Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Robbing Peter To Pay Paul: the Cause Of the Where the Hell Is My Book Syndrome

Y’all make me so sad with this refusal to talk to a bookseller and this need to limit human-to-human interaction by introducing a computer kiosk into the mix. I may cry.

Or maybe I won’t. With no one asking me questions I will be able to get a lot more shelving and paperwork done. How would one go about setting up a computer kiosk…?

To answer Agent Kristin’s question (before actually getting to the point of this post), computer kiosks take room, they break down, and people have a tendency to pour stuff on them (not deliberately, but we all have to acknowledge our inner klutz), which makes them impractical in most situations. My store doesn’t even have chairs people can sit in. That said, even if there are computers, you will still need an easy to use booksearch system running on it. The Borders system treats title and keyword as interchangeable things, and you can’t subject search within that to narrow down the list. Something I learned recently while in a Borders is that there is another level of that system altogether that an employee must access with a password. While the main system might say a book is in stock, this second level may actually reveal that the book in question is still in transit from the warehouse and is just erroneously showing up as in the store on system one. I don’t think this glitch in the system is isolated to the store I was in, so be sure to ask someone to check it next time the computer swears the book is in the store, but it is nowhere to be found.

And speaking of books that are nowhere to be found, let’s talk about Peter, Paul and the price of merchandising up front while still shelving in the appropriate section. So say you’re a chain bookseller and you’ve just got your new merchandising manual, and it calls for Book X to be displayed in three different places due to a fantastic co-op deal the publisher worked out. On the day Book X is released you put out the twenty copies you’ve received: five on an end cap related to Book X’s genre, ten as a double face out on a display wall-bay and two on the employee recommends pillar because you read the ARC of Book X and it rocked your mind, your body and managed to rejuvenate your relationship with your partner. This would normally leave three books for an in-section face-out, only either a forklift ran through the box or someone dropped it, but one of the books is mangled and has to be returned.

With me here? Ten books on the wall-bay (so it looks all full and happy), five books (also for fullness and happiness) on the end-cap, and now only two (spined probably) in section (not so full and happy, but whatcha ya gonna do?).

Twenty books might not seem like a lot for a large store, but maybe the store buyer didn’t believe in it as much as the publisher did. Turns out that the buyer is obviously a husk of a human being, incapable of being moved, because everyone else loves Book X, whose author has been rocking the Indie news circuit, the internet, and Jon Stewart improving everyone’s mind, body, and relationship with their partner. Three books are bought off the wall display and one off the end-cap by browsing customer (who remembered that Jon Stewart had his world rocked), and two books are taken from section by two self-directed individuals (who may, or may not have used the internet or a computer kiosk to pinpoint the books exact location).

We are now down to seven books on the wall-bay, four books on the end-cap, two on the employee recommends column and absolutely no books in the section.

But someone will notice right? A bookseller will just restock from the end-cap or the front of store, yes?

Er, not exactly. You see, first a bookseller has to figure out that there are no books in that section, something that will only happen if a customer brings it to their attention, or if they walk over to the section themselves and make that discovery. Even then they have to make the move in the first few minutes afterwards because each second that passes increases the rate at which they forget what they are thinking about exponentially. Add in an emergency or a call to the front counter, and the chances of that person remembering are almost nil. Not to mention that I rarely take people into a section if I know that book is displayed at the front of the store in quantity. Less search time involved if I know I can walk right to it.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that no one tells a bookseller that the book isn’t in section for a day (because you are stubborn, antisocial souls), and during that time Anderson Cooper (or someone else who has been gadding about lately) mentions during an interview with Jon Stewart that Book X (which he had seen on Stewart’s show a couple of nights previous) had rocked his relationship with his partner too. None of the booksellers see this because they’re all working closing shifts. There’s a rush on the book the next morning and seven books are bought from the front of store, and one more from the end-cap (by someone who was really browsing around). This leaves three books in the store, all on that end-cap.

Now for the sake of really messing with everything, let’s say that the person in charge of that section (and that end-cap) has the next day off, and the people on deck aren’t fully aware of Book X’s placement there, but they manage to find it after someone bitches them out. Somebody puts the titles in section, where they sell immediately.

That’s all the books, right? Nope, there are still those two on the employee recommends pillar. I even managed to forget about them, but you’ve probably had your coffee and are much more aware than I. Who knows how awake our intrepid booksellers are though. Did they have their coffee? And even if they did, will a customer think to ask them for help to find Book X or will they just think “hey, it’s not in section or up front so I’ll just drive to another bookstore or order from home and pay shipping)”?

The robbing Peter to pay Paul aspect of all of this comes from the placement of multiply displays. When the front of store gets low, you refill from the section, but that means the section display might be reduced down to as few as one copy of the Book X. Add in customers who go straight to the section, and it is quite easy for a book to end up in the wrong spot. Add to that a splash of someone picking up Book X, but smashing it in somewhere else, and you get a whole new dimension to the puzzle.

Bottom line? If you can’t find the book but the computer or your spidey sense tells you it is there, then ask someone. Maybe they will be able to help, maybe they won’t, but they can at least try to tell you if it is in the store. It can’t hurt and you just might find what you are looking for (not to mention alert a bookseller to the lack of books in a section).

