Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The art of hand-selling

by Jessica

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, I attended the Middle East Studies Association conference, which is the yearly gathering of scholars of the Middle East. With its panels and papers, receptions and speeches, it is probably not unlike academic conferences of other disciplines, except that the music at the Sunday night dance party was Arab pop (if you’ve never heard the Middle East’s answer to Madonna, she’s worth a listen: check out Nancy Ajram on youtube) and among the post-docs getting down were a daunting number of accomplished belly dancers.

I go to MESA to get a sense of the ideas percolating in the field, sit in on assorted lectures, and meet with potential and existing clients whose research crosses over from an academic to a mainstream readership. This year, while helping out friends and former colleagues, I also had the memorable opportunity to moonlight as a bookseller. I have limited experience in the retail end of publishing; as an agent I’m in the business of selling books, but I’ve never tried it on a copy-by-copy basis. The experience was instructive, and I emerged from my adventure with a renewed sense of respect for the business of hand-selling.

It quickly became obvious that matchmaking between book and customer is both art and science—in this case I happened to know the books I was selling quite well, but to occupy that sweet spot between helpful and obtrusive was a wholly different challenge. When I convinced a browsing professor to purchase a novel I’d particularly loved, I was immoderately pleased. That she was already very likely interested in the subject I was peddling in no way diminished my sense of accomplishment. Other artisanal processes, like making cheese or crafting small batch whisky seem to be enjoying a renaissance, but hand-selling books, and the people who do it, ably and for real, are faring less well. Perhaps the book industry needs its own answer to the locovore movement. (Perhaps it’s out there—if yes, let me know).

Programs like B&N Discover and Borders Original Voices are efforts to scale up the hand-sell, and I like these programs immensely, but I note them professionally perhaps more than I respond to them personally. I’m curious to know how you all respond to them—ditto Amazon recommendations. Amazon’s ability to target my interests is undermined by the fact that I use the site as a research tool more often than I do to make purchases, but maybe you have better luck. Shelf talkers are great, but for me, nothing beats interested, widely read booksellers with whom I can speak; not only are they brilliant at suggesting books, they see the publishing industry from a perspective of the buyers who keep it alive. These days I’m particularly fond of New York’s Idlewild bookstore, which specializes in books on international themes—travel, world lit, etc.

But as I suspect is the case with many of you, indie bookshops have always had a special place in my heart. When I was growing up, each year, probably right about this time, my parents (both inveterate readers of nonfiction) would report to our local bookshop, where the owner would recommend a raft of novels that were just right for me. The stack that ended up beneath the tree, selected by Santa Claus, never disappointed. When, eventually I figured out that it was the bookstore owner and not St. Nick doing the selecting, it did not render the achievement any less magical. I was, however, crushed when the store closed (take that Virginia). Imaginary though he is, Santa’s position seems more secure than that of the independent bookseller, a figure whom I hope will not become a ghost of holidays past, as Jane touched on recently.


  1. The literary equivalent of the locavore movement is the blog. Handselling is all about relationships - becoming trusted, being personal.

  2. The Daring Novelist is right -- I've found a lot of good books on blogs. And my favorite book stores are the ones, independent or chain, where the clerks are obviously readers themselves.

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