I’ve recently picked up a few shifts a week at a bookstore, receiving and stocking while I think about where I want to go with my career. As a longtime editor, it’s giving me a different view of the book world. The logistics alone are impressive.
Early every morning we arrive to new skids of boxes in the back room. The boxes are received and opened, and items are sorted for distribution throughout the store. Everything is checked for promotional status and pricing, loaded onto carts and taken to the proper location for shelving.
There is no writer’s block, no editorial hair-tearing; it’s all products and marketing. This is where the ink hits the road, so to speak. Will one lonely copy of a book see the light of day, or will stacks of a bestseller overflow the shelves?
You get a physical, hands-on sense of what’s selling and what isn’t. Which authors are popular, and which are glumly standing in the corner at the high-school dance. Training focuses on marketing and product placement.
All of the staff love books. Nearly everyone reads during breaks. Fresh volumes released from boxes are occasionally greeted with squeals of delight.
But this is, first and foremost, a business. We editors keep reminding ourselves of this — that we are in business — but often we get paid without knowing if a book sells a dozen copies, hundreds or thousands. Well, if one of “our” books hit a bestseller list, I’m sure we’d know about it.
It can be sobering when you see what’s selling. Piles of, um, let’s call it lower-end fiction. Tons of self-help. I was completely unaware that so much manga was available in English. Colouring books. Oy, the colouring books! Who knew?
But we shelve some Dostoyevsky and Camus, now and then, too.
Then there are the authors who seem to have built industries around their names. They pump out so many titles that one wonders if they run well-lit sweatshops full of English literature majors who are paid a penny a word to follow the formula.
Canada is a liberal country, so you run across mind-broadening materials. “Um, this scans as erotica. Do we have an erotica section? Oh, we do? Uh, where is it?”
There may be lots of books on relationships to shelve. And if those relationships sour, well, just around the corner there’s a manual on SAS sniping techniques, or if you’re really angry, hand-to-hand combat.
While our team is usually done by the time the doors open, we’ve had some customer-relations training, and occasionally stay on for awhile to fill in staffing gaps. It’s incredibly rewarding to be approached by an eight- or nine-year-old girl with mama prodding her from behind, and be shyly asked where a certain series can be found. And to see the joy when she finds the volume she hasn’t read yet there, pristine on the shelf with that new book smell.
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