Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On marketing strategies: the bookseller's personal opinion

One of the perks about working in a bookshop is the freebies and treats. The publishing houses go out of their way to make us, the booksellers, like them, their books and their authors. The logic is simple – it is easier to sell a book that you have heard of than one you have no knowledge of. Easiest of all: to sell a book that you love.

The “I loved it” argument beats everything in my line of work. I can’t count how many times customers have asked me what my opinion about a book is. A lot of customers don’t seem to take into account whether I have anything in common with them, or whether our tastes overlap at all. If I can say “I really liked this book” in a plausible manner, they buy it.

I try to be honest when asked how I feel about a book – only once during my eight years behind the counter in a bookshop have I lied about having read a book I hadn’t (and it was because the customer was being really difficult, on the day before Christmas. I just wanted to go home). A few days ago I actually adviced a customer not to buy a book she was considering, because I had read it and didn’t like it (though I did sell her another book, one that I liked, by the same author). So I guess my customers are getting the truth (though occasionally slightly glossed, if it is nearing on the holidays and I am fed up), but again – only the truth about my perception of a book. I try, though, to get a feel for what kind of books they normally like to read before I admit to liking anything at all. I want to know what I am dealing with, after all.

In this connection lists such as “if you liked X, you might also like Y” come in handy. If someone says they loved the Stieg Larsson books, I might try to sell them a Håkan Nesser or Jo Nesbø (though most of my customers have already read all of Nesbø’s books – he is very popular here). If a customer tells me he liked Jan Guillou’s Crusades-trilogy, I’d recommend checking out Ildefonso Falcones’ Cathedral of the Sea. And if they like Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind I first ask them to consider the prequel, The Angel’s Game, and then I suggest People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.

I have not read all of the above books. Some of them I read, and I didn’t like them very much. Some of them I liked, but “loved” would be too strong a term. In my opinion whether or not I liked them should be irrelevant to the customer – whether I think he or she will like them is not. Because some people simply are not satisfied with this, I also have a list of books I do love. However, I reserve the right to recommend them only to people I believe will also love them.


Jan Morrison said...

When I was a quite young woman, say 20 yrs., I lived with my two children in Ottawa. I had left my husband already and although I'd always been a reader, I wasn't very well educated. There was a bookstore near where I lived. It still exists in a different place - I can't remember the name - oh, I just did - Prospero Books! I remember that if I went in and said something like 'I want to read Thomas Hardy but I'm not sure...' he would say 'start with Tess of the D'Ubervilles' then you'll like him and want to read more. I cannot tell you how helpful and good this was. We don't know how we are being neccessary angels to each other. Or if someone comes in, distressed, and you give them a book to just distract them and remind them of love and beauty...tremendous. My eldest son is not a reader and right now his life is a big mess - if only he was a reader I could tell him some books to ease his mind. So keep up the connecting...connecting is the most important thing! (Howard's End)

Clarissa Draper said...

I have to say, I really love your background. I know I told you yesterday...

Anyway, I like your take. I have never asked a bookstore owner if he or she would recommend a book. Mostly because I would never talk to anyone in a store if I didn't have to and secondly, I usually know exactly what I'm looking for.

But, it's good to be aware of this from a writer's standpoint.


Mason Canyon said...

There has to be so many pros and cons to working in a bookshop. The fact that you do try to help out those customers who ask is great. I don't think I've ever ask for advice on a book in a bookstore, but I'd like to think if I did the clerk would be as helpful as you.

Thoughts in Progress

KarenG said...

Booksellers hand-selling a title can turn it from an unknown into a bestseller. So yes publishers are VERY nice to bookstore people. The problems here in the US is that so many bookstores are cutting down staff and going out of business (the independents-- so sad as they're the ones who do so well at hand-selling).

Cruella Collett said...

Jan - over the years reading books have brought me endless amounts of joy, insights I otherwise wouldn't have had and I couldn't imagine my life without it. So I agree with you that being a reader is something I'd wish for everyone.
It's all about finding books that attract you, though. There are so many books out there that I doubt there is any subject of interest not covered by now (unfortunately, a lot of people fail to see that). Good luck with finding something to trigger your son's inner reader (I'm sure we all have one), but yes - connecting is the most important of all.

Clarissa - thank you again :) (I'm quite fond of it myself)
I think that the people who are most eager to read are the ones most hesitant to ask for advice in bookshops (which is another reason it is relevant for me to find out what sort of books they like - the things I like might not fit so well with someone who doesn't read as much.

Mason - I guess there are pros and cons. To me keeping up with the book market is definitely right up there with the freebies. The cons you are already aware of. (And the fact that you don't ask for advice in bookshops support my above theory, since you definitely read a lot)

Karen - that is true, downsizing is a problem. There are times at work when there is no way I can spend more than "Hello, that'll be 49,50, thank you, goodbye" on each customer, because the store is packed and everyone at work is stuck in the cashier. A shame, for both me and the customers.

Watery Tart said...

I want to know what you recommend when someone comes in looking for an orange book. *snort*

I usually only ask 'where would this be' for me, but I've asked recommendations for my kids--at least before I immersed myself in the writing community and found good places with recommendations. I think starting with books they've liked is a great way to go about it.

Jemi Fraser said...

I try to follow the same kind of reasoning with new kids in my class in Sept. I find out what movies/shows/books they've enjoyed. Then I use that to try to find the 'right' book that will turn them into a reader.

Marjorie said...

I love bookstores but I seldom ask for help when finding something to buy. I'm not sure why, but I just don't think there is anyone who could really help me when it comes to choosing. Maybe I SHOULD ask for help.

Mohamed Mughal said...

It's great that honesty is a cornerstone of your feedback!

Cruella Collett said...

Tami - that used to be a tough one, but by now I have learned to just go with the flow. There are many good orange books out there!

Jemi - that sounds like a good strategy. When parents come in asking for an easy-read for kids I often try to make them tell me about the kid's interests instead. I've seen kids pick up books way above their reading level (and then master it) because they find it interesting; and I've seen kids put books that are boring down faster than you can say "CliffsNotes". Content matters almost as much as level (to a certain degree - natually they need some basic reading skills).

Marjorie - you might be surprised. I know (from experience) that many people working in shops do it only to make a living, and they couldn't care less about the product(s) they are selling. Even these, though, will pick up certain things along the way. And in some shops (though not the bookshop, most likely) the clerks may still know more about the product that what I do, even though they are not the experts they pretend to be. And usually it is very see-through if they are on thin ice...

Mohamed - I like to think so, but some people would say that it's my job to sell the books, not to rate them... But then again, we want happy customers, and if I recommend a book way out of their comfort zone, they won't come back!

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