Lacey N. Dunham chronicles her experiences in the land of frontlist and author readings.
10 Myths About Bookselling
MYTH 1: Booksellers Spend All Day Reading
The quiet bookshop nestled on a tree-lined side street. Inside, the bookseller is perched at the register, an open book propped on her knee. Ah, wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend all day reading and discussing books? You spend your workday surrounded by books; ergo, you spend your workday reading them.
I’m not sure about the origin of the luxurious, all-day reading marathon bookselling myth, but it’s an utter fallacy. While booksellers sometimes read the dust jackets or (in the case of Russell Brand memoirs) hold impromptu giggle sessions that are an introvert’s idea of performance art, bookselling is a job.
Books don’t appear on the shelf in such a tidy order instantaneously. Someone has to unpack the FedEx boxes, add the books to the store inventory database, and place each one in the correct section (no Tolstoy in psychology, please!). Think of doing that for 200-300 books each day (double that on a new release day) all while answering phones, fielding customer questions, processing and sending out books ordered online, explaining e-books, setting up chairs for an author reading, hosting the author reading, updating the store’s social media, checking for shelving errors and re-alphabetizing as necessary, researching a rare title for a customer, collecting books for return to the publisher and selling books at the cash register — you understand why booksellers hate when people tell them, “Oh, I would love to sit and just read all day like you do.” Reading is the last thing booksellers have time to do.
MYTH 2: Booksellers Make Lots of Money, Otherwise Books Wouldn’t Cost So Much
Here’s an industry joke about bookstore proprietors that I think applies equally to booksellers:
Q: How do you make a small fortune in bookselling?
A: Start out with a large fortune.
Yes, books aren’t getting any cheaper, but neither is milk, bread, or a new car. At the bookstore where I work, customers often haggle over the jacket price under the assumption that we control all aspects of the publishing industry. The assumption is ridiculous, of course; books arrive at independent bookstores long after the author’s advance, the marketing budget, the printing costs, and the publisher’s staff (all except the interns) is paid. A bookstore typically makes only 35% of the price set by the publisher. If a bookstore discounts that cover price by 15% or 20%, that’s halving our revenue. And because independent bookstores aren’t in a position to price gouge the way Amazon or non-book retailers like Wal-Mart and Target can, we can’t give you a 50% discount because the cover has a teeny, tiny dent. Booksellers aren’t rolling in the scrilla. For many of us, bookselling is a career we do as a labor of love. None of us are getting rich from it—but if you are topping off your bank account with this gig, I’d like to know if your store is hiring.
MYTH 3: Bookselling Isn’t a Career (i.e. so when are you getting a real job?)
A colleague of mine describes herself as a “professional bookseller” and she’s experienced several eye rolls and questions such as “so what does that mean?” or “why?” Many of my colleagues have worked in bookselling for a decade or more.
We receive dozens applications each week (since the recession that number has tripled). When applicants are asked why they want to work for us and the response is, “I’m looking for a fun job,” their application goes to the bottom of the pile. Ditto for anyone whose favorite books are all staples of high school English classes. If you haven’t read a book since high school and you’re thirty-three, how are you going to keep up with the hundreds of books published weekly?
Although bookselling isn’t as lucrative as a law or business career, it’s still a career choice for literarily minded individuals who love working with the public by day and devouring books by night. Besides, if the legitimacy of a career is based on that career’s annual salary, than booksellers shouldn’t be the only ones asked by well-meaning family and friends when we’re finally going to get a “real” job: teachers, social workers, electricians, and pastors should have to field this question, too.
MYTH 4: Bookselling Is a Low-Stress Job
People who think bookselling is low-stress have obviously never worked retail on Black Friday. Any job is going to have high points and low moments; however, when you’re working with the public, it’s impossible to know if the next person who walks up to you is having the best day of his life and will shower you with rainbows and smiles or if he just lost the all-important Schnizicki account at work and is stomping into the bookstore like Godzilla.
Maybe I’m someone who inspires intense rage in others, but in my almost four years as a bookseller, here’s a partial list of things people have said to me (all one-hundred percent true):
- You’re an idiot
- You’re stupid
- You’re an unhelpful little girl
- Thanks for ruining Christmas
- You’re so hateful
- This is why my kids are getting a college education
- Where are all the nice, happy booksellers today?
