2006-11-02)

Most customers at the Anthropologie store in SoHo come for the delicately woven knits and the ultrafeminine floral dresses. But these days at least some are coming for the books.

Last Sunday the merchandise and books were coordinated with near-perfect precision. Resting beside a black sweater ($68) and a jet-black skirt with orange embellishments ($118) were copies of Annie Leibovitz’s “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005,” big and black and gleaming, for $75. A pop-up book called “One Red Dot” echoed a display of polka-dotted canvas sneakers, while another title, “The Persistence of Yellow,” perfectly matched a strategically positioned yellow knit sweater.

Books are turning up in the oddest places these days.

With book sales sagging — down 2.6 percent as of August over the same period last year, according to the Association of American Publishers — publishers are pushing their books into butcher shops, carwashes, cookware stores, cheese shops, even chi-chi clothing boutiques where high-end literary titles are used to amplify the elegant lifestyle they are attempting to project.

What began as a trickle of cookbooks in kitchen shops and do-it-yourself titles in hardware stores has become, in recent months, the fastest growing component in many major publishers’ retail strategies.

“It’s a way for the book business to stay alive,” said Abby Hoffman, the vice president of sales and marketing for Chronicle Books in San Francisco, which sells most of its 350 offbeat titles each year to places like high-end grocery stores, children’s clothing stores and wineries. “Anyplace that sells merchandise is a place to sell books.”

When Starbucks got into the book business last month, it hitched its brand to Mitch Albom’s latest inevitable best seller, “For One More Day,” helping propel it to the top of the lists. But the shift in the business can more clearly be seen in the sale of lower-profile authors in lower-profile settings, where the right title in the right location can make all the difference for a book that might otherwise sink without a trace.

Mike’s Deli in the Bronx, for instance, has sold more than 4,500 copies of Ann Volkwein’s “Arthur Avenue Cookbook” at $25 each. That book otherwise sold only 8,000 copies nationwide, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks sales at major book chains, independent bookstores and online retailers, but not at places like Mike’s. But it sold so well at Mike’s that David Greco, the deli’s owner, began stocking more titles, including “The Italian American Cookbook” by John Mariani and “Con Amore: A Daughter-in-Law’s Story of Growing Up Italian-American in Bushwick” by Bea Tusiani.

Mr. Greco says he must factor in at least one expense that bookstores don’t: “When you deal with salami and mozzarella, it’s a little greasy. So we keep the books in plastic bags.”

After years of concentrating on big-box retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble and online retailers like Amazon, many major publishing houses are retooling their tactics to take advantage of this new frontier.

Simon & Schuster, one of the industry’s largest publishers, is urging its sales representatives to punctuate their bookstore rounds with impromptu pitches at promising shops and markets they spot in their travels. The Time Warner Book Group routinely changes the color or design of book jackets at a store’s request so the book will color-coordinate with merchandise. And HarperCollins plans to design books for its spring catalog in shades of “margarita and sangria,” greens and reds that store owners have told the publisher will dominate that season’s color palette, said Andrea Rosen, vice president for special markets.

At Penguin Group, sales representatives have begun pushing into rural areas that are short on big bookstores, selling at cattle auctions, among other places.

The total number of books sold outside bookstores is impossible to discern. BookScan’s sales figures typically account for 60 percent to 70 percent of a book’s sales, but those figures do not include copies sold in nontraditional places.

Nonetheless, publishing houses know how it has affected their bottom line.

In the last four years Simon & Schuster’s special market sales, as they are called, have grown by 50 percent, surpassing total sales to independent bookstores, said Jack Romanos, the publishing house’s president and chief executive.

“The publisher now has a responsibility to put books in front of more eyeballs,” Mr. Romanos said. “The market was always there, but I don’t know that most publishers were as aggressive about trying to develop it 10 years ago as they are today.”

Some placements make intuitive sense: publishers sell a baby book to a specialty store like Buy Buy Baby; cookbooks go to Williams-Sonoma and other cookware outlets; glossy fashion books to clothing boutiques; design books to stores like Restoration Hardware. But some matches may not be so obvious. Even Bath & Body Works, at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., for instance, sells a half-dozen titles on subjects including weddings, gardening and travel to Provence.

With the proper placement, a book displayed at a national chain like Urban Outfitters can easily sell more there than at any other retailer, including blockbuster stores like Barnes & Noble. A recent article in Publishers Weekly noted that one surprise fall hit, “Wall and Piece,” written by the graffiti artist Banksy and published by the Century imprint of Random House in Britain, saw its biggest sales at Urban Outfitters and independent bookstores.

The point, publishers say, is to follow customers who might not otherwise visit bookstores into the places where they do shop, rather than waiting for customers to show up at bookstores or click on Amazon.com and other online sales sites.

People who buy books at farm-supply stores, for instance, are a prime potential market because there may be no bookstores in their rural communities, said Barbara O’Shea, president of nontrade sales for Penguin. “There is nobody selling books, so we’ve gotten these places to sell books,” she said.

The phenomenon is an urban and suburban one, as well.

Martin & Osa, a new clothing retailer aimed at 25-to-40-year-olds, stocks dozens of titles in its four stores and is planning to add more, including a “reading list” of graphic novels, fiction and nonfiction for customers. “We try to offer them things that aren’t mainstream, more unusual, more unique,” said Arnie Cohen, the chief marketing officer.

At Anthropologie on Sunday, Ruth Rennert lounged among the throw pillows on a mustard-yellow sofa — not far from that display of yellow sweaters and books — leafing through “Jackie: A Life in Pictures,” about the former first lady. Shopping for books in a setting like this, she said, is preferable to enduring the hustle and bustle of big bookstores.

While the bulk of books sold in some of these places are novelty titles — like “Bruce Aidells’s Complete Book of Pork” from HarperCollins, now in hundreds of butcher shops — in recent months a broader list of titles has also begun to emerge.

Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” is for sale at Urban Outfitters, for instance. Staples, the office-supply chain, began carrying business books several years ago, but more recently has added titles like “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” by Joel Osteen.

And publishers have stumbled on advantages that often come with this territory: outside of a bookstore, a title enjoys less competition, a more inviting display space and the store’s implicit stamp of approval.

“You walk into Restoration Hardware and you want the couch and the vase and the nightstand, and then you want the two books that are on the nightstand,” Ms. Rosen said. “The books complete the story.”

Source: www.NYTimes.com • Julie Bosman

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