The Future of Bookselling
How to Succeed in Spite of It

by Craig Stark

#72, 3 July 2006

Part II: New School and Old School Bookselling

Printer Friendly Article

Some old news: It doesn't take much to become a bookseller these days. For one thing, a bookstore is anything but necessary - in fact, as long as you have computer access at your local library and can afford rental on a small storage unit and post office box, you could conceivably sell books if you were homeless. And book knowledge? Who the heck needs it? All you really need to know about books is how to type in an ISBN or LCCN in your cell phone, and you're off.

I'm exaggerating shamelessly, of course, but how many of you started your bookselling careers totally clueless, if not on a lark? By listing a book on eBay and, almost by accident, selling it? I did. Sure, I'd lived my entire life in close company with books up to that point, had collected them forever, etc., so I wasn't starting from ground zero, but for somebody who'd been self-employed for decades, bookselling was by far the simplest and cheapest venture I'd ever tackled.

Given how I started, I'm what you'd call a New School bookseller. There was no long apprenticeship to serve with a master bookman, no job in a venerable Manhattan bookstore, nor did I study the online marketplace before I registered at eBay. And why should I have? It wasn't like anybody knew what they were doing then, experienced booksellers included. I had the bracing, undeniable privilege to hit the streets running with everybody else. To make matters worse, I made early money. It was easy, it seemed, especially then, and the notion that anybody could do what I was doing wasn't far off the mark.

Speaking of privileges, for the past five years or so I've had the distinct privilege of communicating with other booksellers - New and Old School - to an extent that most never experience ... daily emails, forum discussions, phone and face-to-face conversations, etc. Along the way, I've shared much of what I've learned and also benefited immeasurably from what others have taught me. Unfortunately, I've also noticed something that concerns me some, and lately it seems even more pronounced. Bluntly put, many New School booksellers seem to have trouble taking pride in what they've accomplished. Truly owning their success. It gets expressed in different ways, depending on the bookseller. Three (of many) examples:

  1. A reluctance to call yourself a professional.

  2. An exasperated sense of ignorance of some aspect of the trade.

  3. Feeling like a fraud in the company of Old School booksellers.

This is my take on things: If you are a New School bookseller, you aren't an Old School bookseller. What's more, you never will be. End of story. You are a different animal entirely. Old school booksellers began their bookselling lives in a radically different environment - in open shops, not online, and by and large served apprenticeships, etc., before starting their own businesses - and their environment necessarily shaped them. Some of them are frighteningly knowledgeable, and most of us have benefited greatly from their hard-won experience. They've written books, generously shared advice in forums, etc. - and how could we be anything but grateful?

Still, don't be fooled into thinking that, as an aggregate, they're any better at this online biz than you are. Or bookselling period. I've met too many of them, competed with too many of them, to think this. Like any other statistically random group of people, there are plenty of inept Old School booksellers, plenty who aren't terribly knowledgeable (or who haven't acquired the right kind of knowledge), and plenty who have already failed online. Or are in the process of it. Or altogether resent what bookselling has evolved into - with predictable consequences to their businesses.

Bookselling is most certainly a different game now. New School booksellers, however, absolutely do not resent it. We relish it. We were born to sell online. We bring new energy to the playing field, new ideas - and a fresh focus to succeed. If you're a New Schooler, don't waste your time dwelling on how you got here; don't lament that you haven't paid your dues; just acknowledge gratitude to the great tradition that's come before you and proudly march forward. You'll need all the attitude you can muster to meet the challenges ahead (and I'll address many of these in upcoming articles). You are the future of bookselling. You will take us to the top of this game. And yes, I think it's high time to take the torch:

 Subscribe in a reader