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Why Bookselling Isn't Working For You

by Craig Stark

#32, 6 December 2004

Part III: Who Said This Was Supposed To Be Fun?

Is bookselling fun? For many of us, yes, probably, at least some of the time. But here's a better question: is it as much fun as you'd thought it'd be before you became a bookseller? I'm guessing ... not. So many things in life look pretty darn good from the outside, but walk through the door and reality is always there to greet us, if not immediately, soon after, often with a cold kiss. In bookselling, reality may be unusually harsh for you now, and what was once a relatively easy, straightforward method to make money from home has become a struggle. "Fun" might be one of the last word you'd use to describe it.

But let's look at this more closely for a moment. If bookselling used to be fun, what exactly has changed? Books certainly haven't. They're still here, and we still love them, love working with them. No, my guess is that every last one of us would start having lots more fun if only one simple thing happened - sales improved. As mercenary as it sounds, it really is about money. When sales are good, we're content. End of story.

And yet, think back. Even when sales were good (assuming you were here when times were flush) bookselling wasn't non-stop fun. Like so many other forms of work, there were repetitive tasks to slog through - listing, packaging, etc. - and sometimes these tasks dominated our days. It still can if we sell lots of books for not much money. Bookselling, no matter how much you love books, can still be drudgery, that is, and drudgery dulls our minds. Worse, repetition often consolidates repetition. What I mean by this is that it's very easy to fall into patterns over time, and if you've been doing things more or less the same way from day one, chances are good that these patterns have deepened to the point that it's difficult to get free of them. If so, you've stopped growing as a bookseller, and your business has suffered accordingly.

If you'd like to turn things around, I think it's important to understand that almost anybody can succeed at bookselling. This is as true today as it's always been. You don't have to be 7 feet tall or have the voice of a canary. If you have average intelligence, you can do this - period. However, the reality is that, while many of us can succeed, few will. Why? Well, as I used to say when I coached baseball, "If things aren't working, it's probably because you're back on your heels."

The Suicide Drill

When you coach baseball, not much time has to pass before you begin to notice things kids do time and time again that prevent them from succeeding. One of the most prevalent of these is standing back on your heels - that is, putting most of your weight on your heels and waiting for things to happen. If you're playing shortstop, for example, and a ground ball comes your way, if you're back on your heels, several things are likely to happen, none of them good. First, you won't get to the ball as quickly, and the runner has more time to get to first base. Worse, the chances of that ball getting to you on a short hop (which is more difficult to field) are increased because you aren't moving to the ball to get it at a better point in its arc. Finally, the chances of it taking bad hop are greater because it's traveling over more ground before it gets to you. Bad things happen at bat as well. On the bases. Everywhere.

At first glance, it might seem relatively easy to correct this fault. Tell that shortstop to get up on his toes and move to the ball - in other words, play the ball; don't let the ball play you. Unfortunately, no matter how clearly you explain why this needs to be done, even if you're certain your players understand it intellectually and agree implicitly, it almost never happens in practice. Sure, a kid might move forward on his toes a time or two if he thinks you're watching him, but soon after he'll inevitably revert to the former stance - back on his heels - even if it means making more errors. And it most certainly will mean that.

Why is this? Why would a kid consciously choose something that will all but guarantee that he'll perform at a lower level? Easy. Two words: ball fear. Baseballs are hard. Sometimes they're hit hard. And if you get hit by one, it can hurt like hell. A good shin injury can take an entire season to heal completely. Given this threat, why would you anyone want to come to the ball? If anything, you'd want to stay back, in a defensive position, and increase the odds of not getting hit.

Oddly enough, this often produces the result that's feared most. Stay back, try to avoid getting hurt, and the chances of you getting hurt multiply. More short hops. More bad hops. And there's something about putting yourself in a defensive posture that decreases the likelihood of the ball landing in the glove. The result? Pow. You get hit.

Whenever I identified problems like this, things that seemed all but impossible to teach, my first thought was to invent a drill that restricted the choices a player could make so severely that he would all but be forced into doing things correctly. Then I repeated them in practice, with gradually increasing inensity, until the habit was broken and a new one was established. The drill I invented to combat this particular problem was something I called the "Suicide Drill."

Essentially, it consisted of this: a player took a position at shortstop between 2 cones approximately 15 feet apart. A second set of cones was placed about 10 feet in front of him. A ground ball was then hit to him from home plate. The main objective was to prevent the ball getting past him through the cones in much the same way a soccer goalie would protect a goal. There were no restrictions at all on how this could be done. The ball could be caught in a glove, kicked or stopped by falling on it. The thing to do, at all costs, was stop it.

Players were divided into 2 teams, and points were awarded. 1 point for stopping the ball from getting through the back set of cones (whether the ball was caught or not). 2 points for moving to the ball and stopping it at the front set of cones. 3 points for catching the ball in front of the front set of cones - in other words, a premium was placed on moving to the ball and completing the play. If the ball was caught or could be readily picked up, it was thrown to first base.

To make things even more interesting, if a player let a ball get by him, he then went into run, and players on the opposite team would now attempt to throw him out at first base. If they were successful in doing this, they stayed in line at shortstop and could continue to score points for their team. If not, they switched places with the runner. As the game progressed, ground balls were hit with more and more force, and when a team had been depleted at shortstop, the game ended. And the winning team got cold drinks!

