Confessions of a sci-fi and fantasy bookseller

A former SFF bookseller reminisces about the joys and er, less joyful aspects of flogging geek books to the general public...

I worked for a large bookshop chain, running the Science Fiction & Fantasy, Graphic Novels, and Horror sections. Also Crime, Humour, Dark Romance (True Blood had just happened), and Travel. Technically I also ran Manga, but I delegated that one to someone who knew more than ‘If it’s shrinkwrapped then it’s exactly what you think it is’.

I was contracted for 16 hours per week.

There was a fair bit of overtime.

One thing that was clear from running seven sections of a bookshop – you don’t actually need to read these books to make a profit. Books have a good profit margin anyway, but all you actually need to do is look at the sales figures, notice patterns and popular authors, and order accordingly. Bluntly, no one has time to read proofs from across seven different genres, so in some cases I had to do this. However, if you actually want to run a section really well then caring about it beyond a balance sheet is essential.

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There is something immensely satisfying in the task of filling bookshelves. Despite the fact that people asked questions no matter how thorough you were, a good bookseller should pursue clear signs describing how that section is organised and running orders for any series longer than five books. They should do this in moderation, yet with the fervour of recent convert.

Occasionally, just for a few brief and beautiful minutes, we had every single Discworld novel in stock and shelved in series running order. Obviously, though, you didn’t want this to last. In an ideal world, we’d have had space and resources to keep at least two copies of everything, but that essentially involves having twice as much money and space for another bookshop in the back office. It is sadly not feasible, but we dreamed of it as often as we dreamed of having hammocks in the staff room.

Essentially, running a book section is a constant battle of order vs chaos. We, bearers of branded badges and the pushers of the sacred trolley, are the forces of order. You, the customer, are the agents of chaos. You put books back in the wrong places. Sometimes you put them in on top of the other books so that they fall down the back of the shelves. Sometimes you jam them into tight spaces so the pages get all creased and dented. Sometimes you do all of these things deliberately. If it weren’t for the fact we need your money, most booksellers would gladly ban customers. It’s a slightly toxic relationship.

There now follows a handy summary of cliches about bookshop customers:

  • Yes, you do come into bookshops without knowing anything about the book other than the colour of its cover. More often than you’d expect.
  • Yes, middle-aged person (and it is always a middle-aged person) who thinks they know better than us, we are just being polite and nodding because we can’t say what we really think of you.
  • You are bewilderingly confident that we will refund your unwanted Christmas present which still has a price sticker from another bookshop on the cover.
  • You think booksellers are much better paid than they actually are.
  • You have a strange and unyielding faith in the power of thin, mass-produced plastic bags to protect your books through wind and rain and hurricane.

This is not to say we hated customers, no. Without customers we wouldn’t have anyone to share our enthusiasm with – the part of the job that made it worthwhile. The feeling is similar to present-giving, when you make a (hopefully informed) guess about what someone would like, and are vindicated by the purchase.

Plus, if we were busy hating customers all the time we’d be too busy to hate senior management.

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In an effort to confirm everyone’s expectations, someone from Head Office’s HR department came in to announce, without warning, that our branch was closing in a month’s time, and called us selfish when we were annoyed at the way this had been handled. Likewise, the week after the company newsletter had an article saying ‘no one buys Marvel hardbacks’, everyone got sent a dozen Marvel hardbacks.

If you go into a specific bookshop chain branch regularly, you may notice certain books that are ever present, as if they’re load bearing. Occasionally they move around, on the off chance that seeing them from a different angle will make them more attractive to customers. These have been centrally ordered, and miraculously never get picked for returns. The booksellers know that no one is going to buy four copies of the tie-in novelisation for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, but they’re stuck with them now.

It is increasingly hard, due to the model of sale or return, to keep relatively obscure standalone books in stock. It’s long established series that sell, and every new trilogy (always a trilogy) has a publicity campaign likening it to the long established series. Even in something like the Science Fiction Masterworks range, the bigger names attract the sales. This, in turn, leads to standalone or more obscure titles sitting on the shelf for three months untouched, only for someone to come in looking for that specific book the week after it gets returned. It’s also more difficult to get books in from America, certainly for Hugo Award nominees and acclaimed graphic novels.

Do you know how many hours of my life I spent trying to get copies of Jeff Smith’s Bone in stock? No, me neither. But it was definitely above average. You know, deep down, when you run a comics section in a bookshop, that you’re just playing in comparison to the proper comic shops. You know that you are mainly catering for the dad in High Fidelity who wants to buy his daughter ‘I just called to say I loved you’, people who just want to see what this Watchmen thing is all about. If you want Cages by Dave McKean, we are not the shop for you.

This, in turn, is why people use websites like Amazon. That, and they’re cheap because of their financial arrangements.

It should, though be legal to kick people in the shins if they ask booksellers to find a title of a book just so they can order it through Amazon. Please, just pretend you’re getting it from a library instead. That’s so much more bearable.

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