What books to stock your bookshop with and what books to avoid

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?

what books to stock
Books I Might Like – But Perhaps Not The Great Reading Public

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

8 thoughts on “What books to stock your bookshop with and what books to avoid”

  1. Hello! Nice article. Although, I can’t imagine what kind of bookshop has no fiction–other than one with only history and philosophy, poetry, I guess. Lee Child has gained a great deal of popularity since his first book, which I found well written, but a little too violent, even for me, and I don’t mind graphic violence usually. I suppose I don’t think of mysteries as separate from fine fiction. Some are complete nothings, yes, but the best are just as meaningful as straight fiction. And strangely, I’ve found that so many so called straight novels have some type of crime in them. Jane Eyre, a couple of Dickens, To Kill a Mockingbird, any number of other ‘classics’ revolve around a crime. Sometimes I get annoyed at the idea that because a particular title can be grouped within a so called genre, that means the writing is sub standard. Mystic River is breathtaking in its depiction of working class Boston, the effects of child abuse, and how revenge can go so terribly wrong. Dennis Lehane is a writer, not a crime fiction writer–there is no distinction.
    Anyhoo, I agree with the reality of stocking what will sell, so you can stay in business and hopefully also sell what you like.

  2. Thanks Diane for the positive feedback. I guess it was arrogance on my behalf to think I could run a shop without fiction in it, ignorance as well. I recall one bookshop owner saying “I want to sell books that I like reading.” He lasted less than 12 months in business.
    The mistake that some crime writers make is that they think they can sell books provided they are ultra violent. Some of the best horror is left to the reader’s or viewer’s imagination: think of the notorious “shower scene” in Hitchcock’s Psycho – no in your face blood and guts, just blood running down a shower drain. The viewer becomes a participant in the scene precisely because they have to use their imagination to understand what is going on.

  3. Part of the problem stocking books is people can be fickle and changeable in their reading material. From my own experience in life I know that I’ve gone through phases, especially while growing up where I would jump from Science Fiction to Arthurian to Ufology to Early American Life to Classics to Pirates and then back to the future (Asimov and Bradbury are must stock items). If you can get a bunch of teens that love to read (and have money) to frequent your shop it seems to me you are bound to sell books of many genres.

    Every bookshop should see about getting a local teen reading club started. – Anyone done that and have experiences to share?

    • prying1–I’m dumb–what’s Ufology–wait–UFOs? I wish I had a bookseller like you as a teen–I didn’t discover Bradbury until, gulp, a few years ago. I know, I know. But you must understand that these ‘genre’ labels can really ruin someone’s free choice, lol. All I knew of Bradbury was he wrote Sci Fi, and I can’t abide what I believed encompassed that subject. Oh, had I but known. Something Wicked This Way Comes is everything I love–subject wise. And naturally, Fahrenheit whatever number–I can’t ever remember it, I’m old, is essential reading. Now that I’ve read it. Ha ha.
      Still, you’ll never get me to open an Asimov title!

  4. It is often the case that a person feels they know a lot about books when they open their shop – and overlook the possibility they will never know enough about business – or books. The only constant in this business is change.
    Customers will build a books business for a person who is humble enough to listen and learns what to stock.

    23 years in the books business have taught me any preconceived notions only serve to distract us from being of service to the people who enter our shops hoping to find ‘their’ book.

    The responsibility for failure in this business almost always rests solely on the shoulders and/or the deep pockets of the shop owner.
    Staff often get wrapped up in the romantic idea of the business – but an owner does so at his own peril. Operate it like a business.

    A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

  5. “Operate a bookshop like a business”: that’s an anathema to me. I know a bookshop manager shouldn’t mix emotion in with business but I do! It’s not all about the the bottom line here, bookshop managers should consider themselves the vanguards of culture. I won’t stock, for example, Australia’s number one crime writer: Tara Moss, primarily because I don’t think she can write well and she’s living off her profile as a model (not an intellectual). I try deliberately to stock George Orwell because I taught him at high school and I know he writes well and I like the message he conveys. I am a free spirit and I’ll run my bookshop not according to any hard and fast rules but what my customers ask for and what I think they should be reading.

  6. I will send this short apocryphal ditty on for you to absorb .

    Sometime back in the day , in the early 1970’s in downtown Oakland , California a rather taciturn Asian American man , perhaps Japanese – American , who spoke very little English had a fairly tiny bookstore with plenty of neat wood shelving made from recycled apple boxes reaching to the vertical apex of his fifteen foot ceilings.

    What first amazed me was how much empty space was to be found in the shelving , with some having clusters of books and some being all together empty.

    The area his bookstore occupied was what urban planners would call marginal , though his rent was reasonable , and his price reflected his low cost of opening his doors .

    He opened his doors at I believe 11 : 30 a.m. and remained open until 1 : 30 .

    He was very busy , as every scout , collector , and quoter seemed to appear at about 11 : 15 every morning he was open .

    All forms of books fiction and non fiction , hard bound and trade sized wraps were found here , not organized by subject , but merely by price [ as memory serves . 50 cents , $ 1.00 , and either $ 1.50 or $ 2.00 ].

    His book store had no cat , stuffed chair , stuffy people , classical music , self absorbed pedantic post graduate student clerk , or quaint lamp on a end table to give it charm.

    The charm was in his simple , bare bones approach to book selling , and his resolute aim to turn over his inventory on a regular , if not daily basis.

    Visiting Oakland from our North Carolina home on a rather long road trip buying books gave us plenty of time to hang around the bay area and we made his shop our daily focal point.

    A box of Freemasonry books was ours for fifty cents per title including a set of Mackey’s and three copies of Morals and Dogma.

    An entire collection [ three boxes ] of hockey books , and a slew of others followed most that I do not recall.

    I have no idea how or where this fellow found the books that he sold , though I watched him sell boxes of them to happy customers , leaving his shelves relatively empty.

    So , my little Holiday gift and greeting to the book shlop blog is to perhaps stock your shelves with books that are priced to turn over quickly , not stuff them full of groaners and shelf sitters that your clients will tire of looking at after a few visits.

    What this little fellow knew about selling books many sellers and book store owners never figure out.

    Turnover is a good thing.

    Not a dirty word.

    So , stock your shelves with titles you believe in , take a gamble on some that you do not know , and you will be surprised.

    And finally , consult a crystal ball , or hire a time machine to find out where that fellow in Oakland bought his books at such a reasonable clip to be able to afford to sell them so reasonably and please so many people and still make a profit.

    • I used to work a monthly computer swap meet back in the day when a 20 megabyte hard drive was a huge storage device. My partner and I had one goal and that was to get rid of stuff. All of our stock came from dumpsters so other than gasoline and time cost us nothing. (Many electronic/computer shops would simply ‘switch boards’ to fix a machine’s problem and simply dump the boards they would pull.) Our motto was, “sell cheap and sell a lot.” All our stuff was questionable and no guarantees and our customers knew it but when they could buy three $25-$50 circuit boards for $10 they would take a chance. Quite often they would go home and test the stuff and find they were winners with 1, 2 or sometimes 3 working. They would be back next month. –

      Guard your sources. What finally happened was other dealers started encroaching on our sources of supplies and it got too competitive. The companies would find their dumpsters emptied in the morn with trash strewn all over and took to locking them up. So it goes. It was fun while it lasted.

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