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March 10, 2006

An Idea for Booksellers

Today John Scalzi briefly discusses his attitude about genre fiction vs. lit fiction.

This quote got me thinkin':

The boundaries between genres will exist as long as they help to sell books. I think that's fine, but I think booksellers also need to help train readers to accept there is more out there than their favorite genres (publishers too, although to a lesser extent ...

How would a bookseller go about training a reader to read outside the immediate genre? Well, I have a modest suggestion: Amazonify the physical bookstore.

Indy booksellers already have shelf-talkers, those cards they stick to the bottom edge of a shelf (usually written by staff) telling you that this particular book is particularly worth reading. (They have these in wine stores, too, for which I am eternally grateful.) The shelf-talker gives a brief description of the book and also, if possible, a sort of overview of the type of book you're getting.

Well, why not add an "if you like this book, you'll love _______" shelf talker to the best-sellers? Say, for example, you put an amazon talker underneath Dan Brown's Davinci Code, saying people who like that book will love: Eco's The Name of the Rose, Kostova's The Historian, or Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Or you could put an amazon talker under Frey's A Million Little Pieces saying people who liked that will love: Bukowski's Post Office, Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, and Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

The key here is:
1) to find one solid point of comparison between the original book and the recommended books, not to try to find books that are truly alike. For example, the recommended books for Davinci Code are all mysteries set in lush, romantic, partly-hidden milieus. The recommended books for A Million Little Pieces are memoirs of difficult times in the author's life.
2) to make sure that the recommended books cross over into other genres.
3) to make sure that the recommended books are better than the original book.

Then you give a discount: if you buy one book on an amazon talker list, you get the second book from the same list half off. Or maybe just all books on an amazon talker list are 30% off.

I would love it if a bookseller did this. I'd much rather see this in a bookstore than on amazon. It would make going to bookstores more fun.

Oh, and I have one more suggestion: you know those book clubs some bookstores run? Well, rather than have one book per month, have two, and select two books that have something solid and interesting in common, but are from different genres.


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As an ex-bookseller, I can say that I would LOVE to have been able to do this. The problem is that chain stores tend to specify even what books can be recommended. (We occasionally got a "booksellers' favorites" section, but even then we were instructed to fill the slots with a) hardcover books that b) were already selling well.) Discounts are even more strictly regulated.

(Of course, a lot of people point to these things as reasons why independent bookstores are better, but as a devoted genre reader, I rarely if ever find what I'm looking for in independent stores.)

I agree with you, though -- these would make book shopping more fun for ME, even if most others didn't pick up more books from different genres. The problem, I think, rests with the companies themselves rather than the booksellers.

chain stores tend to specify even what books can be recommended. (We occasionally got a "booksellers' favorites" section, but even then we were instructed to fill the slots with a) hardcover books that b) were already selling well.) Discounts are even more strictly regulated.

interesting. i didn't know that about the chains. do you mean even the indy-competition chains like barnes and noble or borders?

also, i agree about not having my genre needs satisfied by indy bookstores ... unless they're specialty stores of course. but then, i don't buy all my books from one store. maybe that's the key: indy bookstores of general interest will point you to the specialty genre bookstores they partner with when they don't have what you want. in return, the genre bookstores will point customers to their general interest partners when they don't have whatever it is. then the bookstores themselves train their customers to shop at more than one bookstore, rather than automatically turning to amazon.

i have another idea (i'm full of them tonight. i just got home, skin-full of wine): why not have a table with recommended books that are discounted? have different "classes" of discounts: these books are $4, these $6, these $8, etc. (this could be done with remainders), and then put a sign up asking what their book buying budget is for today, and suggesting that they round out their budget by picking up a cheap book.

obviously, not everyone gives themselves a book-buying budget. this would encourage them to think about book-buying like they think about groceries ... or tithing ;). rather than restricting their book-buying habits, however, i bet this would encourage them to buy a little more, because they would want to buy up to their budget by filling in that $4 hole with a remainder or a mass market paperback.

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