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.