Musings of a Reformed Bookseller – Part One

I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t watch “Mad Men.”  No doubt, it’s a fantastic show, judging by the amount of commercial and critical acclaim it’s garnered over the years.  However, I worked in advertising for a number of years, so I lived “Mad Men,” and don’t want to relive it, thank you very much.  Just know that, no matter how much weed they’re smoking, liquid lunches they’re having or sex they’re having under the desk… it was ten times that in real life. Trust. 

Once you’ve seen how the sausage is made, you don’t really want to eat the sausage anymore.

While I resist (quite easily) all efforts to be swept away by “Mad Men” mania, my past as a Barnes and Noble Bookseller doesn’t invoke the fetal position the way mentions of the ad industry do.  Quite the opposite, as I really do consider it to be my favorite job (present career as a suspense novelist most definitely excluded) and one I look back on with (mostly) fondness.

Image from
I haven’t been a bookseller for a long time, but it doesn’t matter; it’s kind of like the Hotel California – once you check in, you never leave.  To this day, if I walk into a bookstore, I can’t resist straightening displays, turning books face-out or directing a befuddled looking customer to the fiction section. 

Having the experience of working on that side of publishing has helped me stay philosophical about my own writing career.  This week, I share three reasons why; next week, I’ll share three more:

Unless You’re Pat Conroy, Book Signings Don’t Sell Books  
Back in the mid-90s, when book superstores popped up across the country like weeds, the book signing event was like Mecca.  People would plan their whole month around what authors were scheduled to do signings and readings.  Seriously.  The store I worked at was considered an A-Store, due to our location (near Northwestern University) and our revenue (No. 1 in the region for a time).  We had A LOT of big name authors come in to do signings, including the aforementioned Pat Conroy, David Brinkley, James Patterson, David Sedaris, Roger Ebert and countless others.  Those were always the events with lines out the door. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with other authors.  Even though we were a high-traffic store in a great location and we would promote the hell out of every book signing with promotional posters, ads, mailings and PR placements, more often than not, midlist, critically acclaimed (even some bestselling authors who weren’t household names) would only see a fraction of those crowds at their signings.  Fortunately, many of them were good sports about it and would sign stock, chat up other booksellers, and just hang out in the café to talk shop.  Still, it was always disappointing for all of us when five people would show up to see them.

This guy can pack 'em in.  (Image from
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but more often than not, book signings are less about sales than they are a way to meet readers and make connections.  Unless you’re Stephen King, it’s highly unlikely you’ll sell a gazillion books.  Still, even if you only sell five books, that’s five readers you’ve made a connection with and that’s gold. 

If Readers Don’t Like Your Book, No Amount of Promotion in the World Will Make Them 
I can still remember when Oprah started her book club; it triggered an unprecedented national book buying frenzy that had publishers drooling and bookstores scrambling for stock.  Of course, since we were in Chicago, we could have told her producers what would have happened.  While Oprah aired in the afternoon in the rest of the country, here, she came on at 9 a.m.  Anytime she would feature a book, it was guaranteed that at 10 a.m., our phones would start ringing off the hook, demanding to know if we had “the book that was on Oprah this morning.”  Every. Time.  I even had a customer ask me if I could print her a list of all the books that had been featured on Oprah the week before.  This was the mid-90’s, so people weren’t yet glued to their Crackberry’s and iPhones and there was no  Alas, it wasn’t something we could do, so I told her to call Harpo (Oprah’s production company).

Image from
As I said, the success of the Book Club wasn’t a surprise to us in Chicago at all.  And while those authors enjoyed an insane amount of publicity when Oprah chose their book, many of them saw their follow-up books sink like stones.  Readers just didn’t take to them.  There was one author whose book was chosen as an Oprah pick and went on to be made into a movie as a result of the buzz and sales it garnered.

Unfortunately, that author’s next book tanked.  Horribly.  It was heavily promoted and we had hundreds in stock.  And not one book sold.  Even though readers had gobbled up the previous book, for whatever reason, they just didn't like the second one. Those books were ordered pulled from the shelves and returned to the publisher within two weeks. 

There were plenty of other publishing sensations (not Oprah picks) who saw dizzying heights with one book, only to wind up in the return bin with the next.  They had the publishing machine behind them, the press and the co-op space (huge displays in the front of a bookstore, be it prominent table displays, stepladders or kiosks.  Publishers pay BIG money for that placement).  Moral of the story?  Having a publishing machine behind you is awesome, of course, but it isn’t the Holy Grail. 

People Never Remember the Name of the Book.  Ever.
I touched on this in my recent guest blog at Riley Bank’s Writer’s Shack.  If I had a dollar for every time I had to guess the book a customer was looking for, because they didn’t know the title, I could have had an early retirement.  They will always remember that they read in “USA Today” that Sandra Brown has a new book, but didn’t write down the name.  They know Alexander McCall Smith writes about the ladies detective agency in Africa.  They know the book they saw on the new release shelf last week was blue/red/green (I was even asked once if the computer categorized the books by color.  Not.  Joking.). 

Because of this, it’s always good to brand your name, not your book.  Because no one will ever, EVER remember the title of your book.  Unless it’s “Fifty Shades of Grey.”  Or “Twilight.”  

Next week: The Wonder of ARCs, Gaming the System and Why You Must Keep Writing



  1. Bravo for this post. Name branding is so important, and I'm happy to read this from someone who knows the business. Enjoyed this blog Bianca, so happy I stopped by!

  2. Thanks, Clara! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Stop by next week for Part 2 :)


Post a Comment