Handselling Reports from Coast to Coast

Alison Morris - February 1, 2008

When I wrote my handselling post of 1/9/08 I hoped to make the point that even a small independent bookstore can make a solid impact in the sales of a book, just by practicing the art of handselling. The trouble was, the only examples I gave you came from one bookstore — the one I work for.

Not wanting you to think that sales phenomena like the ones I posted about are unique to our store, I asked other independent bookstores to send me examples of their ’07 handselling successes, so that you can see for yourself what independent booksellers are doing for books throughout the country. (And throughout the world, for that matter.)

First, though, I want to share a few statistics that bookseller Karl Pohrt (owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Mich.) included in a speech he delivered at this year’s Beijing Book Festival:

We need to also carefully consider how the independent sector functions within the various retail channels that sell the top 500 titles each week. Of the retail channels that sell the first 150 titles on the list, it turns out that we underperforms in terms of its market share. Independent bookstores account for less than 9% or 10% of the sales of the most popular titles on the list.

However, for the next 150 titles, we dramatically exceed our market share. We also exceed our market share for titles sold in the 300 to 500 range. Ultimately, of course, many of these titles will move up the list.

When we do our job properly, independent booksellers act as an early warning system for publishers. We help publishers launch books. It should also be noted that the 150 to 500 range of titles is where publishers are making money, because they haven’t made huge investments that they have to recuperate in contracts with best-selling authors and large ad campaigns. So we also augment sales from the top 150 to 300 titles. 

Got that? Good. Now on with the show.

From Susan D. Mercier of Edgartown Books in Edgartown, Mass.:

Greetings from the island of Martha’s Vineyard. I would love to share our numbers and story from Whistling in the Dark by Leslie Kagen (Penguin). My fantastic sales rep Peter Giannone had sent me a copy of this book and EVERYONE on our staff loved it. We put it in the Staff Pick section and it took off this summer! We sold well over 200 copies of the book in July and August of 2007. Somehow the author heard of our love for the book and sent us a delicious tin of chocolate chip cookies this past September!!

From Vicky Uminowicz of Titcomb’s Bookshop in Sandwich, Mass.:

We’ve been handselling an adult book called Flame Keepers by Ned Handy for several years now. It’s the true and very moving story of the man who dug the tunnel at Stalag 17 during WWII. The author lives part of the year in our town. It’s an adult book, but we often recommend it for older teens. We talked about it with our high school librarian, Deb O’Brien, and she decided it would be an excellent book for the entire high school to read. Mr. Handy spoke at the high school and every class did something related to the book, including art, phys. ed, history and math (how many square feet of dirt was removed for the tunnel?). Our town-wide reading committee held a program on Veteran’s Day with a panel discussion including Mr. Handy. The result was an enormous feeling of community and good will. I spoke with a 5th grader from a town 20 miles away who had read the book and couldn’t wait to meet the author. We have now sold 164 copies of the hardcover and 788 of the paperback.

Another example: There is a wonderful picture book called Riptide by Frances Ward Weller. It’s based on the true story of a dog who saved someone’s life on Cape Cod. We only have to share a bit of the storyline and show customers a few of the beautiful illustrations by Robert J. Blake and it’s sold! We’ve sold 229 copies so far.

From Jill Moore of Square Books, Jr. in Oxford, Miss.:

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart was so good when I first read it that I talked my 12 to 15 year-old SBJ Book Society into reading it, even though it was a youngish title for them. The kids loved it! Soon after the SBJ Book Society teens pronounced their love for the book, the 8 to 11 year-olds were after it. So, being precocious, the 8 to 11 year-olds championed the title with gusto. As was the case with The Sisters Grimm (which I would like to think my handselling helped its success), The Mysterious Benedict Society became a must have for libraries, a read aloud to young children, a book choice for middle schoolers, teenagers and adults. The author contacted me shortly after the book’s release because he had heard through the grapevine that both my book clubs had chosen the title. If you haven’t yet read The Mysterious Benedict Society, get a move on. I have sold 130 copies.

Hildegarde and the Great Green Shirt Factory is a colorful and fun picture book written and illustrated by Ravay Snow…. In an age of "Project Runway" and "America’s Next Top Model," Hildegarde is a picture book with contemporary flair that celebrates personal expression. Loaded with good lessons about being yourself, taking a stand and accepting a change, [it] is now one of my favorite books, for girls and boys of all ages and adults too. I am proud to say that we sold 89 copies. Of course, we were graced by Ravay Snow’s delightful presence at our Saturday storytime.