The reason this drill worked so well - and believe me, it did - was that there were measurable rewards for doing things the right way, and any kid could get the job done, no matter what his skills were going in. Most adapted quickly and began to focus on these rewards, gradually forgetting about their fear of the ball altogether. There was the additional force of pressure from teammates that motivated them to put their fear aside, even if it was still a factor. Over time, they began to move to the ball instinctively, make far fewer errors, and get hurt less often. Later, when these new skills began to pay off in actual games, there was this additional payoff: at the end of the season they found themselves at the top of the standings.

The most important thing that this drill accomplished, I think, is that it didn't allow players to be led by their feelings. So often well-meaning coaches will indulge feelings. I guess the thinking is that it's more fun for the kids if they're allowed to do what they feel like doing, and if doing something makes them feel uncomfortable, it's best not to push it. The Suicide Drill, of course, did push it. In that tight, dangerous alley between the cones, where hard-as-rock spheres were zinging by and things indeed seemed suicidal, their feelings were telling them to protect themselves from the ball, but the drill was simultaneously teaching them that, by putting their feelings aside, they could accomplish things that other players couldn't - and what do you know? They had fun! Real fun. Not the kind of fun that's self indulgent but the kind that emerges out of measurable accomplishment and builds confidence by successfully meeting fears.

The Experiment

And so it is with bookselling. And so many other aspects of life. This may seem unrelated, but how many of you have known a self-professed book magnet? You know the kind of bookseller I mean. He (or she) claims to be in possession of some species of ill-defined magnetic or other ethereal powers that magically draw books in. It's effortless. Driven purely by acts of providence. Out of the blue, a friend brings a box of books. Or the seller happens to be visiting a thrift store at the very moment a shopping cart full of valuable books is being put on the shelves. Somehow, somewhere, books materialize.

Excuse my French, but magnetic powers, my ass. I've known several book magnets over the years, and I suppose there was a time when books were so plentiful and readily sold online that the illusion of book magnetism was something that could be sort of pulled off. Made to look like a credible phenomenon. Well, I don't know a single practicing book magnet anymore. Seems their sources have stopped dumping things in their laps. So much for standing back on your heels and succeeding in spite of it. The booksellers I know that have stayed in business are the ones who have put one foot in front of another, come to the bookselling ball, and found what they needed to find by dint of effort. They've also put their feelings aside.

About a year ago I conducted an experiment that illustrates this, and I've been saving the results for a time when I felt they would have more impact. Back then, when the first waves of the bookselling flood were pounding the shores, it was definitely time to sound the alarm ... The Great Flood - Armageddon For Booksellers?

... but too early to predict the future. The future has arrived, and we're up to our necks in it. It's time.

Anyway, here's what I did. In the metropolitan area I live in, there are approximately 25 to 30 thrift shops, 50 to 60 within an hour's drive. At the time, I was visiting perhaps 2 to 4 a month, down from at least 10 or 12 the year before. Why? When I thought about it, I assured myself that it was because the well had gone dry. I simply wasn't visiting as many shops because it had become more difficult to find quality books in them. It seemed more productive to focus on estate sales and online sources.

However, it also occurred to me that I was coming home earlier on Friday and Saturday mornings, often immediately after sales were over. The year before, especially if I hadn't had much luck that morning, I'd often continue looking in either thrift shops or used bookstores, sometimes until noon or later, sometimes in such a stubborn frame of mind that I refused to come home until I found something. What had happened was this: I was now standing back on my heels, letting my feelings lead me right past those very places I had once found good inventory in. Somehow, negative feelings had stockpiled over time, and I grew fearful of re-feeling them. I'd largely forgotten about my successes and begun to dwell on my failures - walking into thrift shops and coming out empty handed again and again. It might well have been true that things had dried up, but I didn't know with any certainty because I hadn't been keeping track. It was time for an experiment.

The very next month I made a special point of visiting thrift shops at every opportunity, now matter how I felt at the time or how much I wanted to go home, even if it meant going once or more a week to some of them or driving out of my way. Or going on Monday. I was pretty sure I could stand doing this for one month, even if I struck out with regularity, and my plan was to resume sporadic visits the following month and compare. Funny thing. I never completed the second part of the experiment. By the third week of the first month, I'd already purchased over $1,000 in quality inventory from thrift shops, and there was no way I was going to stop. I've got the list right here. 23 books in all. And some of these was purchased in shops that I'd totally given up on based on a handful of bad experiences (which in turn had produced those bad feelings).

Once I was able to put these feelings aside, new vistas opened. You see, it wasn't that these shops had dried up as sources. It was simply that more buyers were competing for the same books. Visiting more often, putting one foot in front of another, meant that I was increasing my chances of being there at the right time, before somebody else had gotten to the books I was looking for. Also, the negative feelings that had been clouding my vision dissipated as I paid less attention to my fears. I was seeing more clearly. The books were back. Thrift shops were fun again.

This is only one example, of course, but the principle of coming to the ball applies to many aspects of bookselling. Almost nobody does this naturally because it's more comfortable not to. And unlikely to be fun. Instead, almost everybody lets their feelings lead them. But be the exception to this, and watch out. You'll be coming up in those searches we make at BookThink on successfully completed auctions over $50. And having lots more fun.

Questions or comments?
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