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Judging a Book by Its Cover (Because Sometimes That’s All We Get): What Makes a Good Bookstore Book?

giverAs an independent bookseller, I have both the luxury and the responsibility of actively choosing every title on the shelves of my store. It’s a source of great pleasure but also much soul searching, because in order to keep my doors open I have to carry certain books that are not at all to my liking. The sad truth is that high quality alone doesn’t necessarily ensure sales. One of the most useful things I learned years ago at the American Booksellers Association bookselling school was that the closest booksellers ever come to achieving their ideal bookstore is on opening day, when the shelves are stocked with all the books we love the most. The moment the doors open and the first customer walks in, the entire dynamic shifts as we start responding to the needs of our clientele. I remember how proud I was on opening day of my carefully chosen collection of award-winning children’s books — only the best for my bookstore! — and what a shock it was when the first two customers through the door asked for Pat the Bunny and the Berenstain Bears. Since then I’ve spent years trying to refine the art of balancing quality with salability. Just how many purely commercial titles do I have to carry to allow me to stock the books I adore? How many copies of The Giving Tree does it take to support The Saturdays or I Capture the Castle?

Thousands of new children’s books are published every year, with only a handful worthy of serious critical attention. Of course I carry those titles (shame on me if I don’t!). But that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones with an important part to play in the reading lives of our children. There’s a whole world of books that will never be labeled “literature” but that can have a profound effect on a child’s life: books for emergent readers, joke books, activity books, series books, informational titles, books for reluctant readers — the list goes on and on. Like a librarian building a collection that will include books to attract a broad range of patrons, I have to anticipate what my customers will need and seek out the best of what’s available to satisfy those needs. Each new season brings heavily hyped blockbusters, unexpected bestsellers, and a host of instantly forgettable titles. The most important service I can provide for my customers is to wade through the endless parade of hopeful new titles, doing my best to eliminate the mediocre and the just plain bad.

So what do I look for in a “bookstore” book? One of the main differences between selecting books for bookstores and selecting them for libraries is that in today’s publishing climate the emphasis is all on immediacy: What’s new? What’s hot? Where are the marketing dollars being spent? This means that I have to buy almost everything before it comes out, based solely on whatever information the publisher sees fit to provide. There’s no time to wait for reviews — heaven help me if I don’t have the latest Lemony Snicket or Brian Jacques title, or somehow miss the fact that Patricia Polacco and Eric Carle have new picture books this season. My store may be jammed with more than twenty thousand titles, but if I don’t have the book that a customer just heard about on NPR or the Today show, I lose all credibility.

I liken the process of choosing new titles to speed dating, where singles move from one prospective date to another, trying to  analyze each one’s potential in a few short minutes. When I meet with the publishers’ sales representatives, they have a limited amount of time to present all of their company’s new offerings. Each title is reduced to a few sound bites: title, author, print run, marketing plans, brief plot summary, intended audience. I must size up the contenders for space on my shelves and decide on the spot whether to purchase or skip a title. Just like speed dating participants, I have to make my decision based on first impressions and gut instincts. Am I picking a winner, or is this book going to be as disappointing as a bad date?

So what do I look for in the brief moments when a book is in front of me? With picture books, the publishers usually provide f&gs (folded and gathered sheets), so that I can get a pretty clear idea of what the finished book will look like. I always read the text straight through, because no matter how gorgeous the art, if the story isn’t engaging, it’s not likely to be something a child will want to hear again and again. Do the pictures work with the story or distract from it? I consider the author’s track record. Is this someone who has published before? How did previous books fare? Is it a disappointing effort by a well-loved creator, or a fresh concept by an exciting new talent that I’ll be able to enthusiastically recommend to my customers? Does it look suspiciously like last year’s surprise bestseller from another publishing house? Has the plot been done to death? (How many cuddly little animals whose mamas/papas/indeterminate caregivers love them so much do we really need?) Is there nothing for me to look at but a cover (always a bad sign, like a movie that critics aren’t allowed to view in advance)? Is the book somewhat less than inspiring but yet fills a need for a particular topic, such as foster care or living with a sick parent or adjusting to a new sibling? Can I conceive of an audience, even an audience of one, for this title?

Novels are a trickier proposition. Most customers can decide pretty quickly whether they like a picture book when I show it to them. With novels, they have to rely almost entirely on my recommendation, and they’re not shy about letting me know later when I’ve steered them wrong. Although we get advance reading copies for most of the major novels publishers produce, there isn’t time for me and my staff members to read through them all before the sales rep arrives. Here I have to give much more weight to how well-established the author is, or how intriguing the plot sounds. Certain titles are automatic purchases: the latest offerings from well-loved authors like Lois Lowry or Andrew Clements; the newest book in a popular series; a handsome new edition of a classic title. Others are not so clear-cut, and I often find myself taking a chance on a title based solely on a jacket design or the catalog copy. When in doubt, I tend to order at least one copy, just in case it turns out to be the next great thing. (I’m not too proud to admit that my initial order for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was one copy.)

