Those of you who doubt the importance of handselling or the power of wee indie booksellers, sit up and take notice! Consider the case of A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban, previously mentioned by yours truly on this very blog. This book might have lounged in relative obscurity in our store, selling a copy or two to those lucky few customers who happened to glance at our shelves and find its spine appealing. But because a couple of us read it early on, loved it, and championed it to the rest of our staff and to our customers, we managed to sell more than one or two last year. In fact, we sold well over a hundred.
How did we work this kind of magic with a novel by a first-time author? I’ve put together a handy timeline for you, so you can watch the handselling magic unfold.
6/29/07 – I order four copies of A Crooked Kind of Perfect when I buy the Harcourt Fall 2007 list from my then-Harcourt sales rep, Zoe Lawler. I might have bought only two copies or skipped it altogether, as the book is by a new author whose talents I know nothing about and for whom there’s no sales record on which I might otherwise be able to base my decision. But the book sounds appealing, and Zoe says good things about it, so I bump the number up a bit. Four it is.
6/20/07 – My summer intern, Elizabeth Wolfson, and I attend a New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council meeting, at which we hear Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, proclaim that A Crooked Kind of Perfect is one of the best books she’s read all year. I look at the galley, which has a completely different cover from the book I saw in the Harcourt catalog, and only barely make the connection between the two. (Note to publishers: this is why it’s best to finalize your cover designs EARLY. But you already know that, right?)
Approx. 8/7/07 – On Kristen’s recommendation, Elizabeth reads our store’s galley of A Crooked Kind of Perfect, loves it, and tells me so.
8/14/07 – Four copies of A Crooked Kind of Perfect arrive at Wellesley Booksmith. Elizabeth shelves them, turns them face out on the shelf, and writes a brief review of the book on a shelf talker to sit underneath the small stack.
8/22/07 – I fall in love with A Crooked Kind of Perfect, write a blog post about said love, write an additional shelf talker singing the book’s praises and put it up next to Elizabeth’s shelf talker. Two shelf talkers side-by-side? We’ve never done it before, but I can’t resist. I order more copies of the book.
AUGUST SALES: 11 copies
Approx. 9/10/07 – Our gift buyer, Alexa, and I create a display that features Little Miss Matched socks and copies of A Crooked Kind of Perfect, the cover of which just happens to feature very similar looking socks. The display will migrate at some point and get rearranged quite a bit, but both books AND socks will be displayed side-by-side until after Christmas. My shelf talker moves over to this display, thus ending the twin talkers beneath the same title. The book is now displayed face-out in two places, with a shelf talker calling attention to each. I am now handselling the book to everyone within earshot.
SEPTEMBER SALES: 15 copies
10/4/07, 10/11/07, and 10/17/07 – I include A Crooked Kind of Perfect in three different book talks to three different groups of teachers and parents. Margaret, another of our wonderful booksellers, reads the book and also begins handselling it.
OCTOBER SALES: 29 copies
11/5/07 – Lorna reads the book, falls under its spell, and joins those of us on the "handselling this book like crazy" bandwagon.
11/20/07 – We include A Crooked Kind of Perfect in our store’s booklet of holiday recommendations for all ages. We put copies of the booklet in customers’ bags and hand them out to anyone browsing in the store. By this point almost everyone our staff is handselling the book with reckless abandon, either because they’ve read the book themselves or heard the rest of us raving about it. Meanwhile the book continues to sell itself from the two places where it’s still on display, face-out, with a shelf talker.
NOVEMBER SALES: 30 copies
12/10/07 – Linda Urban sends us signed bookplates to put in copies of her book. I sticker them with store stickers that say "SIGNED BOOK" but write the word "bookplate" under "SIGNED" so that no one feels cheated. This is the first time I’ve gone to such lengths for a book with a signed bookplate. It feels good. And it feels like maybe everyone in town is picking up this particular book, because I’m having to restock it so often.
12/23/07 – Gareth and I visit his family in Montpelier, Vt., home of Linda Urban. We meet Linda for coffee. She and I hit it off immediately, "talk bookselling" for two hours, then "talk books" in Bear Pond, one of several great bookstores in Montpelier. I breathe a sigh of relief, because it’s always reassuring to find that the author behind a book you love is themselves worth loving. (It’s so jarring when you discover the opposite!) Here we are, looking chummy:
OUR DECEMBER SALES: 53 copies
TOTAL SALES of A Crooked Kind of Perfect at Wellesley Booksmith in 2007: 138 copies (Go, us!)
Lest you think that this is a magical anomaly — that the type of thing that only happens for one book a year — stand corrected. Those book talks I gave back in October? They featured about a hundred other books, most of which got similiar treatment to this one throughout our holiday season. Some of them fared as well as Linda Urban’s little masterpiece, and some did not. The reasons for this vary: an unappealing cover on this one, a slightly more narrow audience on that one, a tougher topic on something else. But every year a lot of books that are NOT bestsellers everywhere still wind up on our store’s bestseller list, and the same thing happens at independent bookstores all over the country, with each store’s lists looking very different from one another.
Here’s a random sampling from the many, many other books that benefitted from a lot of handselling at our store this year, plus their sales numbers, so you can compare:
The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies (Houghton Mifflin, $16.00 hardcover) — 252 copies (It’s true, Jackie’s a local author and we sold 59 copies of her book in its first month at the store, when she did an event with us. But I promise you that most of the 193 additional copies we’ve sold since April were NOT the result of Jackie’s local connections. They happened because we talked this book up to everyone, put it on our summer reading list, and then eventually let word of mouth carry it onward. We sold 31 copies in December alone.)
Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry edited by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar (Candlewick Press, $21.99 hardcover) — 84 copies (This is a $22 book and it sits in our
oetry section — two marks against it. Working in its favor is the simple fact that we all love it, it’s now my favorite shower or new baby gift recommendation, and we put it on our holiday gift list.)
Darby by Jonathan Scott Fuqua (Candlewick Press, $5.99 paperback) — 192 copies (It took Candlewick four years to finally bring this book out in paperback, but in that time they came up with a new cover for the book that, in conjunction with the shelf talker I wrote for it, has worked some kind of paperback sales miracle. This one was also on our summer reading list.)
Alabama Moon by Watt Key (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16.00 hardcover) — 158 copies (This is our second year handselling this book to everyone in sight. It was on our holiday gift list last year and our summer reading list this year. Sales to date: 228. FSG, can we see this book in paperback soon, please?)
Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan (Harper Collins, $5.99 paperback) — 81 copies (Shelf talker, summer reading list, a favorite among many of our booksellers. I describe it as The Secret Garden meets Annie meets Out of Africa. For some reason that usually does the trick!)
Wiggle and Waggle by Caroline Arnold, illustrated by Mary Peterson (Charlesbridge, $12.95 hardcover) — 75 copies (Quite possibly our most successful sales to date of a hardcover beginning reader book. The secret: A shelf talker written by Elizabeth, and a spot on our holiday gift list.)
Every Kid Needs a Marshmallow Launcher by Richard and Candice Elton (Gibbs Smith, $19.95 spiral binding) — 39 copies (We started carrying this book in November of ’05, so it’s not exactly new, but our sales this year eclipsed last year’s by a substantial margin, because one of our booksellers, Betty, decided it was the coolest thing ever and started putting it in the hands of our customers — 14 of them in December of this year.)
And the hits just keep coming…