Big Reading Bitch

Further to my comments on Lord of the Rings winning the BBC’s Big read me old mucker Ariel has a rather good series of observations on both the predictable response from the so-called ‘literary’ commentators and also some of the implications for publishers and booksellers. He’s certainly right on the money when he talks of just what a goldmine a well-managed SF&F section can be because it brings in so many repeat customers who are loyal to that shop – hell it becomes their shop – because the people running it know what they’re doing, speak their language, run the right events, book clubs etc. And the result is solid sales month after month, someting I’m sure he’s more than familair with from his days in Waterstone’s in sunny Deansgate and their huge SF area.

Those solid sales also give you the support necessary to try experimenting with riskier new titles and writers – innovation and adaptation are always necessary in any business, book or otherwise but you need a solid, core business you can rely on to underwrite the riskier stuff. It’s something I’ve always tried to do over my decade of running a mid-sized but pretty comprehensive fantastic fiction section. I’ve always seen reviews and recommendations, in store and in the Alien, as a bedrock of the process of highlighting new work and writers – especially since the mainstream media are so often hostile to the genre – and keeping an eye on the sorts of things my regulars buy and ask for.

And so we went from three or four graphic novels – for example – when I started to several drops of them new, turning over thousands every year – sales many of my colleagues in other bookstore lose out on, but more fool them. And guess, what? By the time the mainstream world caught up to what we all knew and started feting writers/artists like Joe Sacco for Palestine or giving Chris Ware the Guardian New Book Award for Jimmy Corrigan we were waaaaayyyy ahead. When it hit the headlines everyone sold out right away and the publisher was caught out in reprint because they didn’t think it would win. We on the other hadn had stacks in our branch and sold and sold and sold because we believed in it and were ready for it Why? Because we knew what the good stuff was, we had it in, we shared it with our regulars and they rewarded us by buying lots of them. Our sales go up and the boss, even in these ‘how many units can we shift’ days where head offices try to run bookstores like retail supermarkets generally gives us carte blanche to add new titles, run book reading groups and hold events because he knows pretty much all of brings in far more loyal buyers, more sales, higher profile with other book buyers who these happy shoppers recommend us to, good relations with local writers who sign stock and give talks for us which brings in more readers and buyers…

So the commerical interest is served and more books are sold and reputations built up which bring in more customers, while the SF&F booksellers get some small satisfaction from being able to introduce readers to new writers they didn’t know about. Despite all the bad things in my job these days I still get a damned good feeling when a customer picks up a book because one of us recommended it adn they thought, never heard of this, but, yes, this sounds good, let’s try it and we also feel good when we know we’re helping to boost sales and profile of a new writer. Those folks who pick them up come back again and again and I reckon some of them get a kick out of knowing they were in on the ground floor of a new writer like Ricahrd Morgan or Ken Macleod or Jon Courtney Grimwood because they read them before they became big because they saw them recommended early on in their careers when few folk knew who they were and went for it. And as Ariel says in his article, these people are drawn back to the genre and the smart bookseller knows how to use this. So we get to boost the profile of our favourite genre and the store gets better sales which lets us try more new things. We’re still doing it, adding new styles, writers and genres to our section. I’ll add some Gothic fun like Lenore, Boneyard, 30 Days of Night

or Gloom Cookie and Alex will keep tinkering around, adding Lupin and his beloved Nauassica Mangas. Keeps us interested, broadens our range and gives more sales to even more customers. I have a lady from out of town who comes in every few months and buys a pile of books for her boys. Since they polished off Potter and Pratchett she asked for recommendations a while back. Last time she was in and asked for more. As she took some of my suggestions she told me that our in-store recomendations and the reviews on the Alien that I’d told her about were now largely shaping her boys’ reading habits. Now that’s pretty rewarding as a bookseller and as a business you can be sure you’ve got those people for life if you treat them right.

Now if only we got a decent pay for all of this… And decent working conditions…. And enough staff… And a head office who would just let us get on with doing what we know to do… And lots of sexy cyberbabes at our events who like booksellers… And …