So You Want To Sell Books Online?

Why don't Americans understand how the postal service works?

COVID has sent many booksellers scurrying to figure out how to ship books ordered online to their customers. Over on Twitter I’ve watched them get up to speed quickly, and also heard them vent frustrations with the process, how hard it is, how detailed the work, how upset the customers can get. And once again I appreciate how good Bill Rickman, who handles Belt’s shipping and handling, is at his job.

First, some basics that might help a bookseller or two out. This is our current set-up, and it works well:

-Our online store is through Shopify, which helps organize orders on the backend.
-We use Endicia for postage; we signed up with them when we were a tiny infant baby press, and remain loyal.
-We use a DYMO label printer. Ditto above.
-We order mailing envelopes from ULINE. I am not loyal to ULINE, because they have questionable politics. They are cheap and insanely fast, though, and they have us in the snares of that capitalist scourge, path dependency. My to do list usually contains “alternative to ULINE?” on it, and I keep not crossing it off, and then suddenly we are almost out of envelopes again and Bill could order some that would arrive the next day so…

Bill ships orders every other day or so. He goes to the Shopify back end, gets the info about an order, enters it into Endicia, DYMO spits out a label, Bill slaps it on a mailer, and puts the envelope in a box. When he is done he takes the boxes of labelled envelopes full of books down three long flights of stairs to his car, and drives them to the post office. (Our lease is up soon, and we are committed to a first floor office damnit, so if you are in Cleveland and know of a spot, lmk! Also, we can’t get anyone to pick up our boxes where we are located, thus Bill drives them to the post office) Sometimes Bill will pack up boxes of thirty or forty books each, for larger orders, and walks down the stairs carrying dozens of pounds of books. Sometimes, like he did this morning, he meets a truck with 1000 books, fresh from the printer, carries each carton to our freight elevator, takes them up to the office, and unloads them all.

It’s a very physical job.

One thing you might want to know about Bill is that when he isn’t doing this—and when there isn’t a global pandemic—he is usually found on the crazy curvy Cuyahoga River. He’s a Masters rower whose crew often wins at fancy national regattas! And he also coaches high school rowing, and adult beginning rowers. In other words, he is in good shape, so he can do all this silly stair walking with heavy boxes.

Another big part of Bill’s job involves customer service. Lucky him! I have seen booksellers commenting about customer complaints with online orders, and they are hearing ones we commonly have to vet. In fact, there is one common customer complaint that DRIVES ME INSANE. Bill and I share an email account where many of these are sent, and I read them and scream at my screen, and then he reads them and calmly, generously replies, and I am constantly astonished at his restraint.

The complaint boils down to a variation of this:

“Hi the USPS tracking info says my book has arrived but it isn’t here! What’s the deal, guys? I need a refund. Also please send me another copy.”

Look: my son, age 20, is confused about why letters need stamps, so I get it that younger folks might find the whole shipping world confusing. But I quickly forget compassion and get really huffy (in my head), the kind of huffy that only all caps and italics can express:

“THE USPS IS NOT THE SAME AS US.

That tracking number? It comes from, as you note, the USPS. If you have a tracking number, it means that we did our part. We put your book in the mail. We do not know what happens after that. We do not have a special red phone that connects us to USPS. YOU NEED TO TALK TO USPS NOT US. THEY SCREWED UP NOT US.”

This is Bill who actually does respond to the poor human I am screaming out in my head:

“Let’s give it another day. Sometimes tracking says it has been delivered but it is still out for delivery. If it does not show up in the next few days, let me know and we can send you another copy.”

I don’t know how he does it.

Please don’t tell Bill about this newsletter! He’ll be pissed if he finds out. But—ssshhh—he is also the human behind our social media, so you can tweet @belt_publishing or insta @beltpub and freak him out my mentioning rowing. Or maybe eggs. Bill has challenged himself to eat one egg a day in 2020. Wonder how that is going.

What I’m Reading: I’m back to my comfort COVID authors: Anthony Trollope (Phineas Finn) and Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower). When did I become such an Anglophile? My PhD is in American lit!

Shout Out: The great group that revitalized (vitalized?) rowing in Cleveland, The Western Reserve Rowing Association. Must be hard for them all to have the boathouse closed. Here’s to choppy curvy healthy rowing next year.

Notes from a Small Press is a weekly newsletter by the founder and owner of Belt PublishingHelp support it by becoming a paid subscriber. Pre-order So You Want to Publish a Book?, a book based on the newsletter, publishing in July.

The book based on the newsletter!

This week has been exhausting. Obviously, there’s this whole global pandemic thing. Plus, my decision to push out a lot of books quickly, as a way to survive the plague, while definitely working, means the Belt staff has been churning, ruthlessly efficient, readying a swath of wonderful books for y’all to read soon. The fast pace of work set against the molasses pace of the world is getting to me.

But mainly I am exhausted because I reviewed the first pass of the laid out version my book this week, the book based on this here newsletter, the book you are all responsible for birthing as much as me, with all your interest, questions, kudos, and subscriptions over the past 18 months. Thank you for demonstrating an interest in my nuts and bolts descriptions of and inflammatory rants about the publishing industry!

Yet, I find it enormously draining work, reviewing the manuscript, because while I am obstentibly reading to find typos and grammatical mistakes, I am concurrently running through the most popular playlist of laments by many writers while reviewing their work, verses that go something like “this entire paragraph sucks, who wrote this paragraph? what is this idiotic chapter, who cares? why didn’t someone find a better writer for this project? also should this all be revised to reflect changes since COVID? should that be a that or a which? should which be a which or a that?”