Fortunately, word-of-mouth about new novels builds slowly, so my staff and I keep reading galleys and checking reviews throughout the season, continually adding titles we think we can sell. Good bookstore novels can be any genre — mystery, fantasy, realism, science fiction, adventure — but the ones that do best have strong characters and clear plots that can be explained to potential customers in just a sentence or two. And the overall design of the book is extremely important, since customers paying hardcover prices for novels want to feel that they’re buying something of lasting quality.

Nonfiction is a vast and burgeoning field, and the titles available get better every year. While only a small fraction of them will be contenders for the Sibert Medal, they still cover an enormous range of topics, and do so in entertaining and informative ways. I look for interesting new takes on popular subjects (a title about Egypt or sharks or volcanoes has to be pretty spectacular to convince me to buy it), topics that have never been done (as in The Race to Save the Lord God Bird or Owen & Mzee), and books that will complement the curriculum in my local schools. If a book doesn’t hold my interest, it probably won’t make the cut.

Of course, publishers are well aware that they only have a tiny window of opportunity to present their books in the best  possible light. The overachievers in their marketing departments do everything they can to make sure that particular titles stand out. Every day the mail brings some jaw-dropping attempt to buy my attention: T-shirts and mugs imprinted with a book title; carefully giftwrapped galleys in boxes filled with excelsior; flashlights, key chains, handkerchiefs (“a two-hanky read”); even a pair of flipflops with the title of a beach book imprinted on the soles. I have letter-openers, tote bags, gel pens, compact mirrors, shoelaces — if it can be imprinted, somebody has done it.

While all of this attention (and loot) is flattering, it has absolutely no bearing on whether or not I select a book. In most cases it works against it. When I see marketing dollars being thrown around wantonly, I become instantly suspicious about the quality of the book. The more relentlessly a title is marketed, the more money was probably advanced to the author or illustrator, and the more desperate the attempts by the publishers to recoup some of it. My heart hardens when I receive a lavish folder filled with publicity materials for a single title: rave pre-publication reviews, author profiles, marketing plans (“10-city author tour! National media advertising! 100,000 first printing! Consumer-targeted website!”). I remain unmoved by heartfelt “Dear Bookseller” letters from editors rhapsodizing about how some new novel is the most astonishing work ever penned, and it’s the pinnacle of their careers to have the honor of publishing it. And I get downright cranky when a book arrives with a cardboard display unit the size of a refrigerator that I’m expected to assemble and showcase in my already cramped store.

And then there are the book jackets. My rule of thumb is that the quality of the book is in inverse proportion to the amount of  foil, glitter, and raised lettering on the cover. I’m not so naive that I don’t know that the cover designs of books with big print  runs are all geared to attract the attention of shoppers in large chain bookstores, where books are displayed in massive stacks, and trying to find a salesperson can be like wandering in the desert for forty years. But must they be quite so garish? I don’t mind at all if they’re celebrity books (which have the added feature of large color photos of the “authors” on the back cover), because I’m not going to sell those anyway. But I do mind when I find myself apologizing to my customers and telling them, “Please ignore the awful cover — it’s really a great book.”

In the end, all the marketing smoke and mirrors can’t turn a bad book into a good one. The celebrity books, the movie tie-in editions, the racy teen series books will all have their moment on the bestseller lists and then vanish as completely as if they had never been published. They don’t need my help, and they won’t get it. What I look for are the books that will last, the ones that I am proud to sell and eager to introduce to my customers. After twenty years in the business, I still get excited when I receive the new season’s catalogs, and I open every box of galleys with enormous anticipation. Even though in these days of over-publishing I have to sift through much more material to find the hidden gems, there’s still the hope that a new novel will rivet me the way Skellig or The Giver or The Book Thief did, or a new picture book will be just as enchanting as Kitten’s First Full Moon or Doctor De Soto or Tibet: Through the Red Box. As long as the possibility of discovery is still there, I’ll continue to do what I do. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than sharing the books I love. And if I have to sell a few copies of Love You Forever to do it, well, the tradeoff is worth it.

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Terri Schmitz

Terri Schmitz is the owner of The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts, and reviews new editions and reissues for the Horn Book.

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Comments

  1. It’s interesting that novels rely on a recommendation. My mom is thinking of starting a reading club so the number of members that she has will probably be a big factor in what Novels they read. Since her friends are interested in historical fiction I bet they will read more of those kinds.

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