As a very famous person once said, “the times they are a-changin.”
We are in an age of rapid technological change, most of which is not worth bothering to keep up with, because you can’t, not really. The book is a form of technology that has been with us for centuries, and many have compared this age of digital media as having a similar force of impact on reading, thinking and society in general as that following the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, which facilitated the beginnings of mass proliferation of the book. Today, the ubiquity of the Internet means the ways in which we consume books is changing – not just in terms of how and where we buy them, but in what form.
One of the most tense panels at this year’s ABA conference featured competing representatives from the budding eBooks industry marketing their wares. Meanwhile, one of the most compelling speakers was Mark Higginson of Nielsen, whose audience pounced on his wealth of statistical information about consumers’ online book-buying patterns. The flurry of tweeting activity during the presentation indicated a hunger for tangible information in an industry faced with an uncertain future.
It’s certainly not just a matter of choosing between a hardback or paperback any more.
But if we’re hungry for new information about customers, they’re equally curious. Unfortunately, some very uninformed comments and queries are frequently thrown at the good people who stand behind bookshop counters. Plenty of it is well-meaning and borne from a desire to correct any ignorance. Some of it is downright rude, to the point where one’s very purpose in life is undermined. (Sort of like when my musically challenged friend bags out my favourite bands, not understanding that, as a musician, it kinda hurts my feelings.)
We understand that as representatives of the industry we are generally better versed in decoding what the hell is going on for the general public. But when faced with the same handful of recurrent questions, such as “What do you think about Borders closing?”, or “Did you know I can get this cheaper online?”, day after day, how does one quell the spirit of Bernard Black, who lurks dangerously close to the surface of one’s amiable front? How, indeed, to maintain one’s excellent customer service skills as well as one’s dignity (and sanity)?
The thing is, we might look smart (especially when wearing our horn-rimmed glasses), but as The Papa of Independent Bookselling and Publishing Henry Rosenbloom said: “While there’s no clear way forward, we’ve come to the conclusion that we know as little about it as anyone else.”
Well, if we can’t give a definitive answer to all that complicated stuff, we can at least try to deal with the yucky ‘feelings’ part of it.
Becky Anderson’s Guide to Dealing With Annoying Questions 101
In her keynote address to the conference, Becky Anderson (President of the American Bookseller’s Association, 5th generation heir to Anderson’s Bookshop, and general champion of independent and community-focused business) read to us a beautiful statement on behalf of Anderson’s, summarising their thoughts and feelings on the collapse of Borders and the state of the industry. She insisted that “first and foremost, we are not celebrating … the loss of so many jobs”, and maintained again and again her mantra: “we [independent bookshops] are still here.” Barwon Booksellers, an absolute treasure trove of second-hand books in Geelong, Victoria, sent out a heartfelt letter to its subscribers expressing similar sentiments.
It’s a good idea, and one which I urge all booksellers to follow. Either that or leave yourselves open to continued onslaughts of misinformed flak, to which you’ll be forced to respond personally each time until you sound like a broken 78. (Which would be ironic, because they’re obsolete.) You can frame your letter in Christmas lights and stick it on the shop door, so as to spare your beloved customers the embarrassment of asking any awkward questions from the get-go.
But let’s emphasise the beloved part. It may be a good idea to, er, bookend your eloquently crafted message with something along the lines of: Dear customers. WE LOVE YOU. We love you because you love us, and your custom is the reason we’re still here. We’re still here, because you’re still here. Thank you for choosing to buy all your Christmas presents here. We hope you’re not disappointed we don’t also sell turkeys, but did you notice that Borders was kind of turning into a homewares store towards the end? One day it’s turkeys, the next – no more books! By the way – did we mention how much we love you?
And so on, and so forth.
Booksellers and customers alike, please feel free to share below your thoughts on any of these matters. Perhaps you’ve done something similar to Anderson’s or Barwon Booksellers. Maybe you’ve experienced a Bernard moment. I hope you at least got a laugh out of it, or a glass of wine.
Stay tuned for Pip Lincolne’s Guide to Online Social Deportment 101. We do like hands-on ladies.
Ciao for now xx