Here comes a confession: I have never had a sustained relationship with a bookstore.

Oh, I’ve had quite a few casual on-and-off bookstore relationships, places I’ve visited more than once over many years. Likewise I’ve had my one-night stands, hitting a store hot and heavy, walking out with armfuls of books but never going back. I’ve bought books from guys on the street and from national chains and from mass merchants and from newsstands. Of course, I’ve also bought books from Amazon.

But when people complain that the Amazon recommendation engine is a big dumb machine, I’m out of my league in responding because I never had that go-to bookseller, that person who knew my tastes because he or she had been selling me stories for a decades and observing my reaction.

I do know that the Goodreads recommendation software can’t have me nailed, as I’ve only listed seventy-eight books of the thousands I’ve read. Perhaps that’s an incentive for me to list those thousands right away, but — call me crazy — somehow that seems less organic than having a living person judge my facial reactions and watch my tastes evolve over years.

But, of course, I’ve never had that living person because I’ve been a promiscuous bookstore shopper, never really settling down. I am poorer for that because I’ve too rarely had books “hand sold” to me.

Hand selling once sustained the book business. It describes the act of booksellers individually communicating their enthusiasm for a book that they’ve read themselves. If that person knows a customer’s tastes and the book in question comports with those tastes, the recommendation has a social component that goes beyond anything Facebook is doing.

On Facebook, I’ve listed only four or five books that I’ve read. I don’t have the patience to list all the others, even though I’m now told that Facebook wants to start making book recommendations to me. I still wish I got book recommendations from a real live person who knows my book taste better than anyone.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned book recommendation engines and the programs at Barnes & Noble that try to offer a human touch, most hand selling occurs at the independent bookstore level. That’s why I paid to print nearly a thousand Advance Reading Copies of Primacy and have them shipped to independent bookstores before the book’s publication.

About a month ago, as I noted in a previous post, I took a few of those ARCs and some early reviews and marched into several local bookstores. At the biggest independent among these, I was greeted skeptically by the clerk at the Customer Service counter. He peered at the spine and said, “Verbitrage. What’s that?”

I explained patiently that it’s an authors’ consortium and the clerk wrote down a name and email, saying the person with whom I needed to communicate — who turned out to be the head buyer for the store — wasn’t available at the moment. He tried to give me back the ARC, but I kindly asked him to pass it along.

In the ensuing few weeks, I sent a couple of emails to that buyer (and other bookstores) bringing them up to date on reviews and such. No response came at first and then finally an email from the buyer, saying she planned to take my ARC on vacation and would get back to me.

Imagine my delight when, a week or so later, I received an email that said, in part: “I read Primacy on vacation and enjoyed it very much. It was fast-paced fun that I think has lots of commercial potential.” She went on to discuss some ways she might help promote it in her store and even said she’d promote it at an upcoming publishing event. She concluded: “Anyway, thanks for the ARC. It was a perfect beach read.”

Wow. This is what an author lives for. Great enthusiasm from a reader — but not just a reader, an expert reader — not just an expert reader, an opinion leader — not just an opinion leader, a bookseller who is in a position to hand sell to her customers!

Of course, in my initial response to her email I told her I’d be happy to support her enthusiasm any way that I could, in store or out. Her follow-up email said: “Excellent. I’ll be in touch, and will sell some books in the meantime.”

I hope she succeeds, and if she does that would be hand selling in its purest form, the kind that historically has established untold numbers of first-time authors, one copy at a time sold to known customers with great personal enthusiasm.

Sadly, however, I worry that hand selling may disappear one day soon. Because if ebooks take the majority of the market, that bodes ill for independent bookstores. And if more independents fall, who will be left to hand sell new fiction?

Optimists will suggest that three entities might pick up the slack: computers, bloggers and authors. But the computers, as I noted above, are easily and inadvertently fooled, and the meta data that drives them tracks interests better than tastes. Bloggers can be helpful but they can’t offer the same level of personal relationship that your favorite bookseller does. And authors, of course, can connect with readers more easily these days, but can’t have the same level of credibility as an independent bookstore in relation to their own work.

We hear that books may one day live in the cloud — a reference to so-called “cloud computing” where data gets stored on server farms rather than your own device. But the cloud is vast. In the cloud each authors is a nearly invisible droplet of water.

As I get older, I find it harder — not easier — to discover new authors, and I’m sure this is in part because I have no great bookseller hand selling to me. Therefore, I ask myself, when it’s all in the cloud, will most discovery cease? And if it does cease, unless I become famous real quick, how will new readers ever discover me?


Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 28: The Trouble with Free

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 30: Radio Radio

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Visit the Verbitrage website.

Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

4 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 29: 
Hand Selling”

  1. One thing you can fool the Amazon computer is working together with other writers to ‘tag’ or recommend each other’s book until you managed to collect enough for your book to show on tags. I did not want to get involved because I felt it was not ethical and a shitty thing to do to future readers who might have supported me anyway.

  2. For me the reason that the recommendation engines don’t really work is I don’t want to read stuff like what I’ve already read. Whereas in music, though I like a lot of different kinds, it isn’t that big of a stretch to say that if I like Wilco or Calexico I’ll probably like the Shins. When I read fiction I’m always hoping that stuff will blow me away in an unexpected fashion.

  3. Ann Miller says:

    Joel, Great commentary. Dutch, Louisa and I just bought Kindles because we are now living in a VERY small house on Guernsey…lots less bookshelf space. It’s a great machine and we’re reading lots more than we were because 1) there’s no wait time to get to the store and 2) you can get a new book in the middle of the night if you want. Also, it’s great to take on trips: load it up and off you go, taking very little space in your bag. BUT, I find the major downside is not being able to flip back to a part you want to revisit. Major bummer. I do like the recommendations, however, because I’m one of those readers who likes books with thrills that you can’t put down. When I find an author I read lots of their work and then need some help finding someone else who has a similar style or subject matter. Anyway, that’s just me. Hope you and the family are well!!!

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