Sunday, June 13, 2010

business books and the last laugh, part 1

In the bookselling mists of time, i.e. the seventies, I began working at the Harry W Schwartz Bookshop in downtown Milwaukee. Part of what drew me to the store was the counter-cultural, somewhat hip political vibe. Though Harry had taken some brave stands on the right to sell erotica in the forties and against attempts to suppress books in the McCarthyite fifties, the store he sold to his son David in the seventies was in fact a pretty mainstream, successful business.

Nevertheless, the anti-establishment signals were easily discernable. David had returned to the store after much soul-searching about whether being a business-person of any sort was an honorable way to make a living. Much of this questing had been done at a commune in Maine. His personal inclinations were decidedly left.

The people who worked at the shop tended to have secondary occupations such as art or political activism. One of the three references I used to get my job was the local Communist Party organizer, and I think that was the one that did the trick.

As for the inventory, Schwartz was a comprehensive old-school general trade store of a sort we don’t see as much lately. It seemed vast when vast was 100,000 titles. But books of social critique were showcased, and were always among the strongest sellers in the store. The measly Business section seemed like an afterthought.

Then one day a man called Robert Ringer changed all that. He had written a book called Winning Through Intimidation, a work of business psychology that pretty much taught what the title said. Today, the marketplace is awash in this kind of in your face self-help for budding capitalists, with big print, bullet points and lots of white space. But in the mid-seventies this book felt like a grenade launched into the bookshops.

Even more strangely, Ringer’s technique for marketing his book was completely new. He crossed the country, visiting bookshops in major cities, and offered them a cash incentive to take an insane number of copies of his book and to display them prominently. If memory serves, this number was 500 copies, which is a somewhat routine number for high profile commercial books these days. (I’m not sure about the cash but it may have been $500.)

Ringer met with David, who was never afraid to try a new idea, and the result was that the giant display window at the corner of 5th and Wisconsin was transformed one morning into a wall to wall shrine for the ominously black-jacketed Winning Through Intimidation.

Staff and many customers were shocked. Though few of us had actually read the book, it seemed self-evident that this was an unworthy piece of pro-business garbage. Urgent meetings were convened. Words like “sellout” and worse were muttered. We just couldn’t believe that David would agree to promoting such an odious piece of work- and for money!

There are several things to say about this affair several decades on.

First and foremost, it worked! This was probably the first time Schwartz had “made” a book by an unknown author simply by getting behind it in a crassly commercial way.

Heretofore, in-store marketing of a single book consisted of a stack of ten copies, or a few face-outs on a pillar. The valuable front windows had never been dedicated to a single title.

This approach was a harbinger of the co-op advertising system we take for granted today, by which publishers help pay for bookseller ads and promotions.

The energetic Mr. Ringer, who was tireless in thinking up ways to promote his book and was keen to enlist the booksellers directly, was a precursor of the successful self-published authors of today.

And probably most significantly, the Ringer phenomenon was but an advance droplet in the flood of business books that was to come as the century closed. Thousands of sometimes formulaic but often extremely profitable how-to books have been bread and butter for many booksellers and publishers.

As the age of Reagan settled upon us and young people stopped saying the word “business” with a snicker, business books colonized bookstore shelves like a virus. When I started working at the store, you wouldn’t be caught dead reading a business book in public; by the mid-eighties, there was always some kid on the Number 30 bus absorbed in Napolean Hill's Think and Grow Rich.

And how did the progressive-minded booksellers at Harry W Schwartz follow up their success with Robert Ringer? Stay tuned.

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