Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Book Store Is Not a Library (This Is Not the Rant You May think It Is)

For an inordinate proportion of my adult life, I have worked as a book store clerk, and I have learned something that may upset book lovers: you sell more books when books are an impulse buy.

If this is upsetting, it's because most readers think of themselves as a cerebral bunch. They're particular about what they read, and they consider their choices carefully. I know this is true, because I've been watching browsers for decades. As they peruse bookstore shelves, they're both hunters and gatherers. But the hunting far exceeds the gathering, and this is for a good reason: book stores are designed to look like libraries. And if you want to sell more books, that's the worst way to do it.

But wait, you may cry, I like the process of digging in the stacks and finding the gems that are hidden there. I like to spend hours browsing. Why would you change a model that's so pleasing to your customers?

The simple answer is that while customers find some hidden gems, they don't find all of them. Not even close. So a lot of good books never sell, and they end up in a bargain bin or being returned to the publisher. The book stores, publishers, and authors lose those sales. Customers may like the fact that they got a good deal on that bargain book, but that model is not sustainable. If a book store is going to stay open, it needs to make more profit.

The store where I work is currently one of the most profitable I've ever seen, despite the fact that it's small. It has the added benefit of being attached to a museum, so we get more traffic, from a wider range of customers. We sell a variety non-book items, like dreamcatchers, small sandpaintings, cards, magnets, etc., and that also widens our appeal. But we have the same flaws that other bookstores do: shelves with most of our titles spined out, shelves that are below knee level, and shelves that are above head level. (The last two flaws also apply to spinners for cards and activity books.)

Spined books are harder to see and harder to sell. If I could re-design our store, I would build display-slot shelves that start at waist level and go up to face level (not over six feet). I would face titles out in these slots. (A lot of State and National Parks have shelves similar to these in their shops.)

Cookbooks and children's books especially benefit from being faced out. Children's illustration is some of the best art being produced today; a kid's book with a great cover stands a very good chance of being picked up by a customer. The same is true of cookbooks with delicious covers. If the dish on the cover makes you hungry, you're much more likely to buy that cookbook than you would be if you simply saw the title on the spine.

Books that are faced out require a lot of section maintenance, and they still need to be organized by title/author and subject. But this allows employees to stay familiar with the stock. And it gives clerks a chance to interact with customers who are looking for particular things. But what about the space above six feet and below waist level?

I think the lower shelves are the perfect place for overstock. If there is room to face things out down there, and you have enough stock, it will break up the monotony of rows of spined-out titles. And to make this stuff easier to see, those shelves should be slanted upward and graduated like steps, so people can see what's down there at a glance instead of having to bend knees that are often sore. Being able to see those books without kneeling or sitting also helps eliminate nincompoops who think it's okay to sit on the floor in front of a bookshelf and read. (Why these folks think no one is going to need to stand in that area to shop, or that no one can trip over them, is beyond me.)

The area above six feet can be used for displaying art, sample t-shirts, and that sort of thing – and in the case of the store where I work, it's a great place to put stuffed animals (a.k.a. plushies). Though we've had many folks inform us that we should have those toys on a level where children can grab them, that is a crummy idea. When kids can grab toys and stuffed animals, they beat them up while the adults who are supposed to be watching them are busy browsing those spined-out titles that are so hard to see. Nine times out of ten, those adults don't buy that item for the kids.

If you really want to sell stuffed animals and toys, place them on a level that the kids can't reach, but a level they can see. In other words, at Grandparent level. Parents practice saying No! All day long, but grandparents are the good cops. I've also had success selling stuffed animals that are displayed alongside children's books that are about that animal.

So diverging from the library model allows buyers for bookstores to think about what sorts of non-book items they can include in their mix. But it also encourages more communication between clerks and visitors who no longer feel constrained to be quiet (as we're all trained to be in libraries). The more you interact with your visitors, the more you get to learn about what appeals to them. You can charm people who are just passing through, and cultivate your regular customers.

Take a good, hard look at the idea of the bookshelf. When you peruse your shelf at home, do you always find the titles you're looking for? (I don't, even thought I try to keep my shelves organized.) Maybe it's time to break away from the library model for displaying books that you're trying to sell.

By the way, a book store is not a coffee shop, either – but that's a rant for another day.