Monday, 28 November 2011

Thoughts on Bookselling

I’m currently the SFF buyer at Blackwell’s on Charing Cross Road in London. I’ve had two brief instances of being a bookseller before my current incarnation. The first was at Forbidden Planet in Southampton about nine years ago, then as a seasonal worker in Waterstone’s at Piccadilly about six years ago.

As retail jobs go, bookselling is at the nicer end of the spectrum and Blackwell’s is no exception. As you can probably tell from reading this blog, I like books. A lot. And I like to think the last few months at Blackwell’s has given me some insights.
Here they are:

Ever wondered why bookstores don’t have a copy of that book you really wanted? It’s a classic, right? Surely they should have at least one copy on hand?

Well, yes. Here’s how it works (or at least my understanding of it). The buyer orders the book. It can’t be returned to the supplier for a minimum of three months. After that it can be sent back. Books over a year old old count as ‘aged stock’ and end up in the remainder bin at a significant mark down. This means that a book needs to be picked up anytime from the day it hits the shelf to around nine or ten months. After this time the buyer will attempt to return it to the supplier (if he’s on his game).

Ever thought those ‘we recommend’ cards written in barely legible scrawl are just there so the staff can wax lyrical about their favourite books?

Well, they actually work. Yeah, I was surprised too. Admittedly some of my recommends cards are for really obvious classics (Dune, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) just on the off chance someone who has never picked up an SFF book before staggers over from Crime, or ‘General Fiction’.

I wrote a card for Simon Morden’s Equations of Life, and I’m pleased to say this has ticked over nicely. Anno Dracula is my staff pick at the front of the shop. I also have copies in SFF and General Fiction. The result? We’ve shifted about eight copies a month since I started. Not bad for a book that wasn’t even on the shelf before I joined.

Success brings it’s own rewards. Through technology. After a book sells more that three copies in a year it becomes ‘Core Stock’. This means the computer system flags it up every time it sells out and orders in more (typically one or two more copies). Neat, huh?

Bookselling is slow, and not unlike Twitter: most of the activity seems to occur when you’re not looking (or on a day off). I’ve had a few instances where I’ve suggested titles to customers. By far the rarest situation was a fellow serving in the forces, about to go on tour in Afghanistan for three months. He said he was looking for ‘something post-apocalyptic’, to which I suggested The Reapers are Angels by Alden Bell. We talked about what he liked and I tried to make educated guesses to suit.

Best conversation with a customer ever.

I left him to browse and he walked out with the Bas Lag books, End of the World Blues by Jon Courtney Grimwood, the aforementioned Reapers are Angels, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan and plenty more. £60 later and he was on his way to Afghanistan with some serious SFF to fill in the hours off duty. Those customers come along all too rarely, but they make the job worthwhile and give a measure of satisfaction I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere.