Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Bookselling Confessional

I have a confession to make.

I almost went back to bookselling last year.

Hell, that’s not totally true – I actually almost went back to bookselling the year before that.

Not because I wanted to increase public literacy. Not because my icy heart melted a little when a customer celebrated a new author find. Not even due to my subversive need to get people hooked on new genres by introducing them to a gateway drug, er, book.

Nope, I almost went back to bookselling because I missed the perks – specifically my discount, my ability to check out new releases and the ARCs.

Actually, that’s also a bit of a lie. I don’t really miss the ARCs we’d get at my store because we weren’t really on the radar for the titles I thought I wanted.

But the discount? The ability to use the store as my own personal library? Those things I miss, almost enough to try and pick up a shift shelving, lugging and greeting to get it back.

I know this doesn’t exactly come as a newsflash to the greater reading population,* but books are expensive, and as a single income household who would eventually like to use that single income own her own home, that cost is oftentimes prohibitive. I can’t afford to drop a lot on books I may or may not like, and even if I could, I don’t have that much room in my house. The majority of my current book buying is done digitally as it allows me to expand my reading without expanding my bookcases, and allows me to indulge in the appearance of impulse shopping.

I say appearance because 90% of the books I buy digitally are by authors I’ve read and liked previously. The other 10% I bought based on very strong recommendations and my ability to access free content (excerpts, first five chapters, etc).

When I was a bookseller, I was willing to take a chance on the new to me author with the pretty cover because I had the option to check out the title to read, or buy it at discount even if I was on the fence/wanted to be encouraging. If I was feeling a little wishy-washy I could always take it to the backroom and read a little on my lunch break. In ye ol’ bookselling days, there were several books I purchased simply because I knew other people would like them.** With my discount, this kind of expense wasn’t as much of a barrier, but now any book I buy in paper has to go through the checklist:
• Do I like this author?
• Will I read this again?
• Is there a digital version that is less expensive or do I have a coupon?
• Will I want to loan this out?
• Can I get this from the library soon?

Before I even walk into a bookstore I have answered most of these questions, and this pre-shopping (if you will) has resulted in a decrease in my actual aisle browsing. Because I go knowing what I want, where it’s located, and how much I have to spend, I don’t wander like I used to. I don’t discover in the same way. And that’s pretty sad, for someone whose job used to be telling people about the greatest, newest thing.

So, once, or twice, or even three times a year, I think about going back to bookselling and taking on a fifty hour work week. I consider taking on the stress of customer service to get that old thrill of opening boxes full of new stock. I long for the ability to be the first to know.

And right about the time I get to filling out the application I realize, if I went back, if I really committed to taking on a second job, I wouldn’t have the time to read those new books anyway.

Sometimes it’s better to just see what the library has instead.

*Someone told me recently that the first thing all financial planning books tell you is to stop buying books, and use the library. I love my library and make great use of it, but this just made me cry.

**Sure, I might get around to reading them one day, but I could think of three people who would read them now.


Stace said...

I never thought about how my prior bookseller experience affected my buying habits, but it's true that I too am now very cautious about how I spend my book-buying dollars. I hate to risk my money and shelf-space on unknown authors. I really miss that discount and preview/lending option!

Kalen O'Donnell said...

See, this is where the rise of e-buying concerns me. Speaking for myself, SO many amazing books and authors I found over the years, I only discovered by walking into a bookstore, picking up the book I went to buy, and then just being grabbed by other titles or covers on the shelf. Or not even having something jump out at me, but having a little time to kill before a movie, and just casually picking a book off the shelf and reading the back cover.

And that's just not possible in the same way with e-buying, and I'm not sure how to translate that experience to a cirtual format. Sure, there's hypertext and linking and 'if you like this book, you might also like this one', but all those things are dependent on someone else's personal tastes and deciding what books to link to, or else algorithms and search functions linking books by common themes or words or subjects - and none of that is a substitute for just being surrounded by books in your genre of choice and being able to reach out and grab one at whim, and not even because its LIKE something else you're reading - and discovering something entirely new that you never would have thought to look for otherwise.

Bookseller Chick said...

Stace, I'm so glad I'm not alone. After I wrote this post I started wondering about how much knowing the behind the scenes of bookselling affected how I bought. I know how much of store fronts and end caps are co-opped. I know that bestsellers lists are not a very accurate reflection (at times) of what people are buying now.

Of course, after the freedom of having everything maybe I'm just bitter about having that greatly reduced.

Kalen, I agree that the online shopping experience is very different from a brick and mortar bookselling experience. Although one could argue, that the immediate gratification of online is in itself deceiving as apparently people decide to buy a book based on their experience during the first seven seconds that they see/hold it (I really wish I could remember where I got that fact(oid?) and what it was based on). Factor in to that how many people who never get past the front of the store before making their purchasing decisions and suddenly the co-opping and everything that I talked about above can have a big impact on the casual browser. By going online and buying something that we've researched, read the first chapter of and immediately been able to find reviews of, we may in fact be making a more informed decision in our book buying process. How much of that decision is still guided by marketing, well placed reviews, etc I don't really feel has been accurately captured. The truth is for both brick and mortar and online book shoppers, the process of finding and buying a book has been rapidly evolving. With more titles printed every year than one bookstore could hope to hold (though Powell's tries), the online and offline book buyers are suited best when they mix the two mediums.