Last fall I had the pleasure of stumbling across a galley of Jaguar Stones by J&P Voelkel, the first installment in the Middleworld trilogy. With great delight I realized that the book filled that empty space in my heart I once reserved for pirates and treasure…. I foresaw selling huge stacks of the books to precocious middle schoolers and adventurous preteens. However, when I went to order the book I found it was scarcely available through normal channels. In fact, as standard practice, it was not a book I could afford to sell. But I loved this book, like one loves a stray puppy or kitten. I loved it so much I contacted the publisher, Smith & Kraus, and then finally the authors to secure the delivery of 10 copies to Square Books, Jr. I was unsure I could convince others of the book’s greatness. Sometimes if you like a book too much, people don’t believe you, they think you are trying to trick them…. I am glad to report I have sold 18 copies of this title. There are mainstream titles that never do this well. Also, the author has scheduled a visit to Oxford to do a signing and presentation at Square Books, Jr. and the schools. I intend to sell many more, and have already had kids report back about how much they love the book and how it has spurred interest in archeology and Latin America!

From Becky Anderson of Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville, Ill. and Downers Grove, Ill.:

This list doesn’t include the obvious bestsellers that are made before they hit the shelf, but those favs that staff goes to again and again in our two stores. Several of these titles were also big hits at our bookfair company but I didn’t add those numbers to these.

Mysterious Benedict Society: 477 copies
Football Genius: 229
Kimchi and Calamari: 54
The Seems: 189
That Girl Lucy Moon: 144

rst Light: 67
True Meaning of Smekday: 229
Leepike Ridge: 63
Thing About Georgie: 89
Miss Spitfire: 80
How to Steal a Dog: 79
Cracker: 140
Aurora County All Stars: 74
Gallop: 805 —this was such a blast just demonstrating — not talking to customers about!

From Kari Patch of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.:

Last year I fell in love with Oliver Jeffers. Seriously. Lost and Found (when we could keep it in stock) sold really well. When I saw the f&g for the Incredible Book Eating Boy, I loved it. One staff recommendation later, we’ve sold 68 copies of Book Eating Boy. I’m guessing that’s about 60 more than we might have sold otherwise. (We’re also at 80+ copies of Lost and Found sold. For someone that’s not Jon Muth that’s amazing for us.)

Our YA hit of the year (aside from Harry and Percy and Hugo) was Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr. We got 2 ARCs of this last spring and both Liz and I read and loved it. Liz got a staff recommend in first. With the recommendation on the staff picks wall and some steady handselling, we’ve sold 48 copies thus far. Normally, we’re amazed at 5-10 copies of a teen book selling in hardcover. I’m guessing we’ll sell about 60 before Wicked Lovely is out in pb.

From Janet Bibeau of Storybook Cove in Hanover, Mass.:

The book we sold the most was The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies: 70 copies. 27 copies were sold at the SCBWI conference which are to her credit. About 19 were presigning sales and sales on the day of the signing, but 24, a huge amount for Storybook Cove, were sold by handselling. This is a great book for the kid reading above grade level (identifies with the sister), for the struggling student or those that live in the shadow of siblings (identifies with the brother), for those who like math more than reading, for those who don’t like math but like reading!

From Ellen Mager of Booktenders’ Secret Garden in Doylestown, Pa.:

I depend on the author/illustrator visits in my store and putting them in schools for at least 50% of my sales, but handselling is most of the rest.

Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick: 240 (150 = Involved in signing: 40 to a school he visited, 23 because I hand sold it to a teacher and she read 1 chapter with them and the children bought them and I took them to the school to be signed for them!) 90 books sold between 3/5/07 and 12/31/07 (35 in October!) 

The World’s Greatest Elephant by Ted Lewin: (85 in 2006 with a signing) 60 COPIES SOLD IN 2007! I LOVE book talking this book and watching the listeners’ facial reactions! 

Jungle Bullies by Steven Kroll: 56 copies sold — 31 sold due to teacher night presentation/signing, 25 others sold ONLY "bully" book where the bullies behavior is positively changed by those he’s wronged.

Patches Lost and Found by Steven Kroll hand sold to teachers as a "patterning" book for writing personal experiences… 38 sold — 17 @ Teacher Night

Giant Hug by Valeri Gobachev (Our Valentine’s choice every year!) 30 sold due to V. Day signing. 16 others hand sold during the rest of the year.

Main Street # 1: Welcome to Camden Falls by Ann M. Martin: sold 40 at a school signing and hand sold 30 in the last 6 months of the year, including 5 for a neighborhood book club.

Living Color by Steve Jenkins: hand sold 14 this fall! (His books are the way science should be taught in elementary schools!)

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson: hand sold 12 ! (Other than Jerry Pinkney, African American books are a hard sell in this area so that number is great!)

