by Craig Stark

#123, 16 June 2008

Mastering Bookselling
It May Not Be What You Think It Is

I've received countless emails from novice booksellers over the years that read something like this: "I was doing so well at first, Craig. Now I can't seem to sell anything. What am I doing wrong?" More often than not, this is somebody who started by selling off a personal library or serendipitously acquired a significant number of quality books for next to nothing - an event that often triggers a move into bookselling in the first place.

Experienced booksellers can see this coming a mile away, and if we know anything, we know that it's about maintaining inventory quality: If our quality is good over time, we make good money over time; if it isn't, we don't, no matter how much experience we have. Since beginning booksellers know little about acquiring quality inventory, early success based on phenomena that aren't likely to be repeated isn't necessarily a good thing because it can create the illusion that bookselling is easy. Yet what at first seemed easy so often becomes almost impossible thereafter. A few months pass, perhaps a year or more, and the newly hatched bookseller is increasingly frustrated at making less money - or is out of business altogether.

But there are patterns among experienced booksellers too, some of them hauntingly similar in shape. The only difference is that they play out at a slower pace and for a somewhat different reason. Things may have started out exactly the same - early success followed by a sharp downturn - but to their credit, instead of getting out, these booksellers did something about it. They took it upon themselves to learn something about the business and at some level succeeded in turning things around. Their incomes grew, perhaps over a period of years, and perhaps they concluded that they had figured things out once and for all - not learned everything, no, just figured out how to make money selling books. Hah, imagine letting themselves be lulled into thinking that!

And that's usually when it happens: You think you've got it made, and sales flatten. Or decrease. Worse, at this point, since these booksellers had it "figured out," it couldn't possibly be anything they did wrong. It had to be the marketplace. Too much competition. Fee increases. Whatever. And a visit to almost any bookseller's forum on almost any given day will confirm that it is indeed the marketplace. After all, it's happening to other sellers too. In droves.

But what's really going on here? Are forces in the marketplace so powerful that they can send a previously successful bookseller into a tailspin? Sure, it's entirely possible to conceive of a set of external circumstances that could deliver this result, but when most businesses flatten out or decline, adverse marketplace conditions rarely play a dominant role. Far more often it has something to do with the bookseller. Far more often the bookseller is stuck in a state of limbo between apprenticeship and mastering the profession. If your sales are flat, it's possible that this has happened to you. You may be a journeyman bookseller.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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