Is it any surprise I collapse in a heap of eBay-scrolling every night at 8?

BUT HERE IS THE GOOD PART:

Even though I am one eighth the writer I wish I were, Meredith Pangrace is four times the designer I deserve. She has created a gorgeous, witty interior for the book. Here are a few highlights:

Here’s how the glossaries will look:

Here’s how we will show, not tell, proofreading:

A section from our chapter on cover design:

And more! We will add more whimsical and informative design elements in the second pass for the interior. Which is great, because the more I can focus on images, the less I will stare in disbelief at the poorly chosen words.

Detailing how much I hate the prose is a piss poor way to promote this book, which publishes July 28, I realize. I’ll suck it up and do more “NO WRITER SHOULD BE WITHOUT THIS IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTION” marketing soon (now, even! Want an egalley? Shoot an email to Martha Bayne at martha@beltmag.com). I decided Belt would not do any conventional publicity for the book, partially as a cost-saving measure, partially because I consider the primary audience for the book you guys, you bleary eyed regular readers of this newsletter, you paid subscribers and kind-repliers, who make it fun to type into substack once per week. I sense that once publication date comes, this newsletter might be subsumed, as in some sort of singularity; I’m still deciding what I’ll do about the newsletter come pub day. Either way, the book is dedicated to you.

I’ll be signing pre-orders: thanks to so many of you who have already ordered a copy through the Belt store. If you have not yet and would like to…. I won’t say pre-orders would be not super-appreciated. THIS IS THE LINK. CLICK THIS LINK.

What I’m Reading: Severance, at last. I have book reviewer things to say about it that are not all positive! But as a reader reading a novel about a pandemic during a pandemic, I give it a thumbs up.

Shout Out: Some lovely guys down the block from me run the most sophisticate, under-the-rader midcentury furniture store, Rook Modern. I bought some pieces from them last week, and consigned some other pieces to them this week. They do the most meticulous work, and only sell very high end pieces, at Cleveland prices. They are happy to ship anywhere, and you can find their current wares on their Instagram page. Check it out, tell your collector/designer friends, help support one local small business, and soon you can start staring at a more beautiful four walls.

Are you working on a non-fiction book proposal, or would like to? I am teaching an online course on just that, starting June 15. Sign up!

Notes from a Small Press is a weekly newsletter by Anne Trubek, founder and publisher of Belt PublishingHelp support it by becoming a paid subscriber. Pre-order So You Want to Publish a Book?, a book based on the newsletter, publishing in July.

Everything is Upside Down

Anti-Zooming

Crash!

Delicious Cookies

Two things I love about my job:

-when David Wilson, our co-Creative Director, sends cover mock-ups;

-when we crash a title.

This week my lockdown was brightened, as both things happened. David sent us the most adorable cover for a book we just announced, and will publish in June:

The very cool verb for when you decide to publish a book quickly, and without the usual rigamarole required by distributors, media, and booksellers, is crash. We are crashing quite a few books this year. This is, actually, by design: I decided, late in 2019, that we should publish a half dozen or so books in addition to the ones we listed in our ‘official’ catalog. These would all be titles that have very niche core audiences—like a cookie table book, which celebrates a Mahoning Valley (Pittsburgh and Youngstown) tradition of having plates and plates of cookies at wedding receptions. The target readers for these books are folks we are able to reach easily, without sending out press releases to 500 some media folks, and another few hundred booksellers, as we do with our ‘official’ titles. This is the beauty of place-specific books, about a city or regional tradition. It cuts down on our publicity labor, and these books sell particularly well directly through our store, which, as longtime readers of this newsletter are sick of hearing about, is imperative to our sustainability.

We planned the cookie table cookbook back in January, as well another crash title we are publishing in May, Chicago Transit Hikes. We have a few more "planned surprise” titles queued up for the fall.

This decision, made back in Olden Tymes, was, obviously, fortunate, given [all this].

Even better, our ability to turn around titles quickly is leading to additional crash titles I have signed up since [all this]. This week I have been editing a manuscript about liberal arts colleges post-COVID which no one knows we are publishing yet (I’ll send you the link once it’s live!). And I am discussing possible new projects with a few other authors who have very timely ideas for books that address [all this], and that we could potentially publish as early as July.

It’s energizing, all this unplanned activity, and helps me cope with the continual present into which we are otherwise locked. It is also the foundational reason Belt Publishing exists: I wanted to publish one book as quickly as possible, back in 2012. Over the years, as we have sought to become more like the other publishing kids, we extended the time between contract signing and publication. I haven’t enjoyed that. I having more fun now. Plus, doesn’t that cookbook have the most adorable cover??

What I’m Reading: Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books. She’s so good; I’ve long admired her work, and have taken too long to crack this one open. Happy to be so doing now.

Shout Out: I have my eyes peeled for ways smart people have figured out how to McGyver our new normal. I adore Gavin Newsom’s idea to have the state pay restaurant workers to feed seniors.

Notes from a Small Press is a weekly newsletter by the founder and owner of Belt PublishingHelp support it by becoming a paid subscriber. Pre-order So You Want to Publish a Book?, a book based on the newsletter, publishing in July. Need some new cookie recipes?

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