Links completely unrelated to this column that you should check out are:

  • POD-DY Mouth interviews Will Clarke, self-pubbed dude gone big time. It made me laugh, cry (I want to be able to interview like POD-DY Mouth), and want to read his new book, The Worthy, or at least go pull Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles from my TBR pile.

  • Daniel Wilson is the author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, and I hear he’s has been making the rounds on the Discovery Channel to talk about what else but robots. If you think your computer has been eyeing you with a little more animosity lately then you should check out this article a friend showed me.

  • Everyone else has commented on this, but I thought I would link to it anyway: JK Rowling has been out and about, talking about book seven of her series and how two characters die just in time for the paperback release of book six! Goodness, such timing. Of course now when customers come in and see our sign for the paperback they never even get past her name before shouting, “Book 7 comes out in July! Can I make a reservation?” Sigh, people truly only read what they want to read. For the record, the earliest I see this thing coming out is next year late (like November), or July-ish the year after.

  • If you are a Winnie the Pooh fan, or just loved him as a child, you should check out this art exhibit link (stolen from Fuse#8). Ah, the interpretation of words into pictures that are then transformed again.


lady t said...

You gave me major work flashbacks with this post,BSC! My store was small but we did tend to spread an order of twenty copies around(said copies were mainly bought to get co-op cash,the buyer/owner didn't even read,yet alone,know much about most of them) and if it turned out to be a hit,chances were that one of my co-workers would have trouble finding it,even if it was in the right section!

Enough of that-Rowling really has me worried her what seems to be hints about Harry not being exempt from the death sentence given to two characters in the upcoming book(which will probaly be out in July 2007 but some folks never stop to read the entire article,do they?). I personally think she'll knock off a good guy and a bad guy,for balance but you never know...

RandomRanter said...

I just wanted to clarify a bit about my seeming bookseller antisocial-ness. First - I am a DIY type person who will spend an hour trying to figure out how something works before going to ask someone else. I like figuring/finding it myself. Second - in the stores I frequent with nice people, I do ask pretty quickly. After all, I'm still baffled by the shelving for Seabiscuit. (Okay - it makes sense in retrospect, but it wasn't one of the five places I thought to look).

Agent Kristin said...

Aha! I love Bookseller Chick and just for you, I will make a point (from now on) of talking to every bookseller in my local stores--until they are frightened when they see me coming.

Of course, I'm terrible (mucking up the system) by surreptitiously facing forward on the shelves my clients' books.

Who was that masked book re-arranger?

E is for Editrix said...

See? Agent Kristin does it too...I won't feel so bad anymore about being the devil bringing disorder in the children's section...

Christine Fletcher said...

I'm working on the shyness thing, because it really is no excuse...just today, I asked a librarian for help. Booksellers, you're next!

BSC, have you seen JA Konrath's post about how to do drive-by signings?

He advises calling stores first, to be sure they have the stock, but not to inform them we're the author until we're in the store, books in hand and ready to sign. (My take is that this is to streamline the process, and not get caught up in store rules regarding author signings). Just curious -- would you agree with this approach?

Marta said...

Dear BSC, Do most people go to the bookstore planning to buy a specific book? In that case, it makes sense to ask if you can't find it.

Most of the time I go to a bookstore for the pleasure of browsing. I wander around the aisles, pull out books that are hidden behind others, search for something surprising. I'll check out my favorite authors, backtrack, and be distracted by sections I don't visit regularly.

This is a solo activity.

When I am looking for a specific book, I can be discouraged from asking a bookseller if she is swamped with other customers. I have also walked away when the bookseller can't spell basic words on a computer search, seems uninformed, or leaves me standing there to have an extended phone conversation.

However, if a bookseller seems genuinely interested in her job, I'm more inclined to chat and to seek out help quickly the next time.

Eileen said...

I think the problem may be the bookstore. There are a few in town where the staff could be working anywhere. They could care less about the product. However, if you get a store where the people are passionate about books then at least for me it feels like landing in the promised land. My People. I don't bother talking to retail drones, but booksellers? love em. Also I will admit now, even before doing it I will be a serial book turner outter when mine comes out.

Kendall said...

Interesting scenario, BSC, thanks. I'm glad I glance at displays; I may pay more attention to endcaps now. And I'll try to be less antisocial. ;-) So many factors affect whether I ask, though.... But I think the books I can't find simply aren't there or are misshelved; I'm pretty diligent, and (except on the mass market display) my genres aren't as common on store displays as lit fic is.

I would love it if Borders would improve their brain-dead customer search engine. When I have asked employees, they did what you wrote - entered the secret password, brought up another interface (harking back to Windows 3.1 GUI design...), and found the book immediately. Well, found it in the system. ;-) I also ran into the "computer sez it's here, but really it's en route" thing....

Anonymous said...

During a recent visit to a bookstore, while browsing the sci-fi section I observed a particular author had no volume five of his series left on the shelf, so I brought one from the display table. I rearranged the order of another authors books to display them chronologically. A third author I reordered so that different series would be located together. Satisfied for having restored order to the universe, as usual I bought nothing.

Booksellers probably have coined a term for annoyances such as myself, but I'd be frightened to know what it is :)

Lisa Hunter said...

An even better Winnie the Pooh exhibit is at the midtown branch of the New York Public Library. They have all of Christopher Robin's original toys: the scruffy Pooh bear, Eyore, Piglet, and all the rest. And it's free.