What do they know?

Years ago when I was queueing to pay for The Subtle Knife, the lady taking my money checked that I had already read Northern Lights. Useful, but unnecessary in my case. On the other hand, in the very same shop, I witnessed a customer asking what to buy for son/grandson after His Dark Materials, which the boy had loved, and they had no clue and stood there helplessly. That time I butted in with my opinion, but maybe that was wrong?

After all that’s happened, this seems an unlikely scenario, but when I read in the paper that the second Harry Potter book had been published, I went to a bookshop to buy the first, as I’d intended to do for so long. I couldn’t remember which title was which, so in order to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently carrying home the second book, I asked. They had no idea, and either not the inclination or the tools to look it up for me.

You simply can’t know when someone in a bookshop will know what you want to find out. I realise that the detailed knowledge about Ballet Shoes in the film You’ve Got Mail can happen, but it’s mostly a fond myth. Even the lovely Meg Ryan can’t have had that much information on all the books she sold.

Ah, I’m just a moaning old witch. I want people to be perfect. Shall I stop complaining about bookshops for a couple of days?

14 responses to “What do they know?

  1. It has got easier – if a shop isn’t too busy then we can look up what the book is about, which order it comes in and what else the author has done – have to admit we normally resort to a combination of amazon, google and wikipedia though.

  2. Good question – what DO you read after His Dark Materials? Paradise Lost?

    I was lurking the other day behind a mother and her son as they tried to choose a book in WHSmiths. I could see several books by author friends, and was delighted when the boy picked up one of them. But then his mother intervened: ‘No, no,’ she said. ‘Look over here – this one’s on offer.’ I can’t recall what book it was, but it was some production-line offering of the sort I would like banned. I nearly intervened, but I hate being arrested.

  3. Now we know. If it’s on offer it’ll be bought.

    We’d come to your assistance, Nick, if you’re in trouble. My cake with file in it is pretty good.

  4. Plain, good sponge, my dear boy. Filo pastry may be witty, but can’t take the weight of the file. It’s a trial and error thing.

  5. The ideal, of course, is that instead of looking it up on google or amazon, the bookseller actually knows from having the read the books him or herself. But I can see that’s difficult with SO many books being published.

    My younger daughter is currently working in a music shop in Oxford. It seems to be staffed by enthusiasts; they play classical music all the time, and she’s rapidly expanding her knowledge, which is great seeing she wants to study music at uni next year. Staff are expected to be able to provide advice on recordings and artists. I can see that bookshops can hardly play audio books all day, but people who work in bookshops probably do enjoy reading… isn’t there some way it can work?

  6. Maybe we should put a librarian in a bookshop? We librarians, or “Information Professionals” as we are called nowadays, don’t know everything either, but we sure as hell know how to find the answer to your question 🙂

  7. of three local book shops (independents), i can only rely on one to really know their stuff about children’s titles. but to be fair, the other booksellers are knowledgeable in other specialties (crime, non fiction etc … different strokes for different folks!)

  8. Katherine; once a shop is larger than the size of your living room, it’s very difficult to be acquainted with every book on sale, and certainly far more difficult to read them all. Likewise, it’s a great deal easier to be enthusiastic about fiction over non-fiction. Selling academic text books is hard work, especially when customers expect you to provide them with sources for their imminently due essay!

  9. In France you can still go to university and “learn” to be a bookseller. Can people do that here? Most independent bookshops there look for people who know their stuff. I am not sure about the chains. But we expect someone from a DIY store to know their stuff about DIY, so why shouldn’t we expect a bookseller to know their stuff about books, especially when it comes to children’s books. Am I being idealistic?

  10. Library Mice; in a UK bookshop chain that’s unfortunately too much to expect. It’s not unreasonable to expect that staff are intelligent and at least enthusiastic about books, but jobs in bookselling simply don’t pay enough (in the UK at least) to incentivise staff. I’d say the vast majority of booksellers I’ve met have good knowledge of stock and personal favourites that they can advise on and sell. But if you pay someone bare minimum wage it seems unlikely they’re going to go the extra mile. It all boils down to the fact that there’s not very much money left in bookselling – it’s difficult to make money on non-fiction and it’s difficult to make big money on fiction – that’s why so many bookshops sell much other junk!

  11. Library Mice – what a wonderful idea! I wish they would. But considering that the British barely want their plumbers or electricians to go to school and learn their trade, bookselling strikes me as less dangerous to do from the raw, untrained state.

  12. I think it might be all to do with the fact that in France we still have the equivalent to the Net Book Agreement. I am assuming that there might be more money to be made in books if that’s the case. I have to say I am not a business-minded person so I don’t really undesrtand the ins and outs of the book trade, on either sidfe of the Channel! So Ian, please, correct me if I am wrong!
    Some people in France still choose to buy books in supermarkets and/or chains, which is beyond me, as the prices are the same everywhere! When I go home the first thing I do is go to the big independent bookshop in my hometown and spend hours in their children’s department (a whole floor – bliss!). Then I spend another hour in their manga department (don’t get me started on the poor provision of manga in UK bookshops!).

  13. You’re of course quite right Library Mice. The Net Book Agreement was done away with in 1997 (although I know this because I just looked it up – in 1997 I was too young to be selling books!) and according to the BBC’s Money programme, around 500 indie bookshops have closed since “as a direct result” (although in fairness I think one has to point out that tough trading conditions/changes in retail/recessions have a lot to do with it too). I’m no expert on the ins and outs, but I’ve worked at a till taking the money, I’ve worked on pricing, and I’ve worked in goods-in dealing with invoices, so I know how much the typical book costs wholesale from a distributor and how much one sells it for. If you’ve ever been baffled by how an author makes money from a £7 book sale, I’m even more baffled at how a bookshop manages to pay all its staff, costs, etc with the slim profit made. The reason amazon and co have made so much inroads is that they can afford to make a loss (chances are that you’ll be back later to buy an item from them with better margins) – small indies can’t.

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