Saturday, September 23, 2006

Guest Blogger: David de Beer and the (Gradually Changing) Bookstore Environment

BS Chick: Mr. David de Beer was nice enough to wander on over here from Miss Snark's and offer up his thoughts as a former bookseller in the trenches. Here's his take on bookselling and book readers.

Before I started in the bookstore, I was naive enough to think I was well read—that I knew books. That delusion got shattered on the very first day, within the first three hours when my uniform response to all the authors that people asked for was a pointed “Huh?”

I learned though, and after six years I could rattle off titles from dozens of authors. Most importantly, I had acquired the most essential skill for helping the customer to find a book – recognizing the exact book, written by the desired author, based on what was a warbled accounting of the plot. It would go like this:

“Yeah, it’s this story about this guy who goes to Africa and looks for a goldmine.”

Check. Narrowing the list down...

“And the mine belonged to this witch, or queen, or something.”

The book in question was King Solomon’s Mines. One delighted customer, and me relieved that I had guessed correctly.

At the end of the day, it matters little that you have actually read the book. The most important part is recognizing the author the customer is asking for, and knowing whether you have it in stock and what else you can recommend along similar lines.

Truth to tell, you don’t have to read Patricia Cornwell to know which similar authors to recommend. It’s simple – let the customers do the work for you. All you need, is to actually pay attention: What do people who buy a lot of Cornwell also like to buy and read? I built up a whole fan club for Mandasue Heller via Martina Cole fans like this.

The bookshop is the one exception the 1st commandment of retail which is “Location! Location! Location!” Bookshops take longer to get running, but people will drive the extra mile when they take a fancy to a store. Some of my customers came all the way from the other side of the city, for the sole reason to buy books. Many of them never took notice of the other businesses around.

Book customers don’t like change, but they respond to it – if you change something in a dramatic manner, even if is for the better, they grumble and complain. They like their complacency. On the other hand, if you start the changes in a gradual manner and slowly work it in, they respond to it, and some never even notice, or they only notice after a few months, looking around and saying: “Did you put up a new shelf?” It’s been there for a year, I moved your section there, bit by bit.

People often asked me whether I was worried about e-books replacing print books. No, I wasn’t. I think e-books are fabulous, and will continue to thrive, but they will never threaten the print book.

It’s because the most defining trait of the book customer I can point to is possessiveness – they want to own the book, feel it in their hands. This trait extends to “their” character, which JK Rowling, etc, were so gracious as to provide. It extends to “their” authors, not being allowed to write anything except what the customer wants (ah! but see the gradual change principle above! In the last years, more and more people were complaining about buying the new Stephen King book because “there’s nothing else, so I’ll just stick to King, and hope it isn’t as big a disappointment as the previous one.”

To writers I can say – beware complacency. Yes, people buy your books so long as you keep writing the same old, same old. But they are just as prone to drop you like a sack of hot potatoes when somebody new catches their interest. Why? Because every book you write is exactly the same as the previous one.

Book customers don’t like change, but they do want it, and they do respond to it. Gradually.


Robin Brande said...

David, thanks for that warning to writers not to get too comfortable writing the same book every time. Sometimes we need that mallet over the head. It's good to see things from the bookseller's perspective (which is why I come here!).

Robin L said...

Great perspective on readers resisting change, but maybe being open to it in gradual doses--especially with how it pertains to the authors they like to read. As an author, this is a hugely helpful insight! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Book customers don't like change


The last indy in our town was a huge, two story affair. Just massive. And -- for some inexplicable reason -- they NEVER stopped moving sections around. For 10 years those morons were perpetually rearranging the store. GOD that pissed me off.

That indy is gone now. Sold out to the box store. I miss them, but I'm still angry that idiot management contributed to their demise.

Michele said...

Good points.
Sometimes writing sameo-samo isn't such a bad idea if you have other genre's to offer at the same time.

LIke Jayne Ann Krentz. She has three or four different ones. Some people only like her regency items, but some may be curious as to her others, they check it out ... readership grows.
They're not forced into something different, they pursue it, therefore are more willing to accept change. The familiar is there as a backup, but they have the choice of "more". I think that is a clever way to handle it .... but not to many authors are as prolif as JAK. But she serves as a great example of change working.

IMHO, of course.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

David, thanks for your insights on change and the bookstore customer. I've worked in several indie stores where I felt the management wasn't flexible enough in creating new sections when books were requested often, moving things to a more logical display space, etc. -- and I determined that when I opened my store I would be infinitely adaptable to customer demands. But maybe part of that is maintaining a degree of consistency, letting 'em get used to change slowly. Food for thought, and much appreciated.

make-root-beer said...

As you're growing up as a teenager, there are a number of things that you look forward to; getting your drivers license, graduating

from high school, going to your senior prom, having your first date and having your first beer. The problem with this last one is

that the drinking age and the thing you want make it something that you just can't have yet. And still, you want it and will go to

any lengths to get it.

Underage beer drinking is certainly no secret and to try to sweep it under the carpet isn't going to make it go away. But the most

odd thing about underage drinking when it comes to beer is that even after kids sneak their first beer, they still want to have

another one. If you're wondering why that sounds so strange then you need to think back to when YOU had your first beer. It was

pretty nasty tasting. Let's be honest, beer is bitter and is an acquired taste. Very few people, if any at all, enjoyed their first

beer. Many even get sick after it because of the taste or the fact that they're not used to the alcohol yet.