Friday, June 02, 2006

Take Two Christopher Moores and Call Me in the Morning: the Art of Recommendation

I’m distressed by the number of people who have commented here that they’ve never (or rarely) received a book recommendation from their bookseller. Distressed, but not surprised. It’s hard to recommend titles and open up to a complete stranger about your reading choices because for every book snob bookseller out there, there’s a book snob customer. A well placed inflection in the phrase “I don’t read those books,” can strip your self-esteem in a nanosecond, especially when you don’t expect it.

Imagine, if you will, having one of those how-are-you/how’s-the-weather conversations with a customer (it’s going good, both of you are connecting, but no one is being pushy) and the topic of new releases comes up.

“Oh,” you (as the bookseller) say, “I just read [fill in author’s name here]’s new book, [fill in title here], and it’s great! Really engaging, compelling characters, yadda yadda yadda.”

You love this book. Have loved it ever since you thumb-wrestled a coworker for the ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) in the backroom after one too many Coca Cola Blaks, and you want everyone to love this book. But the customer?

Not so much with the loving.

In fact, it doesn’t matter what the yadda-yaddas stand for because before you’ve reached that point where the customer has stopped listening. If you’ve been making eye contact this is where they might look away or raise a brow or roll their eyes. There are people who prefer to purse their lips or smirk. There are even those who will physically take a step back leaving you to wonder if your deodorant suddenly gave out or you fluffed and hadn’t noticed. Suddenly where once there had been some pretty fluid customer/seller interaction going on there is a big, gaping nothingness because the customer has disengaged and you’ve been discounted as a reliable source to receive recommendations from.

If this happens the first couple of recommendations out then you’re burned for life. You start going with the sure bets, the people who’ve already picked up two or three books exactly like what you would recommend and just need another title to tip them over the edge to qualify for that sale. You only reveal your likes and dislikes after the customer has already made theirs known, so that you’re assured that this will be a meeting of like minds (only in this case it turns more into a fangirl/boyish agreement over “oh my gawd, didn’t you just love X” than any real recommending). You do not go out of your way to give your opinions to just anyone because you’ve been rejected and it hurts.

Can having a good recommendations experience reverse this? Maybe. There is nothing like having someone come back and telling you how much the loved the book you picked out for them, the one that they bought without even bothering to read the back because you were so enthusiastic. There is absolutely nothing better than hearing another person tell you about how much they loved something that you love, that their husband loved it (and their husband doesn’t read), or that their kids couldn’t put it down. Hell, there’s nothing like standing there in the aisle with a customer—after all the struggle it takes to condense and organize your thoughts on what makes this book a great read—and having them say, “You know, I’ll give this a try.”

I remember talking to a coworker once, after she’d made her first hand-sell, and she just glowed. “They listened to me,” she said over and over again. “They really listened.”

They understood how you can get so caught up in a story that you forget to eat or don’t realize you’re crying. They’ve been there where not even a power outage or a big test or a huge presentation can keep you from turning the next page. And they connected with you over your love for words and paper and binding and plot that you let all flow out in your recommendation.

One moment like that can make up for a day of dodging children, hauling heavy boxes and being ignored when you greet customers.

So next time you’re in a bookstore, any bookstore, and you’re looking for something new, ask the bookseller for a recommendation. Maybe they will be veterans in the field, and you’ll suddenly find yourself loaded down with books of every flavor as the words fly fast and furious. Maybe they’ll be new and unsure. They might stutter. They might look confused. You might be the first person to ever ask them. But hopefully they’ll come through, open a bit of their reading self up to you, and point out a title or two (bonus points if they actually put it in your hand).

And next time they’re shelving in their section and they see someone standing by the book they recommended to you (that maybe you bought, or maybe you just waited politely until they left to put back), maybe they’ll point it out to this new customer without waiting for their opinion to be solicited.

A great bookseller is created from great customers. Be one and someone might realize that there’s something cool about this book business after all.


Marianne McA said...

But then, if the bookseller was so keen, I'd have to - in all politeness - buy the d*** book. Then I have to read it, or never go back to the shop. Cos otherwise what would I do if Helpful Bookseller enquires after my reading experience? And then, dear heaven, what if she does ask and I thought the book was less than enthralling... I'm a reader-troll, totally lacking the social skills to negotiate that conversation. I'm going to lie. I'm going to gush, and enthuse, and compliment her on her perspicacity - and then she'll be flattered, and recommend another book. And in all politeness...
Probably not. But truly, I have the strongest reaction against being told what to read [childhood - sob, sob] and I'd probably avoid a bookshop where the staff pressed books upon me.

quiche said...

