A few days into my first bookselling job, as a Christmas temp for Dillons in Finchley, I blithely led a trusting but ultimately bemused customer who’d asked for James Patterson’s Along Came A Spider to the children’s picture book section. It was going to be a steep learning curve.
Fortunately my colleagues’ passion for books proved infectious and I found myself reading more than I’d ever managed when studying for my English Literature degree. I quickly inherited the Fiction section and because at the time Dillons kept no stock records, I learned to tell what we’d sold each day from a glance at the shelves. A subsequent job in Bradford taught me that local markets varied hugely and that my buying decisions needed to be governed by our customer’s predilections rather than my own. I was becoming a fully-fledged bookseller.
The 2010 ‘Reading the Future’ survey conducted by The Bookseller magazine reported that only 3% of the reading public claim to find out about new books and authors from booksellers (with 2% citing our close cousins, the librarians). That’s a very misleading figure; customers buy more books because of booksellers than most will ever realise.
Bookselling is not brain surgery. But in one way, it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are books available on any subject you can name and no other job that expects an informed response to an enquiry about any conceivable topic. Booksellers are immersed in what we sell in a way I don’t think is true of other shop assistants. We read not just books, but catalogues and reviews. We discuss books with colleagues and customers, friends and family. We note the selections of those purchasers who scoop up a bagful of titles at a time. We learn the target market for each imprint and squirrel away the names of comparable authors attached to jacket quotes. We find ourselves looking round other bookshops on our days off, spotting books missing from our own ranges and clocking the lingering trade paperbacks which missed the cut-off date for returns. On the way to work, we pride ourselves on identifying the book read by a fellow passenger from a flash of the back cover and learn what’s in vogue in the wider market.
The cumulative result of this is a bookseller who can always recommend a suitable novel, whether that’s a literary classic, the latest in Scandinavian crime fiction or a young adult tale about vampires. Simply asking customers to name books they’ve enjoyed recently gives us all the information we need to pluck at least one or two likely candidates from the shelves. Hand us a book we haven’t read and we can soon work out which potential reader might like it. And if we don’t have our own opinion on a book, we can draw on the thoughts of colleagues, customers, reviewers, on the diverse scraps of information we constantly compile and absorb. At other times the databases of Nielsen BookData and PubEasy can be harnessed to come up with new reading suggestions and track down that obscure or scarcely remembered book. And Google makes for a pretty handy last resort. The stereotypical customer who can only remember that a book has a blue cover is not a nuisance, but a challenge.
The ‘Reading the Future’ survey also asked, what ‘would make you more likely to spend money in bookshops’? Amongst the results were: wider range of quality books (21%); more recommendations in-store (17%); better personal service in store (12%); more in-store events (12%). All of these are factors that depend on booksellers. We research that wider range, we make those recommendations, we offer that tailored service, we organise those events.
As well as the remarkably effective tool of a hand-written recommendation on a shelf-talker, every display is populated by books we’ve selected. There are little tricks, of course: add a few generally familiar titles – popular classics, bestsellers, books in the media – into the most unlikely of promotions and it will catch the eye of customers and give them the confidence to try something new, rather than feel that it’s a table of books not aimed at them. As well as being a link in the chain which takes books from writer to reader, via agent, publisher and retailer, booksellers are a nexus of the word-of-mouth network which keeps a book selling long past its appearances in the media, adverts and 3-for-2 offers.
It’s independents that do this best. We don’t receive the incentive of the vast discounts and publishers’ marketing contributions offered to the chains to feature books in promotions: we get behind books we love and books we think our customers will love. Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You wasn’t featured in a single chain promotion – nor did it garner any press reviews – until it made the 2010 Orange Prize longlist; at Foyles we’d promoted it in front-of-house and on the website right from publication, simply because I’d read and loved it. We don’t starve booksellers of the chance to interact directly with publishers by making all stock-purchases at head office level. The success of the wonderful Newham Bookshop in east London in seeing off the threat of a short-lived Borders down the road is a perfect illustration of how centralised buying can never match the expertise in catering for diverse local markets held by shop-floor buyers.
All this is why, no matter the in-roads made into the market made by the heavy discounters, I hear so many accounts of how well good independent bookshops are doing. We’re a vital part of reminding Britain of the allure of books in the face of so many other competing distractions. Humans have loved stories ever since we first congregated round a campfire and there will always be a place for the single author’s voice that sets our imaginations running with an engagingly and eloquently told tale, just as there will be a role for booksellers keen to share their passion.
Jonathan Ruppin, Web Editor, Foyles Bookshop