Why Bookselling
Isn't Working For You

by Craig Stark

#30, 8 November 2004

Part I: Are You Hungry?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is addressed to booksellers who're struggling. If you're succeeding - and I hope you are - it's likely you already know what I'm about to say and your time would probably be best spent elsewhere.

When I started coaching baseball, I was by no means new to the game. I'd played it as a kid and young adult (also played 12-inch softball as an adult) and had watched my oldest son's games from the bleachers for years. When my youngest son began to play, I started down the same path - as a spectator only. However, after a particularly bad experience with a coach in his second year, he started making noises about wanting to quit. Playing soccer or something else. That's when I finally stepped in, thinking that I might be able to do something to prevent another bad experience and perhaps show him how to find something of value in the game. I confess that there was some personal interest afoot too - I mean, I don't have anything against soccer (or soccer moms), but the thought of watching a herd of panting kids kick a ball all over hell for a few hours 2 or 3 times a week on mown fields wasn't something I was actively seeking to supplement my life with. For me, the fields needed clay too. 4 bases. A mound.

So, for several seasons I assisted other coaches - I didn't manage any teams - and yeah, I could see that it did help my son. He played better and genuinely grew to like baseball, especially when we worked on it at home. There was only one problem. The teams he played on were never very good. Some of them flat out stunk. One of them went 1 - 17 for the year, and they won that one game only because the team they were playing almost impossibly self-destructed in the last inning of the last game of the season. Say what you will about attaching too much importance to winning, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that kids who lose 17 games in a row do not look forward to playing the 18th. Feed them a diet of losing game after game after game for a year or so, and most of them will eventually come to the same place: "Daddy, is it ok if I play soccer next year?"

During my assistant-coaching years, I saw lots of coaches at work up close, certainly some different and questionable approaches to coaching, and in addition, I made a point of watching the successful ones from the opposite dugout - you know, the ones who coached the teams my son was playing against! Not to be cynical, but success wasn't always earned. Many times it happened in spite of the coaching. If Little League baseball is anything, it's political, and it's shameful at times how some parents work quietly, surreptitiously to stack teams. Anyway, as I saw it, good coaches, those who taught kids something about achievement and gave them at least one good reason to pursue it, were few and far between. That's when I stepped in again, this time to manage. I was concerned that my son might grow accustomed to a pattern of underachievement, think it normal, have it adversely affect him later in life, and I wanted him to experience at least some success before he threw up his hands and left baseball for good.

If I could pull it off.

Frankly, I didn't know at the outset how successful I'd be as a manager, but I definitely had a working knowledge of what didn't work. More importantly, I knew why it didn't work. Example: the pep talk. Trying to get a team to play hard by pumping them up with some sort of Knute Rockne tirade. Almost every coach tries this at least once, some do it regularly, and some believe in it with everything they are. True, once in a great while it works if it's precisely what's needed at a precise, telling moment in history, but every other time - not. If you don't believe me, try watching the faces of the players during the painful process of being inspired.

I vividly recall one of my son's coaches drawing on his background in the Marines to inspire the team to play better. It was almost comical at the time, and even now my son and I still laugh about it.

"Are you hungry?" he'd ask the team?

Chorus: "Yes, sir."

Then he'd ask again, louder, this time spacing, almost spitting the words out: "Are ... you ... hungry?"

"Yes, sir!"

Then, usually a third time, louder yet, this time with eyes afire, neck veins popping in bold, pulsating relief. And of course by then it wasn't a question anymore. It was a command: "Are you hungry!"

"Yes, sir!!"

"I can't hear you!"

"Yes, sir!!!" And then they'd merrily trot onto the field and lose another game.

Before the final game of the season, plainly frustrated at how ineffectual these talks were, he took a completely opposite approach. Instead of attempting to pump the kids up, he tried to relax them. "Guys, think of this as a day at the beach. Stay loose. Go out and have some fun." La, la, la.

Well, they didn't. Have fun, that is. But they did lose again.

Funny thing is, there isn't anything wrong with feeling hungry, wanting something so much you can taste it. A certain amount of hunger, enthusiasm, etc., can help the cause in any competition. But trying to pound energy into 11 or 12 10-year-olds by shouting at them won't - I guarantee it - get it done. It doesn't teach them how to win or achieve; at best it only gives them a temporary kick in the butt, and unfocused, short-lived, externally-driven energy won't win any game, anytime. No, this kind of energy has to come from within - from a certain quiet, steadily added-to source. This is where good coaching can make a difference. (More about this in the next article.)

Ok, I'm finally here. Like it or not - and I do understand that some of you feel that intense competition isn't healthy - bookselling is inevitably competitive too. There are winners and losers. Based on what I've been seeing in bookselling forums during the past 6 or 8 months, I'd guess that there are lots of losers. Many more now than there ever have been. Things have always been competitive, but my gosh, it's white hot now. Stop by any (non-BookThink) forum on most any day, and you'll surely see a topic headed like this: "Sales? What are those?"

Sadly, for the first time since I've been selling on eBay, I'm seeing notes from many veteran sellers, some with feedback well into the thousands, who can no longer make a go of it. The so-called busy holiday season is here; they'd pinned their hopes on it reviving their business; and sales are still tanking. They're quitting. Suddenly the day job, that captive, stifling activity they'd fled from years ago, now looks inviting. I can't speak for new sellers, but it must be discouraging to watch these impending flame outs.

My first response to this - and maybe you've done this too - is to click the "view author's auctions" link next the poster's ID and see what's going on. Without a single exception, it's immediately apparently to me why things aren't working. It isn't just that they're selling the wrong books in the wrong place at the wrong time - though this is a good chunk of it - it's the presentation too. Damn, it's everything.

But listen: it's also everything that worked 3 or 5 or more years ago. Worked great. I know. I was here. But think about it. eBay has been up and running strong since the late 1990's, and guess what? During the last 5 or 6 years, some booksellers haven't been running in place, haven't been content to go on doing what they've always done. They've deliberately, persistently, step by painstaking step - in response to a felt increase in competition and an urgent need to address it - grown their businesses. Is it any surprise that they've passed the hordes by and gotten so far out front that it seems there's no catching them? With so many other booksellers on board now selling books for pennies, is it any surprise that there's so few of them that sell books, day in and day out, for $50, $100 and more?

If I wasn't scrupulous about this kind of thing, I'd list ten eBay selling ID's right here and now for you to look at, and (if you weren't already familiar with them) you'd be surprised at how well things are going for them. Furthermore, you'd be stunned if I listed their buying ID's and saw where they were buying the books they were selling.

Look, I'm sure you've heard this before: there's room enough for everybody. We can all make some money at this. Let me tell you something: there's not room for everybody. There's almost no such thing as location, location, location anymore. Things are global. To succeed at bookselling in this intensely competitive market, you have no choice but to meet the competition and beat it. At least most of the time.

Bookselling isn't for everybody, even if you love books and think living in their midst is the earthly equivalent of heaven. If you can't compete, it's not for you. Refuse to compete today, and the clock starts ticking. Worse, if it's not in your nature to compete and you need an income to survive, sooner or later you will end up in other work.

If you've read this far and haven't left in disgust, I'm sure you've come to the conclusion that this isn't a pep talk. It's ice water. If you're doing the same things now that you were a year or more ago and waiting for the market to get better, forget it. Your choices are to go on working for $5 or $10 bucks an hour, maybe less, get out - or change. If you want to change and aren't afraid of competing, stay with me. In the coming weeks I'm going to do everything I can to show you how to go 18 - 0.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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