Musings of a Reformed Bookseller – Part Two

In last week’s blog, which can be found here, I shared a few of my experiences from my years as a bookseller with Barnes and Noble.  There were good times, there were bad times… there were riotous times.  But most of all, they were unforgettable times.  Those times have come in handy as I navigate this brave new “Indie Author” world.  I like to think the bookseller experience keeps me sane and less focused on the things I can’t control (sales, reviews, etc.) leaving me to concentrate on the things I can (how many books I write, what kind of promotion I do, etc.)

So, here is Part Two of my musings and the things I learned from being a bookseller:

If People Want to Return a Book, They Will
I don’t know what Barnes and Noble’s return policy is these days, but in my day (I sound like such an old codger) it was pretty fair.  Full refund with a receipt within 30 days, store credit with no receipt or exchange for another item in the store, with a store credit for any overage incurred.

For the most part, folks adhered to that.  Of course, there were a few that would try and game the system… like the guy who would always try and return his Time Life photo essay books (the only people who should have been taking those books back, were Time Life).  Or the woman who would come in every two weeks like clockwork with mass market paperbacks (the small paperbacks that you might see for sale in the supermarket) that she always wanted to exchange (she was forever “losing” her receipts).  Then there was the woman who wanted to cash in a $200 store credit (she didn’t get it, though it wasn’t for lack of trying, given the epic tirade she went on in the middle of the store).

There’s been a lot of dust-up recently about readers buying eBooks on Amazon and returning them for full refunds a few weeks later, essentially using Amazon as a library.  Apparently, there’s a petition going around which implores Amazon to limit eBook returns to seven days, reason being that’s ample time to read an eBook and will block readers from ripping off authors.

Well, that’s all well and good in theory, but I rarely read any book within seven days of purchasing it.  More like seven years.  My electronic and print to-be-read piles are in the decade-long backlog by this point.  Full disclosure, I’ve returned four eBooks.  One was an accidental purchase, one was stuffed with typos and bad writing (there may have been a good story hiding under it, but I couldn’t stick around long enough to unearth it), one, while the writing was decent, I didn’t care for the story and the fourth was the third in a series and I decided to buy the print book instead to complete my set.  In the past, there’ve been occasions, not many, where I’ve exchanged print books because it was a book I already had, or was a book that I just didn’t like, so I got something else I wanted instead.   

The truth is, serial returners weren’t going to put any money in your pocket to begin with.  For one, they don’t see that they’re taking money from the author, but think they’re getting over on Amazon/Barnes and Noble/every other retailer out there.  Second, some people just don’t like paying for merchandise, whether it be their library of ripped DVD’s or illegally downloaded music – they enjoy gaming the system.  These are the same folks that keep the torrent sites humming.  I’m certainly not saying it’s right – far from it.  But, it is what it is and “it” is the cost of doing business.  Besides, Amazon already has a policy where it stops refunds to serial returners.   

There are PLENTY of people out there who are more than happy to support authors they like by buying (and keeping) their books.  As an author, I chose to concentrate on them instead.  

Booksellers Can and Will Be an Author’s Greatest Advocate
One of the best things about being a bookseller was the Advanced Reader’s Copies (ARCs) (well and stripped mass markets and I got plenty of those, too).  Every couple of days, publishers would send over a handful of ARCs for booksellers to read and evangelize about when the time came.  Among the ARC’s I read, loved, recommended and still have on my bookshelf are “Your Oasis on Flame Lake,”  Denial,”  and “The Church of Dead Girls.” 

Customers constantly asked us for recommendations and would often come back not only to tell you what they thought, but to thank you for the suggestion.  Aside from the NYT Bestsellers section, the “Staff Recommends” section was perhaps the most popular in the store (each month, a bookseller would select a favorite book and do a little write-up about why they liked it.  Barnes and Noble would then discount the book for customers during that month.)  

I remember 15 or so of us were reading “High Fidelity” at the same time (it wasn’t planned… just kind of happened that way) and completely unprompted, would constantly talk it up to customers (alas, I don’t have it as an ARC, just a plain old book that I bought and still have).  Getting a bookseller’s seal of approval carries a lot of weight.  If a bookseller loves a book, you can’t shut us up. 

In today’s brave new world of publishing, book bloggers are beginning to fill that evangelist role.  Treating the book blogger with respect is so important, because not unlike a book seller, if they like what you write, they will spread the word.  Be nice to them!

You Really Do Have to Write a Lot of Books
Just like customers always want to know what a bookseller will recommend, they always want to know what else an author has available.  They love backlists. LOVE.  When John Grisham’s second book, “The Firm,” exploded, demand went through the roof for his first book, “A Time to Kill,” (where previously, he could barely give it away, as detailed in this charming and insightful essay.).  The minute customers finish a book they love, they are back in a few weeks asking where they can find the rest of Debbie Macomber/Dean Koontz/Sophie Kinsella’s books.  They can’t wait until the next one comes out.  They ask for recommendations of authors similar to Debbie Macomber/Dean Koontz/Sophie Kinsella.  Readers love to read and as a writer you have to feed the beast.

Who knows… as an indie author, I could very well end up on the shelf at Barnes and Noble or some other bookstore.  The tides are changing and indies are gaining more acceptance every day from the mainstream.  If that happens, just shows how once again, things really do come full circle.

As always though, back to writing.