The Principles of Bookselling

by Craig Stark

#59, 2 January 2006

How To Identify and Apply Them

As editor of BookThink, I try to stay abreast of trends in bookselling. At the same time, I also try to understand them. It's useful to identify books that have exceptional resale potential in the here and now - and I make regular, pointed efforts to do this often - but I don't stop there. If I'm also able to understand why a given book is desirable, my ability to spot similar books in the future is significantly enhanced. In fact, a working knowledge of principles derived from this understanding ultimately becomes more valuable than a mind crammed with facts. Principles grow like roots, forever branching out to reach more and different things. Facts behave differently: They begin and end in the same place.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Flashpoints are based on this same concept.]

Example. It's a fact that first printings of Annie Proulz's Close Range: Wyoming Stories are heating up in the marketplace as we speak, and signed copies are hotter yet.

Not bad for a book published in 1999 with a sizable print run. Ok, big deal, commit the title and perhaps the author to memory and keep an eye out for it. Next.

But wait. If you stop here (and I think many booksellers do) you'll miss an important principle that can be extracted from this: If a movie heats up, if it's drawing audiences by the millions - and especially if it's broken new ground, stirred up controversy, etc. - look back for bookselling gold. Applying this principle is easy. First, find out if the movie is based on a previously published novel or story. Second, buy up as many copies as you can - quickly - before word filters back into the bookselling community that this title is beginning to move.

Identifying this principle in the first place isn't as easy as applying it, but it's hardly difficult. If you don't know why Proulz's book is stirring up interest now, the movie Brokeback Mountain is based on a novella of the same name that made its first book appearance in Wyoming Stories. I'm guessing that not too many booksellers know this yet. I'm guessing also that even fewer of them know that the story made its first print appearance in the New Yorker magazine in 1997 - in fact, the New Yorker won the National Magazine Award for publishing it. It was also published the following year in Prize Stories 1998: The O. Henry Awards. It's difficult to predict how collectible Prize Stories 1998 will be - probably not - but I'd put my money on copies of the October 13, 1997 New Yorker without blinking because it was its first appearance.

It may be somewhat late for you to enter the Brokeback Mountain game now, especially since I've just outed the title to thousands of booksellers, but now that you know this principle, you can apply it the next time a movie hits the streets running.

But don't stop here either. It's possible to take this one step further, though this isn't for the faint of heart because it involves additional risk. Waiting until a movie takes off requires fast action; the window of opportunity closes quickly. But what if you could somehow enter the game earlier? Your potential for profit would be that much greater, and you might even have time to solicit signatures from authors.

Here's how. Movies don't manifest themselves in theaters overnight, and if they have the potential to be controversial, word gets out well in advance, sometimes in the form of deliberate studio publicity. This information can be found almost instantly online and/or in print media. And here are the principles that you could have extracted from this same example: One, if a yet-to-be-released movie seems to have potential for breaking new ground, look back for bookselling gold; and two, collectors follow quality. Moving forward on this will require you to both familiarize yourself with the plot and also make some sort of evaluation of the fiction it's based on.

Here's how things play out in my example. First, in the context of major motion pictures, Brokeback Mountain does break new ground, not because it features gay (or bisexual) men, though this is at least not overly common in mainstream film, but because it's a love story about two men, and the point of the movie is their love, not its sexual expression, which is deliberately soft-shoed. This would be retrodding very old ground, of course, if the lovers were man and woman, and to some extent if they were woman and woman. Man and man, however - well, prevailing public perception (right or wrong) heretofore has been that for men it was mostly if not entirely about sex. Controversial? You bet, and it's stirred up a lot of debate.

Second, quality. In my opinion, perceptive readers encountering Proulz's fiction for the first time could probably sniff out the exceptional quality of her writing in a few paragraphs. If not, the accolades that followed its publication in the New Yorker and its subsequent selection for an O. Henry Award would be evidence enough.

Simple? Maybe not as simple as the first approach, but still doable - and you should do these kinds of things if you're serious about bookselling. If you're a full-time bookseller, you have to be serious.

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