It seems easy enough: find a vacant shop, fill it with bookshelves, fill those shelves with books and start selling books. You’re in business! You’re now a book seller. You also need customers, people willing to buy your books at the price you set. The question arises: what sort of books should I buy and what shouldn’t I buy?
When I opened my shop four years ago, I naturally thought: people will buy books that I like and wouldn’t buy books that I didn’t. I said to myself: fiction, who needs fiction? This is going to be a quality bookshop, I’m not stocking fantasy books or any of that romance claptrap. Wrong! Unless you’re a technical bookshop or a highly specialized one, you need to cater to the interests of the Great Reading Public and that means learning about genres that have hitherto been off your reading list. Some of my best sellers have been authors that I wouldn’t have taken a second look at when I was a reader as opposed to a seller of books. Lee Child is my most popular author and I have just doubled the size of my crime fiction section With the current spate of crime drama series on television: it’s no surprise that crime fiction is my most popular genre and this in a bookshop that was originally going to be fiction free.
Bookshop managers have to have their finger on the pulse of popular culture. Those of us with a more cultivated outlook on life like to think that books, painting, sculpture, music or dance primarily reflects culture but in this day and age the vanguard of culture is television. Television helps make actors, historical epochs, events and authors popular. The connection between an author appearing on Oprah and the resulting requests for his/her books is a strong one. But the bookshop manager has to know when to get on an author’s wave of popular support and also to know when this author’s boat has set sail. In my region Tom Clancy’s books are dead in the water and there are so many of them! Because I can’t read everything and there are some genres I purposely avoid reading (historical romance, for example), I like to ask my customers what they like to read and who their favorite authors are. By communicating with the people who support my business I have learnt about authors that otherwise I would have overlooked. Communication with customers builds a better shop because you end up with stock that sells and deserves to sell because it is written by quality authors. Books on how to fix fridge and the like will only collect dust while anything by Bukowski will barely last a day.
The present trend in book publishing is to publish and support established names to the hilt. It is difficult for unknown authors to get a successful distribution network up and running. Some authors such as Australia’s Matthew Reilly self-published their first book and then the big publishing houses jumped on board. Supporting established names with a profile does not always generate quality literature and in some cases where established authors have worked in conjunction with ghost writers or unknown authors one wonders: did this fellow just want to get a book out for Christmas? Other books are not even written by the author but by a flock of authors. The point is: despite the money making short cuts that established authors (or their relatives) use: the Great Reading Public tends to know good from bad literature and selling figures reflect this knowledge sooner or later. The bookshop manager has to be forever alert of author’s damaging their brand by churning out sub-standard literature.
If the bookshop manager chooses to buy books from the Great Reading Public, the pitfalls treble. Books date and become obsolete and this is particularly true of science & technology books, sets of encyclopedias, computer manuals, sporting biographies, travel guides and books with dates in their title: Year Book 1976 etc.
Some books are to be avoided even when they are brand new: school textbooks because they keep changing the editions thus rendering previous editions obsolete. One lady gave me the best book selling spiel on the telephone I have ever heard: the books are of “polished faux brown leather with gilt lettering on the binding and of delightful appearance.” They were condensed Readers’ Digest books… good for the recycle bin! The manager also has to be wary of the book’s condition: is the book damaged, are pages missing, does it look well-read? etc. One customer deliberately tied string around a collection of books to cover up the fact that the books were falling apart. Others will try and sell sets that aren’t complete and then knowingly try and deceive the bookshop manager by putting the broken sets in taped up boxes.
Most of the lessons of book buying and selling are learnt through experience and common sense. Even with experience, you still make mistakes and I’m always keen to off load a book I paid a high price for because the profit I made makes me feel vindicated for spending too much on it in the first place.
Happy (and safe) book buying… and selling.
image resource: The Moby Dick Collection