Show Us Your Shelftalkers

Cynthia Compton -- February 10th, 2020

I have a small shopkeeper confession: when I visit other bookstores, I love meeting new bookselling colleagues, checking out interesting local sidelines and greeting store pets, but mostly, I’m there to read the shelf talkers. Those charmingly bookish handwritten cards, sometimes covered in fancy plastic protectors, sometimes laminated, and often just taped to the edge of the bookshelf are like little peeks into the soul of a store. In some stores they are all written on white card stock, and I marvel at the incredibly neat printing that fits all those words onto that little space. Other booksellers use a color coded system, with each staff member’s blurbs written on their own signature colored paper, so that customers can skip across sections looking for “their” staffer’s picks. Flurries of one color in Romance or Science Fiction give clues to that staff member’s personal favorite genre, and looking at the clusters of colors is like a Venn diagram of the reading preferences of the store team. Even fancier are the stores with custom printed shelf talkers, each bearing a photo of the staffer who wrote the review – in my store, that would be WAAAAY too many pictures of yours truly, but I love the idea, and feel that approach adds a lot of credibility to this “hands free” handselling technique.

Other bookstores have less uniform approach, and embrace a random collection of styles in their signage. Some shelf talkers might be hand printed in sharpie marker, some contain actual DRAWINGS (this is a level of attention and detail that speaks to a consistently unclogged store toilet and a dedicated event staff to handle the morning story time hordes, and we will just never get there) and some are written in beautiful script that remind me of Sister Patricia and handwriting practice after lunch in third grade. (To this day, my capital Q’s look like giant malformed 2’s and I look for synonyms to sentence starters like “quietly” or “quickly.”) There might be a few typed book reviews mixed in, or even the “cut and paste” that we’re all tempted to do when a new Indies Introduce flyer arrives in the ABA White Box.

The writing style and content of shelf talkers is as varied as their artistic production. Some are incredibly personal, mentioning the reviewer by name, or written in a first person style that references why that particular book affected the reader. Others are great mashups of author bios and book comps and reveal as much about the bookseller and their own cultural touchstones as they do about the featured title. I love to wander around other bookstores, hearing the language of other booksellers as they pitch titles I already may know, but somehow sound fresh and worth a re-read when described by another bookseller.

As a children’s store, we’ve experimented with kid-written shelf talkers, with varying success. We usually use them during our summer reading program, but there’s a bit of a traffic jam on the Rick Riordan shelf in Middle Grade, and how many odes to John Green can you really tape together in YA? The Harry Potter recs alone need their own shelf, and I had to move the graphic novels twice to make room for all of Raina Telgemeier’s fandom. It’s easier to just post all these reviews and illustrations on the walls and doorways, and leave the shelves for those single backlist shoutouts.

A really good shelf talker is gold, sales wise, and a poor one is at best forgettable but at worst like a staffer with halitosis. I have researched several seminars and panels given at regional conferences on this topic, and found the following advice:

Keep it short (6 lines, 6 words per line seems to be the recipe) so that the shelf talker just whets the readers appetite, not serves a three-course meal.

Pull the shelf talkers up to eye level, if possible. For example, put all your staff pics at the same shelf height around the store, and tag all of them with handwritten reviews. I will confess that we don’t do this, and have shelf talkers hanging from every level. The ones that sell best are on the middle shelves, for sure, but ALL THE BOOKS IN THE MIDDLE sell better.

Refresh and reprint as needed. Ripped, dogeared and soiled is an ok status for a favorite book on your nightstand, but shelf talkers get worn and need to be redone sometimes. We laminate ours, mostly because we have a laminator and it’s really fun to use, but otherwise I agree that signage gets tired looking.

Handwritten is preferred by more bookselling experts in the seminar notes I reviewed. Personally, I think the presence of ANY shelf talker is better than nothing at all, so I’ll let you decide about the legibility of your printing.

Promote backlist. This is a valuable tip, as it’s easy to just assign the Tuesday new releases to staffers to “write up,” while there is much margin to be made in our shelves with books that are not currently in the media.

Outsource if necessary. In the unbelievably long list of tasks for a solo shopkeeper or small store, hand printing carefully worded pitches for books (that the buyer might have only skimmed the summary, or relied on a rep’s markup notes) is not something to get a case of the guilts about. Find a customer who likes to write them, and offer them free rein of your ARC shelf in exchange for producing shelf talkers for several books per week or month.

So pull out your index cards, my bookselling friends, and let’s create some new shelf talkers this week. I would love to see pictures in the comments below, either of your own store’s efforts or your favorite examples from bookstore tourism.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

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