A fascinating experiment in bookselling was recently launched in Tokyo: Daikanyama T-Site, created by Tsutaya, one of Japan’s leading bookstore chains. Unlike most of its stores, which are pulsating, neon-lit urban hubs where you can buy books, magazines, coffee, and DVDs till late at night, Daikanyama is more sedate, with glass walls, weathered wood floors and shelves, with a target audience of the over-50s, or what the Japanese call the “silver market.”
The store rambles across three buildings, and in addition to the usual bookstore cafe, houses a late-night bar, a travel agency, a convenience store, and stationer. It sells new books and magazines as well as those it calls “vintage,” first editions, or particularly beautiful or noteworthy publications. You can read a travel book and book your holiday in the same place. There are plenty of iPads around the store for reading, reference, and buying.
Its owners call it a bridge between the analogue and digital worlds, and a meeting place for an underserved and affluent demographic.
But at the center of it all are the salespeople, known as “concierges,” the same age as the target audience and recruited for their knowledge and enthusiasm for what they sell, whether jazz or poetry.
For all the fear, excitement, and increasing dominance of technology, when it comes to selling books, the human networks still matter. The Internet may bring us convenience and lower prices, but buying books online remains a very different experience from buying them from someone you know and trust.
As I researched and wrote my book, The Art of the Sale, I traveled all over the world meeting all kinds of salespeople, selling everything from insurance to airplanes. All of them had a genuine interest in other people and a powerful urge to make their products desirable.
Selling a book is a special kind of sales challenge. “You’re recommending something that will go straight into the customer’s brain and will change a little who they are,” says Cathy Langer of the Tattered Cover, in Denver.
People who sell books tend to be evangelists. They need to understand their customers, but they also need to be able to convey their own enthusiasm for a book and the desire to share it. “I don’t think of myself as a salesperson but as a bookseller,” says Anne Holman, manager of the King’s English, an independent bookstore in Salt Lake City. “Perhaps it’s just semantics, but when I put a book in somebody’s hands and they love it, nothing makes me happier.” The excitement of selling for her is “not the money, but the thrill of having that something in common with a reader, anticipating that they are going to buy this book.”
Older customers (as the Japanese seem to understand so well) and parents buying for their children are the most reliable users of bookstores. They appreciate the personal service and staff recommendations. But only hand-selling to them is not enough. The King’s English and the Tattered Cover, like many independent stores around the country, have developed thick networks of authors, local and national, who are constantly visiting to talk and sign books.
“We’re a community gathering place,” says Holman. “We shouldn’t underestimate people’s desire to connect. As we get more involved in the e-commerce world through Amazon, Facebook, Pinterest, people want to go into a store and have someone say ‘hi’ and be glad to see them.”
Jon Mueller of 800CEORead fulfills bulk orders of business books for events, but his attitude to selling is the same as Holman’s and Langer’s. “It’s not so much about the books, it’s about relationships with people. It’s really about the authors, what they’re doing, why they’re saying it.” His sales team, he says, “aren’t technically good salespeople. They’re nice people. People you can get along with easily.”
It is in the tight-knit and mutually supportive world of reps and bookstores, in the human connections and shared interests of salespeople and customers, authors and their audiences, that the appeal and enduring strength of this industry will lie.
Philip Delves Broughton’s book The Art of the Sale: Learning from the Masters About the Business of Life is out this month from the Penguin Press.