This year, we are celebrating Edelweiss's twentieth anniversary! Founded in 2002, Edelweiss has transformed from one-man operation to a company of nearly forty employees supporting the book community.
Our CEO John Rubin and President Annie Rubin discuss Edelweiss's journey over the past two decades: how the company got its start, the successes and speed bumps they've faced along the way, and what lies ahead.
Independent But No Longer Alone
In 2002, John Rubin had the idea to build a software service to support indie booksellers. His mother owned a bookstore, and John saw firsthand some of the difficulties she faced in managing her shop’s inventory.
He envisioned software that would help booksellers analyze their stock and make decisions about which titles to carry on their shelves. It would identify which categories and stock sections were selling well, versus those titles with less inventory turns, so booksellers could manage to the drivers of their business.
This software would translate for booksellers the tools and concepts John employed consulting for companies like FedEx, but, because it would be web-based, it would make them accessible on a wide scale. And, as an online service, these analytics would update in real-time.
“This was the only way I could think of that I could help the indies,” says John. “I couldn’t visit and consult with every store individually or with the frequency that they needed.”
The one catch? John didn’t know anything about software development.
“I bought a couple books. But, once I got into it, it was a lot of googling questions and discovering instructions online,” John says.
In addition to managing a bookstore’s own sales, his envisioned platform would also serve as a unique collaborative analysis tool for the indies. A bookseller on the platform would be able to access aggregated lists of bestselling titles as well as most anticipated books drawn from other retailers using the service.
“The original tagline was ‘You’re independent but no longer alone,’” recalls Annie Rubin, current President of Edelweiss (and John’s wife). “The idea was that you as a bookseller could be independent but still see what books are working in other stores—it enabled booksellers to achieve that scale without being part of a chain.”
“The indies are entrepreneurial. They are all unique. We would never want to make them all the same, but we did want to help them be more efficient in the areas where they could be.”
Eventually, John gained some momentum developing his software and the tool began to come together.
“I remember the first time I built the database over here and built the site over there, and I got information from the database to show up on the site. It felt amazing, and I realized that I could really do this.”
A Kernel of Incredible Enthusiasm
This year marks two decades of Edelweiss, which has grown to encompass not just inventory management for booksellers (now Edelweiss+ Analytics) but also catalog and review copy-hosting for all major US publishers and many UK presses, analytics for publishers and librarians, targeted email marketing tools for the indies, and so much more.
At the beginning, however, success felt far from guaranteed.
“It was always slower with the indies than I thought it would be,” John says. “After a couple years we still only had about 26 stores on board.”
The company took the name "Above the Treeline," promising indie booksellers a clear view into their inventory and sales. But, just a few years into its development, the organization had to contend with the popular narrative that bookstores were going to crumble under the pressure of Amazon and Kindle (introduced in 2007) and, with it, the assumption that the indies would become relics of the past.
"There was this popular narrative in the press that indie bookstores were going to go the way of music stores and disappear. And perception started to become reality among the publishers,” recalls Annie. “It was not a happy time.”
And, among the booksellers themselves, the Analytics product had to face the hurdle of newness and change. It asked busy booksellers to take on an unfamiliar workflow, something they didn’t necessarily have the bandwidth to learn and adopt.
“Even if a bookseller saw the value of Analytics, it wasn’t clear that they were going to use it in a day already full of rep visits, talking to customers, scanning books, and more,” says John.
John credits the turning point for Analytics to the emergence of bookseller advocates, champions out in the field that loved the product and recommended it to others.
“There always was this kernel of incredible enthusiasm from the stores that were involved and saw its value,” says John.
“And that was the energy that would keep it (and me) going—if these booksellers were excited and the product worked, then I believed that it would work for others.”
From Ca-Tagalong to Catalog Services
John remembers standing on a train station platform in 2007 and calling Annie following a meeting with Waterstones. The meeting was intended to bring Analytics over to the UK bookseller, but the retailer wanted to explore how they could use this product to help support their title buying.
