Thursday, June 16, 2011

Changing the Staff Rec Shelves (Literal and Virtual) and Contemplating What Makes a Staff Rec Work.

Last week when Carl was running back and forth between the front of the store and the back, I asked what was going on. It turns out that Carl was updating our staff rec pages on the Boswell website. 

"We update our staff rec pages on the Boswell Books website?" was my reply.  "We have staff rec pages on our Boswell Books website?" I thought "Let's have staff rec pages" was simply one of those offhand comments I made that never got followed up on.

Glancing at the pages, I knew there had been recent updates as Carl's page now references the just-released-in-paperback version of Bruce Machart's The Wake of Forgiveness, which Carl said, "A family of Czech-Americans in early 20th century Texas is split by a rift between a very hard, bitter father and a powerful, scheming rival family. In a literary world filled with copycats, Machart has carved out a true and original style."

Well, indeed we have staff rec pages, but I fear that most people don't know there's a virtual version of one of the most complimented sections of our store. It ain't rocket science, as most independent stores have them.  I don't like to talk about our staff rec area when my shelf is looking messy, but I just cleaned things up.

To me, the art of staff recs comes down to several points:

A. If you don't want to bang your head against a wall too much, it's easier to sell a trade paperback.

It's certainly not impossible to have a successful hardcover staff rec, but even many successful hardcover recs often have reviews or publicity buttressing their success.  It's harder to count books that are selling particularly well everywhere as staff rec successes.

Let's look at The Tiger's Wife.  We've had several great reads on the book and there has certainly been some handselling and a great local review in addition to all the national and international acclaim (it just won the Orange Prize) but I just don't think we've maxed out our sales potential on this title (we're just hitting the 50 mark).

Here's how you can tell if you are handselling The Tiger's Wife. You should have sold 50 copies for every million dollars in annual sales your store does before you can even consider bragging. And all stores that had an event must at least double that number.  Also, is anyone else but me freaked out that the novel is from Random House but has an old Doubleday ISBN?  What's the story there?

I'm hoping to sell at least 100 hardcovers, as long as Random House waits until after Christmas for the paperback. Jason just re-added it to the Boswell's Best.

B. a book that you know has some sort of audience if you just showcase it. There are certain kinds of books that I like where there simply isn't a big enough potential audience for the book. I don't have an example for this.

C. a smartly written rec card. My biggest problem is that I write too much.  I know they sometimes work, but I'm not a fan of the rec card that simply says "awesome" and I really don't like rec shelves that don't say anything.  I know many other stores do; it's just personal taste, but since it's my store, I ask everyone to write something on their cards.

D. patience.  I just retired my rec for Elizabeth Jenkins's The Tortoise and the Hare, after selling 73 copies.  A nice number for a book that pretty much didn't sell more than 6 copies at any other indie bookstore on Above the Treeline.  In other words, that's pure rec.  A subset of patience is to remember that there's a wrong person for every book.  Don't give up when you get bad feedback from someone, as long as you get good feedback from other people. 

E. What's the competition on your rec shelf?  Do you make your shelf tell a story about your titles or do you vary things out? I think customers do like it (and some of them love it) when you can get a read on someone's taste. I like titles A and B from Agnes so I'm going to buy C. That said, the grayest book/rec among the like books will get short shrift. Its not a bad setup, really. It's like showing someone an inappropriate but comparable house to get them to commit to the one you think they should buy.  On the shelf is a ruthless collection of short stories which is very good, and next to it is a ruthless collection of stories that is the best that Bertram has read in years.  Which would you buy?  Well, if you don't like ruthless collections of stories, then neither, but if you do, I'd go with the second collection.

Or do you include a wild card title that sticks out like those red accent walls did when people first started doing them?

I was just talking to Conrad (a real Boswellian) who often has success with cookbooks.  His rec shelf isn't filled with cookbooks, but he does often feature one.  It pops, and says, I've cooked from this interesting cookbook and I'm the kind of guy that reads David Foster Wallace and Empire of the Summer Moon. Lo and behold, suddenly we're selling a good amount of Tagine: Spicy Stews from Morocco.  It's my feeling that if we had a cookbook rec shelf, this book wouldn't stand out as much.  Could be wrong!

So anyway, this is all to say you can read our staff recs, which are pretty updated.  Here's the link; just click on a bookseller and browse away.

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