The Wall by Peter Sis: hand sold 10 this Fall
Igraine by Cornelia Funke: hand sold 15
Artist to Artist: 10 copies 
Where in the Wild: 11 copies 
Lissy’s Friends by Grace Lin: 10 copies 
Rabbit’s Gift by George Shannon and Laura Drozek: 11 copies 
Five Little Gefiltes: 12 copies
The Geronimo Stilton series: 135 copies over 33 titles
Magyk by Angie Sage: 16 in 2006 and 14 in 2007

From Maureen Palacios at Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Calif.:

Besides children’s titles, we carry a smattering of very select adult titles (book club titles mainly) among them a little-known second book authored by a friend of a friend. Although not marketed or written as a children’s book, Maria Amparo Escandon’s adult book Gonzalez and Daughter Trucking Company was our store’s favorite hand sell for 2006 and 2007! Two of our smart high school female employees absolutely adored the book, started recommending it to similar minded mature YAs and adults and then started a "Tough Girls Club" based on the story’s female protagonist’s decision to start a book club while being incarcerated in a Mexican women’s prison.

Anyway, when Ms. Escandon visited our store for a book signing, the store was jam packed. Mind you, this was in 2006. OK, so along the way, many other folks got interested in the book and in 2007, after reading many titles for consideration (including more well known books such as Water for Elephants), the city one mile down the road from our store La Canada One City/One Book committee choose Gonzalez & Daughter Trucking Company for their 2007 book for both adults and high schoolers based, in part, on our store’s enthusiasm for the book, its quirky characters and ability to provoke discussion. The city held successful and well-attended One City/One Book events in October of last year including an author appearance.

We hand sold close to 100 copies of the book in 2007 even though the book has been out for a number of years and this is mostly a children’s store. In 2006, we sold about 380 copies. When one person on the staff gets excited about a title, spreads the word to others, but most importantly, has other staffers read and agree this book is a great title for our demographic, it’s almost like magic, how customers respond to enthusiasm and excitement about a little-known "gem."

From Elizabeth Bluemle of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Charlotte, Vt.:

After Doug Cochrane made me read the beautiful Samsara Dog (Kane/Miller) at his booth at NEIBA, and it reduced me to actual sobs (but the good kind), we stocked it at the store and recommended it via the newsletter and handselling. Customers handsold it to other customers. People bought twos and threes. We’ve sold 59 copies so far, and it’s still going strong. Had it not been for a persistent sales rep ("You MUST read this RIGHT NOW"), we might not have discovered our sleeper hit of the season.

From Pat Byrne of Bookends in Winchester, Mass.:

101 Things You Gotta Do Before You’re 12 by Joanne O’sullivan: 58 copies
101 Places You Gotta See Before You’re 12 by Joanne O’Sullivan: 65 copies

We all think these books are great and so much fun to suggest. They’re not pretentious and are a great aid for parents who are l
ooking for things to do with their kids during the holidays and vacations. Some right in their own back yards!

From Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass.:

Here are the titles and numbers we felt worked well this past year because we loved them and recommended them face to face with our customers. They also became our Picks of the Year during the holiday season, when we recommend them in newsletters, online, in displays, AND in person.

49 copies of A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban.

34 copies of Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller, and 32 copies of The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper, illus Gabi Swiatkowska: we displayed them together, since their theme is the same.

68 copies of Global Babies by the Global Fund for Children.

68 copies of Little Rat Makes Music by Monika Bang Campbell, illus. by Molly Bang. We have a local hook on this one, but anybody who reads it and looks at the illustrations will see that it applies to any child who’s frustrated at not becoming an instant success.

12 copies of Maybelle in the Soup by Kate Speck, in spite of an awful cover and much doubt on the part of reps that we could sell a book about a cockroach. But Maybelle’s not just any cockroach!

9 copies of What’s Eating You? by Nicola Davies, illus Neal Layton. Again, the reps were doubtful we could move even a single copy of a book about parasites. I’d rather sell information about parasites than stories about flatulence, personally.

43 copies of No Talking by Andrew Clements. We always love and can sell his books, but this one was so good it far outranked his other recent hardcovers.

25 copies of A Second Is a Hiccup by Hazel Hutchins, illus. by Kady McDonald Denton. I was surprised, because it’s so brief — but not surprised, because it’s a subject kids think about endlessly.

33 copies of Stick by Steve Breen. Loved it, and the text is so brief, customers recognized that a kid could follow it solo after just one or two readings with an adult.

38 copies of I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry. One of the best this side of calamari.

22 copies of Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed…and Revealed by David Schwartz, with photos by Dwight Kuhn. It was easy to show customers why this would work for children they didn’t know very well, because it offers both poetry, science, and a visual tickle.

