The Bookseller and The Reader

The Bookseller and The Reader are intrinsically linked. While reading is generally a solitary activity it is also a social one. Readers love to share their thoughts on books and the books themselves with friends and family. So while we often read by ourselves we want to share our reading experience with others. The bookshop is essential to this sharing process. The bookshop has traditionally been the first point of contact between the reader and the book. It is where a reader goes in order to find their next book to read. Whether it is a specific book a friend has recommended or they are just looking for inspiration, a bookshop plays a vital role for the reader.

There is not very much that separates the bookseller from the reader. In fact a good bookseller is a good reader and is motivated by a passion for books and reading (it certainly isn’t the money). A bookseller wants to instill this same passion into other readers, their customers. They do this by ordering in and keeping in stock the books they love, new and old. They also know the books their customers are passion about and try to stock their shelves to cater for them as well. The books a bookshop promotes and displays are a combination of these two passions; the bookseller’s and their customers’. How, where and what a bookseller displays will all influence the reader in what they buy. I’ve heard booksellers described as the ‘curators’ or ‘arbiters’ of the available books and while these labels are true on some level a bookseller is much more than that.

The most vital part a bookseller plays is in recommending a book to a reader. A bookshop primarily is a business and it needs to make money and a bookseller is a salesperson who needs to sell as many books as possible. However as we have all seen with Borders and The RedGroup, books are not potatoes. You cannot run a bookshop like you would Bunnings or Coles. Every book is individual, even from the same author (hopefully). Books do not sell by brand name, be that publisher brand or author brand. Brand does help, but brands need to be built and developed and only really apply to a few examples. What sells books is word-of-mouth.

Word-of-mouth does not always start in the bookshop but it certainly spreads in the bookshop. However word-of-mouth and recommendations only work when the reader trusts the bookseller. Therefore a bookseller needs to be more that just a salesperson and that is why a bookshop is more embedded in a community than most other businesses. They support local schools and charities. They get involved in literacy programs. They are involved with local book clubs and talks at local libraries. The bookshop is a community hub and the bookseller is a member of the same community as the reader. This builds mutual trust and respect which is vital to the bookseller/reader relationship.

With the advent of eBooks many are questioning the role of the bookseller in the new digital world. EBooks will not fundamentally change reading. They will fundamentally change writing, publishing and retailing but the act of reading will still stay pretty much the same. Readers will have more reading options with eBooks. Factors like convenience, availability and even genre will influence what format a reader decides to read in but the reader will read a combination of physical and digital books, not one or the other.  People may even read more as they will virtually be carrying around their library and even their bookshop in their pocket. This is a challenge to booksellers but it is an exciting one.

What does change in the new digital world is the reader’s ability to share their thoughts on books with each other. Social Media like Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, GoodReads, Shelfari etc are full of readers talking about books they have read, are reading or want to read. The bookseller is no longer the primary source of a reader’s information about books current, forthcoming or old. With an internet search engine at their fingertips readers can find out almost anything they want about a book or an author (whether it is accurate or not is a whole other debate).

I do not think the bookseller’s role will change in the digital world but how a bookseller applies their role will be different. To remain relevant in the digital world booksellers will need to identify what they do successfully in their physical stores and find a way to perform the same role or service digitally. Booksellers are already utilizing social media and their effectiveness will only increase. Many bookshops have started ‘handselling online’ where staff film short videos about the books they have been reading. As eBooks sales rise social media for booksellers will become even more vital as book purchasing becomes something instantaneous and mobile. However there will be crossing over of roles and worlds as well. US Booksellers are utilizing QR codes on shelftalkers and in newsletters to enable their eBook readers to instantly purchase an eBook when browsing in store or reading the newsletter. Bookselling will not be about catering for the physical reader or the digital reader it will need to be about both.

The bookshop of the future will not be vastly different to the one you see today, although the big box store model is well and truly dead. There maybe a few slight differences that greets the reader like a ‘genius’ bar style area to help readers gain familiarity with eBooks and eReading devices. A bookshop’s physical store will be fully integrated with their website. What a bookshop of the future will offer readers will be a more locally focused range but not at the expense of what their customers want. The combination of Print-On-Demand and eBooks will mean a bookshop should be able to offer their readers any book they want in any format they want in a relatively short period of time.

The Bookseller will continue to play an important role for The Reader. That role will continue in the physical environment and will evolve in the digital environment. The bookseller will remain an expert in picking trends and identifying books that will suit their reading base and will continue building and nurturing communities of readers.  A bookseller’s expertise and personal interaction will always be an advantage over computer algorithms and co-opted advertising disguised as recommendations. A good bookseller is a good reader and a good reader will always need and want a good bookseller.

This was the basis for a talk I gave at The Reader: an if:book Symposium at the State Library of Queensland on April 28.

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