Sunday, July 8, 2012

everyday bookselling vexations in search of a lexicon

One of the brainstorms that I will never actually get around to executing is inventing a glossary of terms for common bookselling phenomena which have no shared vocabulary.

I’ve had this idea since my own bookselling days, but a recent piece by New Yorker economics columnist James Surowiecki, about the alleged qualifications gap between workers needed and workers available, brought it to mind again. The skills mismatch so loudly complained about by corporations is actually very limited in scope, he explains. Agreed. But his evidence? “When you look at the list of slots that businesses say are among the toughest to fill, you find jobs like sales rep and office support- hardly specialized occupations.”

Excuse me. I will concede that the excellent carpenter who built a lovely screen porch on our cabin last week would have an easier time stepping into my occupational shoes that I would into his. My porch would look like Lucy and Ethel’s barbecue. (Sorry, you will miss the reference if you are under 75). This reminds me too much of the attitude I sometimes hear from the well-meaning but uninformed, who think anyone could run a bookstore. “Hey, I love to read!” (Or publish a book worth reading without a publisher. But that’s another post.)

When it comes to anything to do with the book industry, from publishing to bookselling, there’s an elaborate, arcane, and essentially non-transferable set of skills and wisdom that many of us have absorbed over the years. I know plenty of very smart book people of a certain age who will readily admit that one reason they will never do anything else is that they couldn’t. What they know doesn’t travel. Mastering 500 publisher isbn prefixes and 500 irrational discount schedules is a vital skill for bookstore efficiency. In the rest of the world, not so much.

But back to the glossary. I was calling on a bookseller last week who made reference to “orphans.” That term probably has all kinds of appropriated meanings. But in a bookselling context, I hadn’t heard it since David Schwartz taught me that it refers to the stray leftover remainders that you never can seem to get rid of. Nine out of ten copies in your stack sell, but that last one might as well be a collection of turkey recipes the day after Thanksgiving.

Attend any national or regional meeting of booksellers, or eavesdrop on their conversation, and you’ll hear a fluid exchange of professional banter. If someone says “the publisher was OS indef so I put it on wholesaler TBO, and it eventually came after cascading three times,” everyone will get it. But in addition to the well-trodden specialized book jargon we have all mastered, there are lots of familiar phenomena- about which only a bookseller would care- that occur frequently enough in the bookstore that it seems to me they have earned descriptors of their own. A few examples:

1. Books that are too wide and fall off the shelf when spined, or too tall so they have to be shelved sideways, meaning the only way to shelve them is to face them out. Yet they don’t really merit faceout treatment. Name that dilemma.

2. Books of which you have one copy and it must be shelved somewhere specific.  Yet the title actually falls into two, three or more subject categories.  Some publishers call this “interdisciplinary,” and think it’s a plus. Perhaps they haven’t worked in a bookstore  (I used to have a buyer who would order one copy for each conceivable category. Those days are long gone.)

3. Books which fall into no recognizable subject category whatever.

4. When a section bulges to bursting in one part of the alphabet- say P through T- but is loose and floppy in another- say H through L- what’s that called?

5. The sex books that migrate all over the store because a customer would rather appear to be browsing, say, foreign languages, than kinky erotica. Name that rover!

6. The stand-alone end cap: I’ve heard it called a widow. Can I get a second? .

7. When you’re looking for a book for a customer and you can’t see it because it’s on display face-out.

8. What shall we call the last straggler books on the “to be shelved” cart that every bookseller leaves, hoping someone else will do it? (I will bet many of them fit into category three above.)

9. A customer asks for a book which hadn’t sold in 18 months and which you returned yesterday. This item eligible in several categories: what to call the book, what to call the customer, what to call your stifled, exasperated reaction?

10. The biggest ill-conceived buy of the holiday season deserves a name of its own, no?

11. And how about the biggest truly under the radar holiday success story?

12. What about the title you just know you will be returning even as you tell the rep you’ll take one? And when you miraculously sell it?

13. A new, publicity-driven title is ordered in one copy and it sells immediately. It is re-ordered and re-ordered for a couple weeks. But at some point the demand dries up. The copy you sold last week was in fact the last you would sell. What to call the superfluous copy you replaced it with? (“Return” is not eligible.)

14. The hardcover book that lands in February, is dead by May, is returned in July, and mysteriously comes back to life in October when an irate customer is appalled that you don’t have it.

15. Thinking an author is a steady seller and ordering accordingly, only to actually check one day and find that you were confusing “shelving” with “selling.” Having a shelf full of Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t necessarily mean her sales are robust.

16. You get a special order and put it together with four other backlist books you probably wouldn’t have needed or wanted; those four come but the special doesn’t. This is called…..? (Watch your language!)

17. To help you sell a fancy art book, the publisher helpfully supplies an extra so that customers can peruse and mangle. This already has a good term: “display copy.” But what to call the copy you gamely ordered for stock that did NOT come with an extra after it has been abused into unsalable and unreturnable condition by browsers?