- Stupid bitch
- You’re everything but a whore
Add to this a customer who — furious that his gift-wrapping was not “perfect,” —tore the wrapping paper from his book, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it at my colleague who had wrapped the present.
Rudimentary name-calling and wrapping paper assault aside, bookselling is the most enjoyable of the stressful jobs I’ve had, although the horrors of the holiday shopping season still tremor through my body in nightmares.
MYTH 5: Booksellers Know Everything About Every Book Ever Published Since Gutenberg Invented the Printing Press
Booksellers possess pride in knowing the ins and outs of recently published books. However, if you’re looking for a book and you can’t recall the author, the title, what the book is about, where you heard about the book, or whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, we’re not going to be much help beyond recommending other books you might enjoy.
If a customer tells me she’s looking for a book by a man and there’s a girl in it but she can’t remember the author or the title, I give her Lolita. If she’s looking for “that popular book about the animals”: Animal Farm. “That controversial book my book club is reading”: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “The book with a red cover and the word ‘the’ in the title”: The Joy of Sex. I’m a bookseller, not a magician. My dark-framed glasses and skinny jeans possess only so much magic.
MYTH 6: Booksellers Are Literature Snobs
Okay, okay: perhaps a tiny nugget of truth glimmers in this myth. After all, plenty of booksellers are armed with bachelor and master’s degrees in English literature and creative writing, so a certain disdain bred of wild jealousy at someone else’s manic success (usually of the John Grisham variety) is to be expected. And while you’re likely to find that one bookseller at every store who claims they only enjoy seventeenth-century Restoration era literature of the French persuasion, you’ll also find booksellers wild about J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and other “commercial” writers. We booksellers see ourselves as gatekeepers of literature for consumption so we’re often shy (or downright snooty) about sharing our guilty pleasures, but don’t let us fool you with our disparaging comments about the masses: our bedside reading table includes Game of Thrones and Infinite Jest.
MYTH 7: Booksellers Have No Other Interests and Only Talk About Books All Day
The most satisfying and intellectually stimulating conversation I’ve
ever had on the topics of our “post-race” culture and the deconstruction
of meaning behind Orko’s curious garb both occurred while
MYTH 8: Booksellers Just Want to Sell You Something
Ninety-nine percent of booksellers aren’t used car salesmen. We want you to find a book you’ll love because reading should be a passionate endeavor driven by your lust for another page. Whether you pine for the writing of Suzanne Collins, Charlene Harris, or Roberto Bolaño, booksellers are enablers and we want you to go home satisfied. It’s our little trick to keep you coming back for your fix.
MYTH 9: Bookselling is Dead (or Dying)
“The book is dead!”
With all the articles, essays and blog posts on the book’s malignant Kindle tumor—and now, the Amazon Encore cancer—the death knell of the book and subsequent eulogies for bookstores and bookselling are appearing everywhere.
But haven’t we managed in the centuries since Gutenberg? Bookselling is changing but it’s not dead. The entire publishing and retail book industry is experiencing a titanic shift and while this will result in a few casualties, one or two missing limbs (or the entire collapse of Borders) it isn’t the same as flat lining. Publishers are worried. Writers are worried. Bookstore owners are worried. The next few years will be rocky but I firmly believe—and the news of bookstores thriving in the face of Borders decline and Amazon’s giant paws dirtying everything should be proof—that bookselling and books are going to survive.
MYTH 10: That Cute Bookseller You’ve Been Flirting With Won’t Date You
One of my bosses averaged one phone number a week from male and female customers. Even though he worked in a personal Match.com
factory, he was hesitant to pursue even the best looking offers. He
explained that he didn’t want to cross the customer-bookseller line. I
think he simply didn’t have room in his basement apartment for himself,
his thousands of books, and a love interest.
I, too, received occasions of courting; in one memorable instance, the customer and I talked at length about our mutual love for the poet Eavan Boland. He ordered a book of hers we didn’t carry and when he returned to pick it up a week later, I happened to be at the cash register. He paid for the book, tucked an enveloped letter inside, and handed it to me. The letter was a passionate, typewritten (yes, on an actual typewriter) entreaty for “a walk in Dupont Circle sometime” and more book discussions like the one we’d shared. Unfortunately, the title of the book was Domestic Violence, not exactly the type of wooing Jane Austen would approve. Doubly unfortunate is that I carried a deep secret with me to work — I was six months into a relationship with my now partner. Where did I meet her? At my bookstore, selling her a book.