“I called up Annie and said this is where we have to go. We need to build a catalog,” John recalls. “It was this glimmer of hope in the midst of all this anxiety about the future of indie bookstores... and our future as well.”
At the same time, the U.S. book publisher HarperCollins expressed some interest in using the platform as a catalog supplement. They requested the addition of an order box to a preexisting feature on the site, its title watchlist.
“Publishers in general were also questioning why they were printing all these paper catalogs—why not create an e-catalog the same way they were doing e-books?” John remembers. “All these elements coalesced and what grew from it was our catalog services.”
“Or, as I was calling it at first, Ca-Tagalong, like a catalog tagalong, which luckily didn’t stick.”
The online catalog service instead took the name Edelweiss, invoking the white flower known for thriving above the tree line in tough mountain landscapes.
“I also liked the name for its connotations from the song in the Sound of Music,” says John. “‘Every morning you greet me…’ felt apt for people working in Edelweiss every day.”
The first pilot of Edelweiss Catalog Services was conducted in 2008, with eight publishers signing on to test out the service. It was, compared to today’s Edelweiss, a more basic service devoted entirely to a rep marking up a catalog and sending it to a buyer at a bookstore.
In this area, like Analytics, the sailing was also far from smooth for the Edelweiss team. After the pilot, many of the participating publishers exited the program to explore the building an e-catalog themselves.
"I’ve learned that starting a business brings some extreme highs and some extreme lows and that you need to find ways of centering yourself throughout,” says John. “You need a north star, and for me, that has been a focus on the value we are trying to create."
"Practically, this has meant staying involved in the actual programming and building of the site. Going in there, playing around, getting a response from the customers—this process was and is grounding and therapeutic for me.”
Over the next few years, John and the team followed this approach. They continued to build up and improve Edelweiss, and more booksellers joined the platform and adopted it as part of their workflows.
And, with that, the publishers started to return. In 2013, four years after the conclusion of the initial pilot program, the last major U.S. publisher rejoined Edelweiss.
Looking to the Future
In the following decade, Edelweiss’s identity has developed and shifted. It has expanded to become a B2B hub, offering tools both to support the work of a range of book professionals and to connect them with one another. And, in recent years, the company has seen great growth internationally, building on a foundation that was laid fifteen years ago.
During this time, the company has also clarified and strengthened its commitment to enact positive social change through its work. Annie joined Edelweiss in January 2019, and she has worked since to help the Edelweiss articulate and pursue its goals to dismantle systemic racism and bias—both in the company itself and in the tech and publishing industries.
Annie originally came to Edelweiss to put organizational systems in place as the company began to expand in size and scope, putting to use her background in organizational management and training from work with Caribou Coffee Company.
“I served as HR Manager and then National Training Director during a time when Caribou Coffee was growing its national presence—expanding from one store in Minnesota to 150 stores in 6 states with over 2,000 employees,” says Annie. “And, while Edelweiss was being built, I was also working on two master's degrees, one in Organizational Management and the other in Human Development.”
Quickly, it became evident that Annie could help move Edelweiss to the next leg of its journey as a mission-driven organization and became its VP of Culture and Values.
“When I joined Edelweiss, I was simultaneously getting my degree in seminary to become a hospice chaplain, where everything I was learning was based in social justice. It became clear to me that the company must use its power and position to bring about change.”
In 2020, Annie and the Edelweiss team started Ascend, a commitment to dismantle systemic racism and bias in the publishing and tech industries through investing, providing access, and amplifying marginalized voices. One of its achievements is a paid internship program aimed at creating opportunities for individuals from underrepresented communities to see themselves in publishing and tech and to receive mentorship from experts in the fields.
“At Edelweiss, we really do believe in the power of books to engage and transform the world. What makes me excited for the company’s future is this opportunity to contribute to a more literary, thoughtful, and inclusive world,” says Annie, who became President of Edelweiss in 2021.
“From the very start, our mission was fundamentally focused on problem-solving,” says John. “And, two decades later, this commitment still cuts across all the work we do—from helping booksellers become more efficient in their day-to-day to tackling the larger, systemic inequities of the industries we serve.”