Last week I posed the question of whether or not my ability to recall the details of a book’s plot details should somehow influence my review of said book, and several of you remarked that, yes, indeed, a story’s staying power is somehow indicative of its quality. Whether or not that’s the case, as a bookseller who has to be able to conjure up snappy, quick, on-the-spot reviews for customers on a daily basis, I can say that the books with the best "staying power" are the ones that probably fare the best on the hand-selling front. The better I can recall their details, the better I can describe them to others… usually.
The thorny bit here is that there are always books that I love and that really have "stayed with me," but which I nevertheless find difficult to describe to others in a way that sounds sufficiently enticing. There are a lot of wonderful books that just sound… boring or exceedingly odd, plot-wise, when you try to describe them to other people, or at least to young people. A grown-up might very well be won over by your descriptions of their fine writing, but many kids have a harder time being wooed solely by literary merits.
One of these books for me is The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer. Its length works against it, complicating matters, as the book is quite short for the audience I think it most appropriate for ages 12 and up. I have the hardest time telling people what this book is about without them looking at me cross-eyed or dismissing it outright because they don’t like the cover or the thickness of the volume or the fact that the main character has conversations with Jesus. (I’d be hardwon on those details, too, actually.) Selling this book is a true trust exercise — customers who know me and trust my recommendations may be talked into buying it, but others? Forget it.
Sometimes, too, I find it hard to sufficiently condense a book’s plot into a "sound bite-sized" package, making my descriptions feel overly cumbersome. Try to describe The Golden Compass in under two minutes, for example. I’ve managed to cut my description down to something that will usually win someone over, but I still find it hard to do so succinctly, in part because it’s a book that leaves you with so much to say. I had similar problems at first with Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan, which has three times as much plot as it does pages, a feat that works beautifully in this book. Try to explain how the story begins here, moves there, then advances to another place, though, and you may notice a less-attentive audience shifting their weight with impatience. (Hence the reason my shelf talker explains it, in part, as Out of Africa meets Annie meets The Secret Garden. It insults the book a bit, I think, to imply that it might be derivitive, but it seems to tell customers plenty and we’ve since had no trouble selling the book.)
Is there a book you find it especially hard to convince other people to try reading? Have you discovered the perfect handle or an ideal hook? At our store we each learn the best tricks by eavesdropping on one another’s hand-selling efforts. Give all of us a chance to eavesdrop on your efforts here, and maybe it’ll help us work some magic with those hard-to-sell books.