About one year ago, the story broke that Borders, the trash heap of brick & mortar bookstores, had begun to employ the radical, experimental system of displaying books face out in order to increase their visibility to the customer. The company received glowing praise in an article written by Jeffrey Trachtenberg for the Wall Street Journal (see my post on the subject from March 2008) and harsh criticism from every indie bookseller with a pulse. (My friend & co-worker, Scott Ehrig-Burgess, finally got himself published because of this news item, in the form of a brilliant letter to the WSJ‘s editor. Again, see my previously mentioned post.) I thought that that was fairly insulting – the idea that Borders was the first bookseller to realize that books are printed with visually attractive jacket covers – but this week’s “breaking story” is far, far worse in my mind.
In an AP story written by Hillel Italie, it is revealed that Borders also is responsible for making select books, such as David Benioff’s City of Thieves, into huge national bestsellers simply by “handselling” them to their customers. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “handselling”, think of every time you have been into a Borders or a Barnes & Noble and have asked a sales person for a book recommendation. If you have ever received a reply to this inquiry, rather than a blank stare, this would qualify as handselling. At least half of the books sold at independent bookstores are handsells, whether the staff literally puts the book right into your hand, or if they just talk it up enough that you seek it out yourself, or if there is just an impassioned, written recommendation sticking out of the book – this is handselling. My book reviews and recommendations on this website – handselling. If your corporate office decides that you need to place a certain title at your front counter, this is not handselling.
“…the idea was to select a few works favored by Borders national sales officials and promote them nationwide in the spirit of a local seller, from prominent placement to personally advocating (“hand-selling”) books in the stores.” (from the AP article)
Not handselling. Handselling 101: when our primary book buyer passed over the book, The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany back in 2006, I decided to order 5 copies for the store, since I had read it and loved it. I knew, without a doubt, that I could put this book in the hands of my customers – people who read and look to our booksellers for recommendations – and they would read it, enjoy it, and tell their friends about it. After selling over 400 copies in 3 years, it still resides on our bestseller display, with a written recommendation attached, for the times when I am not there, personally, to espouse on its many attributes. This is handselling.
Borders says its weekly market share for City of Thieves has been as high as 69 percent. Don Redpath, Penguin’s executive director of national account sales for paperbacks, would not confirm that number, but said that Borders has had “an early and intensive impact on sales.”
(For the record, “director of national account sales” means that Redpath is the head of Penguin’s sales force for the national chain stores, like Borders and B&N.)
City of Thieves was handsold to me by our Penguin/Putnam sales rep, Tom Benton, the recent recipient of Publishers Weekly’s Sales Rep of the Year Award. Tom simply talked it up and I took a chance. He had actually read the book and gave a passionate speech about why he cared about it, why it separated itself from the rest of his list, and why he thought I should read it as well. Benton was also the sales rep who repeatedly sent me copies of Ron Carlson’s Five Skies back in ’07 until I read it. He also gave me a manuscript of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet last Fall. Forget for a minute that Tom is acting as a sales representative for a company – he put all three of these books in my hands simply because he knew my reading habits and that I would end up loving them and in turn handselling them to my customers as well. H-a-n-d-s-e-l-l-i-n-g. And he was right. Righter than right, as those were the best books I read in their respective years. And I don’t care what sales figures the Borders executives throw around concerning City of Thieves – Benioff knows who butters his bread. When I met him last month, I apologized for only having 75 people at his Saturday evening book signing. He laughed, thanked me, and said that he had had a signing at a Borders or a Barnes & Noble somewhere else in California and only 5 people showed up. Five. The only explanation for this is that it occurred prior to the new “handselling” policy. As for the 69% market share: Borders has over 900 stores in the US (including their Waldenbooks, Borders Express, etc) and they’re still only the second-largest book retailer nationwide. There is only one Warwick’s. How much market share can we possibly take when the world is overwhelmed by chain stores? We’ve sold over 100 hardbacks and over 100 paperbacks of City of Thieves – I’m pretty happy with that. That’s 200 happy people who have had their book needs met by hand-tailored bookselling.
Handselling books is at the fundamental core of bookselling. Recommending books that you have read and personally enjoyed should never be a matter of corporate policy. This should be the enjoyable part of work for the bookseller – how great is it to just talk about books all day? The Borders idea of the handsell is not having booksellers walking the sales floor, asking customers if they need help, tailoring book recommendations to their specific tastes – it is instead sending large quantities of certain titles to their stores, featuring the titles in large, colorful displays, and asking, at the checkout counter, “Would you like a City of Thieves with that?” Books are not hamburgers or checkout aisle candybars – there is something inherently personal about books. That personal element is the reason I write about books in my spare time. It is the reason you are right now reading what I have written. Booklovers have a personal stake in these items of paper, ink, and glue – they are more than just afterthoughts at the supermarket. Books are the reason some of us get up every morning – some days the only part I enjoy about my job is convincing someone that this book that I hold in my hands is The One. This is the best book you will read this year. This book will change the way you think, the way you read, the way you feel about all other books you have ever read before and will change the way you will read every other book for the rest of your life.
Each book we select leads to the next – they are not to be taken lightly or as simply part of the retail bottom line. True, Borders has a massive share of the book market, yet they are struggling mightily to maintain. Every time we read about the dire straights they are in, they bust out with a tried and true independent bookstore method for selling books. Maybe it is we who are on to something. Where is my AP article? Where is my feature in the Wall Street Journal? I crave not these these things – I will instead go back to quietly telling my friends about the incredible book I have just read. It will change your life…