There are other titles we sold more of, but these were the ones where we felt our own enthusiasm made a real difference. There were some others whose covers made it impossible to sell, no matter how we enthused, though.

From Sandy Scott of The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt.:

12 copies of Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy (We rarely sell hardcover young adult books, but between my own and my co-worker Kate’s praise, we had to keep re-ordering this one!)

From Kenny Brechner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Me.:

In mid-November I was one title short for our holiday gift guide, namely I lacked a 13-up title I could handsell with abandon. Something that didn’t help morale was that two books which would have been absolutely perfect, Runemarks by Joanna Harris, and Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, were set for release on January 8th, a cruel proximity. While I was stewing about that fact Judith Rosen of PW called to chat about the wisdom of major releases made just after the Christmas season. I lamented to her that I really wished I had one of those two titles in hand, and that no greater amount of handselling would ever occur than the two weeks before Christmas. On December 8th one of our staff opened a Scholastic box and yelled out that, like a basket of foundlings left on the doorstep, a few copies of Tunnels were in it. I hadn’t pre-ordered it in force, as it wasn’t expected till January. After making sure that Tunnels had in fact been deliberately shipped early, I immediately ordered 50 more copies. We sold the last one at 4:00 on Christmas Eve. The moral is, more December 8th and less January 8th. What is finer than having a book in hand in mid-December that you know gift recipients will both love and be unfamiliar with?

From Shirley Mullin of Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore in Indianapolis, Ind. [the store that launched my — Alison’s — career in bookselling!]

So, I know you said books but we had outstanding sales of Bananagrams. It is the best toy to sell with books–sort of a simple Scrabble and with great packaging. Anyway, I played it at Thanksgiving with the amazing grandchildren who LOVED it and told the staff, and between Thanksgiving and Christmas we sold 190, mostly as add-on impulse items. We ultimately ran out a few days before Christmas and just yesterday got more and sold three on a slow day!

And one more thing: Illustrator Katherine Tillotson wrote to me to sing the praises of a program at Hicklebee’s in San Jose, Calif., called "Worth the Candle." In August Publishers Weekly featured an article on the program that is more than worth reading. Talk about a great way to handsell books… I think this program is worth several VATS of wax. As are all the booksellers who shared their numbers with me for this post! (Thanks, everyone!)

6 thoughts on “Handselling Reports from Coast to Coast


    Wow. I have been waiting for your handselling roundup, Alison, ever since you first put the request out there. What great feedback, and what great evidence of the power of handselling at independent booksellers. Nice timing that Karl Pohrt just spoke to the same subject in Beijing as well. I will definitely share this post with my colleagues at S&S who don’t come to it themselves. Not so much for the information on S&S titles which have benefited by these booksellers’ efforts, though some of the sales figures for our books in this post are terrific. What I really want to make sure my colleagues understand is the “power of the aggregate”, as evidenced (somewhat paradoxically) by the very individual power of the handsell. Thanks to Alison and all the contributors.

  2. Karen Baker

    Handselling is what differentiates the independents from all the alternatives. I own The Country Bookseller in Wolfeboro, NH, and I maintain that it is not just the handselling but WHAT we handsell that determines the degree of loyalty we enjoy. Anyone can handsell the known authors. The thrill for me comes in introducing an unknown face and watching that new author catch on. Just one example: a self-published author walked into the store this summer with her first book in what promises to be the first in a series of five. Her energy and enthusiam (and way with words) made me take notice. I took a copy, read it, reconnected to set up an event and in six months have sold 150+ copies of her book. It doesn’t happen like this with most walk-ins, but when it does, WOW! It is just fun all the way around. In this case, the author is Julie Hahnke and her book is “Through the Eyes of a Raptor” a YA fantasy. We have connected her with a publisher and just may one day say “We knew her when…..” And that is what handselling is all about.

  3. Ellen Mager, Booktenders Secret Garden

    Alison, Thanks SO much for doing this! The shared information is so valuable.I truly miss these type of sharing roundtables topics we used to have with ABC at BEA. That’s why, as well as BEA I attend ALA, Children’s Literature Festivals, et. al. whenever possible. Each bit of information makes you even better at Hand Selling. I thought that Kenny Brechner’s comment on December versus January releases was “spot on”, and added comments byKaren Baker was so reinforcing to what we are trying to do and how Brian Kelleher is sharing the information with S & S, to name just a few. Thanks for setting up this opportunity to do just that.

  4. Maggie Stiefvater

    Thanks for this amazing article! I can definitely see how those numbers ring true. My closest indie bookstore is an hour away, but every time I go to the city, I make a point to stop there and buy a book. They’ve never recommended a bad one to me, and that’s what makes them better than the huge chains.


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