On (not)Selling a Book

There are many categories of books that a bookseller encounters. I’m not talking about a book’s classification: fiction, non-fiction, kids, memoirs, etc. I’m talking about category of personal perspective. These categories (for me, and maybe I’m the only one with them) are (in descending order, with examples): a book I truly and completely loved and only going to sell to someone really discerning and interested (Virginia Woolf or Jonathan Safran Foer); a book I enjoyed and has mass consumption value and will rant and rave about in order to sell (David Benioff or Elizabeth Strout); a book that has received rave reviews but I have not read (Barbara Kingsolver or Paul Auster); a book that has received terrible reviews and have not read (Malcolm Gladwell or John Irving); a book I have not read and know nothing about (Jon Meacham or Thomas Friedman); a book I will show the customer to and not comment upon (Sarah Palin or Stuart Woods); and a book that I will actively encourage a customer not to buy (Tucker Max).

I really only want to focus on this last category. Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is the only book I have ever talked someone out of buying.  It is a terrible “memoir” of a college-age misogynistic barely-human attempting to sleep with women, get drunk, and cause fights. I don’t really care about the drunk fighting and mischief, it’s really the rampant woman-hating.  Women don’t have names, are referred to as sluts and bitches, or their various orifices. I don’t agree with it and I refuse to say anything good about it. If someone chooses not to listen to me, that’s their prerogative.  I don’t, however, offer my opinion unrequested. I’m all for freedom of choice, but if you ask me, I’m going to let you know. And I’m not glossing over it. I may even read a portion out loud.

Now, before you get angry and puffed up about censorship and free speech, let me say this: if you ask a bookseller for their opinion, you’re going to get it, fully raw with fairly extensive reasoning. And even when you don’t ask, you’re already getting it, by the books placed strategically around the store, what’s in the window, what’s on sale, what’s face-out or piled up, opinions, opinions, everywhere.  So I find nothing wrong with sharing my opinion about a book that’s less than quality.

Most booksellers think it’s important to be honest about a book. Maybe not 100% honest, if I have minor problems with a book, I’m not going to share them with a customer that’s interested. If a book got a bad review, it’s likely I would tell them (how likely depends on how chatty I feel). It’s important for people to know, as much as we can lead them, what they’re getting into. And this includes not selling them something that we think/know is fairly crappy.

On this topic, one of the (many) things that bothers me about book-buying online today is this: who can you trust to find you a good book online? Sure, you’ve got your newspaper reviewers, but you don’t know whether they got paid or received some incentive for that review. Or maybe you don’t go for corporate sellout reviewers and rely on personal blogs or Amazon.com customer reviews, but they aren’t any more trustworthy than the media reviewers. You don’t know what other books that person has read or why they liked them (okay, maybe that’s a little unfair because if you’re a consistent reader of a blog, you do know what they have read and liked). I feel that (in addition to paying less money) customers buy books online to feel the independence of choosing their own books and not being told by a bookseller what they would like. I believe this trend is increasingly prevalent in younger customers, accounting for the lack of young (20-30) readers that come into my shop. They don’t want advice, they want to decide for themselves what they like and why. The problem is, your choices are guided by other people, a large group of people who have a vested stake in your choice, they are the publishers. And they care even less about whether you like or dislike a book, their money has been made. To them, you are a sale, an amount of money. Even before the transaction stage is reached, there are choices made about the books available to be bought. The books that are chosen are the ones that will sell the most, that is, those that have the most mass appeal; they are not too academic, too romantic, or too scientific. They are the lowest common denominator.

At least with a bookseller, you can look them in the face, talk to them, find out other things they’ve liked and have a conversation. You can also (almost) guarantee that if a bookseller tells you about a book he/she liked it, because we don’t have to read books we don’t like, no need to waste the time. The personal interaction, and customer independence, is something that gets lost in the discussion of the changes in the bookselling industry.

Bookselling is a capitalist enterprise.  Don’t forget it.


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