Yay! I hand sold a copy of Artemis Fowl to a man looking for a good book for his son. He came looking for Cornelia Funke's Inkspell but backed away when he saw how thick it was. I went on and on about what a great book it was but he said his kid wouldn't read a book that big. That's when I handed a pbk copy of the 1st Artemis Fowl. He skimmed it and said it looked OK and left happy.

The only time I'm embarrassed about recommends is in genres I don't read--romance in particular. I had a woman ask if I could recommend something like Elizabeth George and my mind went blank, I rarely have people ask for suggestions. Most of 'em come in looking for a specific title or author.

ello said...

My local bookstore has one book case dedicated to recommendations by store staff. The recommendations are so varied and intriguing (from 100 years of solitude to Confederacies of Dunces, etc.) that it is almost always my first stop. I love to see books that I love in the case, it always gives me a good feeling, and I will remember a bookseller's name if I see an affinity with their reading choices and when I see something I haven't read, I will give it a try. Recommendations are very personal and so I understand the hesitation that people have. But forget the snobs, I think it is always a wonderful thing to recommend books. There is always a chance that you will convert a new reader to your favorite book.

Karen Scott said...

I have to say, it doesn't even cross my mind to ask for recs. The only time I've ever been approached by a bookseller was at a Borders in Florida when me and my hubby were on holiday there last year.

Incidentally, she recommended Lisa Valdez's Passion, but before she did, she gave me the "Can she deal with this much sex?" look.

Anonymous said...

Since I do all my book shopping at Powells (the actual one, in the downtown location by my office or the smaller one near my home), I pretty much always ask for recommendations. Then again, Powells has people who work specific parts of the bookstore and little rec tags written by the staff right there on the shelves. So so helpful. The only time they've failed me is when I was looking for an obscure fantasy book and could only remember three details of it - the clerk polled two of her coworkers and a customer even chimed in, but no one could figure out which book I meant. Someone online figured it out and I bought the book - at Powells.

I'm very thankful to the nice clerk in the murder mystery section who helped me pick a load of different books for my grandmother's 80th birthday. All I had was, "she likes Ruth Rendell. And the horse race-y ones. And I want to get her a selection of ones she wouldn't have read from her friends, so no bestsellers." She helped me find six different ones I'd never read myself that my grandmother loved.

Camy Tang said...

I do have to admit, while I'm not a bookseller and don't hand-sell in a store, I have made personal recommendations to friends and it just ROCKS when they come back and say they loved the book.


lady t said...

It's a great feeling when someone not only takes you up on your recommendation but comes back later to tell you how much he/she loved it. It also rules when a book you made sure got into inventory starts to sell well(made a little rhyme there!).

I've had the downside of that,too-one time,a woman was looking for a novel for her daughter-in-law(who was in her twenties)so I showed her a copy of The Dirty Girls Social Club. She wrinkled up her nose and said"Is this about Spanish people? She wouldn't want to read about that." The sale went slowly after that.

Dalia said...

I don't think a great bookseller is created out of a great customer. A great handseller should persevere despite their 'bad' experience with a customer snob.

Someone who wants to be nothing more than a 'person who works in a bookstore; who shelves, cleans, directs to the mystery section' etc. can decide to be marked by the occasions when a snobby customer comes in. They're not booksellers.

The bookseller may never have to see that customer again or see them once a month and it will be easy to avoid each other. The hundreds of thousands of customers flowing in after the 'snob' - what of them?

I don't think everyone who works in a bookshop need be recommending ten ways from Sunday, but if you want to call them a 'great bookseller', then yeah, that's when I think they should.


Lisa Hunter said...

if you ever go public with your identity, I'll come buy books from you. I love your attitude and passion for books.

At my local video store, all staff members post a list of their favorites, by genre. They list their "serious" favorites, as well as popcorn-movie guilty pleasures. I never fail to find something new and interesting.

I doubt bookstore people could do this, though, given the amount of money publishers spend for in-house promotions.

Diana Peterfreund said...

I lucked into this experience once. I was in a B&N, and the man at the info desk just happened to be a retired physics teacher and a sci-fi nut. I was looking for an SF book for my brother but I had the last name wrong, so as I was chatting witht eh guy at the computer, I let on that my brother likes the really *sciency* SF books, and his eyes light up, and he walks me over to the appropriate section and proceeds to load me up with the one he loves.

It was great. But imagine if I'd been at another kiosk? I think booksellers should wear tags. "ask me about romance." "Ask me about mysteries." "Ask me about biographies." Etc.

Paul said...


I'd like to see how this works. Why not ask your readers to post the names of 10 books we love and see if you can come up with one recommendation off the top of your head from your own font of booklore. You get a point if the commneter we hasn't read it and a big bonus if we subsequently buy your recommendation.