18. The oblivious group of patrons (if that’s the right term when they don’t buy anything) who use the store as a showroom, whipping out their devices to scan and price check competitor’s right under your nose. The ones who use staff to help track down and identify what they want before shopping elsewhere are especially in need of a name.

19. The bookseller skips a new title. Let’s even say the rep agreed it wasn’t a good match. Later, a customer special orders and buys the book. By accident or design, it lands on a to-be-ordered list and gets restocked. It goes on to become a steady seller. It’s as if the customer directly intervened in the process to seed the store inventory. What to call this specimen of book, and the phenomenon?

20.  Wild card.  Any experienced bookseller could think of more examples. Perhaps, in the spirit of DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English, there could be local accents and slang in our new lexicon. And remember, we are book people so we are polite. Suggestions welcome!


  1. This post is genius. I think we will spend all time trying to come up with up-to-now unnamed common bookstore phenomena.

    Here's one--the book that a customer asks for that's short discount print on demand nonreturnable, and then asks me why we don't carry it on our shelves. "That's clearly the last thing the publisher wants," I will say, but what do you call that book? The "pleasedontcarryme" title?

  2. 7. When you’re looking for a book for a customer and you can’t see it because it’s on display face-out.

    Spineblind! You're so focused on that Penguin orange spine that you completely miss the the arty cover. Example: I was spineblinded by that edition of Jane Eyre.

  3. Oh my...I think I classify all of the above under 'the damned'- particularly those oversize books that won't fit on any shelf, nor in any box to be returned for that matter! How did they get this to me in the first place?

    I winced at happens all the time! I remember my former bookstore had piles of enormously expensive technical manuals that were special ordered and then never picked up. A $300 academic study in electricity/physics languished on the shelf for several years before I finally conceded it to a markdown bin in storage. And of course someone came in looking for it but a week later- by then the book was hidden within masses of unmarked boxes, like the government warehouse where Indiana Jones hid the Ark of the Covenant!

  4. #3 Alien!

  5. It's like playing "Dictionary" with my family on holidays, only instead of making up definitions for weird words, it's the other way around. I can do this... I'll be back.

  6. This is hilarious. I can't wait to see you guys fill in all the words.

  7. This post shows why John is such a great rep and why his blog is so compelling: he not only sees the bookseller point of view, he is still a bookseller at heart.

    I'd really like to think of a name for those described in #18!

  8. When I was a book seller, I was always annoyed when customers would shelve books backward; as in the spine is facing in...
    Also for some reason, it annoyed me that the books in Spanish all had their titles in the opposite direction as all American books.
    Little things, I guess :-)

  9. Regarding books that can be shelved in multiple categories: I know a bookstore owner who once organized his store such that all books were shelved by alphabetical order of the author's last name. That's it. It was actually really cool. That way, the books all stood on their own, outside of the standard categories we put books into.

  10. "5. The sex books that migrate all over the store because a customer would rather appear to be browsing, say, foreign languages, than kinky erotica. Name that rover!"

    Hah! Back in the Jurassic when I worded at WaldenBooks the company decided to stock magazines. Pretty consistently we'd fine Playboy & Penthouse in the back of the store with the YA board books.

    Another problem without a name: the special order books arrive, a message is left with the customer's answering machine. Doesn't show up. After a few calls you reach a person. Customer had died.

    Annoying Books: Again, back in my Walden daze, the Mr Bill book came out and was a great hit. Had to be stocked up front by the cash wrap. Would you care to guess how many times people went "Oh no Mr Bill!". Surprisingly no deaths occurred.

    And @brianJuly 11, 2012 7:28 PM - Foyles in London for eons had their books arranged by (drum roll please) publisher. I won't go into the byzantine process of actually buying the book.

  11. Well Mr. Eklund, I see you have 716 profile views but no profile picture. You're either a big chicken or a big tease. I'll have to get Kim to give me a head-up next time you're in-store. (By the way, she's the one who sent me your link.) I used to run into your predecessor on the bus in Ottawa. He shared the charming distinction of being one of the few reps who didn't drive. I trust you have other qualities.

  12. #5 - Sexpeditionist

    #14 - Zombie

    #15 - "Prestige" author (quotation marks required)

    #18 - Leeches, vultures, sociopaths. . .

  13. 18. The oblivious group of patrons (if that’s the right term when they don’t buy anything) who use the store as a showroom, whipping out their devices to scan and price check competitor’s right under your nose. The ones who use staff to help track down and identify what they want before shopping elsewhere are especially in need of a name.

    We call such ppl "freeloaders"

  14. Single books that fall from the shelf to the floor. You hear them hit, you see them during the day, or when you open up in the morning.
    In our store they're jumpers.

    Have they been egged on by books close by?

  15. There is a phenomenon that I have always called "the Dan effect". I worked with a guy named Dan at the Downer store who complained so much about this occurrence we would just joke that the "Dan effect" was going on. The "Dan Effect" is when you are working on a display or inventory check and customers are immediately drawn to that area in droves such that you are unable to continue to work in that area. If you go to another part of the store to work, they follow you.
    Lanora, Next Chapter Bookshop