"We’re in a very personal business,” said Jill Hendrix, owner of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C., who has developed close ties with many of her customers since opening the store in 2001. Like many booksellers, she has a list of 10 go-to titles that she typically recommends when customers are looking for the next book to read.
Last year, Hendrix tried taking customers’ trust in her recommendations to another level by sending out an email blast inviting customers to take a “trust fall” with her. “What I want to know,” Hendrix wrote, “is whether you’ll agree to preorder this book, sight unseen, just based on our love for it, if we give you a full money-back guarantee if you read it but don’t love it as much as we have.” For the initial offer, Hendrix chose Andrew Weir’s The Martian and sold 65 copies of the $24.95 hardcover, with only three customers asking for a refund.
In May, Hendrix repeated the “trust fall” offer for Kelly Loy Gilbert’s YA debut Conviction, which she read in conjunction with the Indies Introduce program for ABA. Hendrix didn’t think she would like it, but she did, and she decided that without an extra push customers who would also like it wouldn’t pick it up. Fiction Addiction has sold 41 copies of Conviction, much more than the store sells of a typical new YA hardcover, with just two returns.
“We’ve had several people tell us they’re really glad they read it,” said Hendrix, who predicted that it will be a strong book club selection in paperback. She‘s already thinking about a new selection for winter 2016. And her trust promotion has been picked up by BookPeople in Austin, which offers a quarterly subscription for debut and breakout books and a full refund if customers don’t like it.
Gaining and maintaining the trust of his customers has always been important to Peter Makin, owner of eight-year-old Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Mich. “I want to do the right thing by the customer,” he said. “If you are a reader, you want the right book for you. It’s all about the reader.”
So when Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman came out last month, Makin and his staff posted an opinion piece on the store’s website and its Facebook page to warn customers that the book’s promotion had been misleading: it’s not a prequel or a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and “neither is it a new book,” they wrote. “It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected.”
That said, the store is continuing to stock Go Set a Watchman. Since a longtime customer came in to express her disappointment in the discrepancy between the novel as it was marketed and what she read, the store has offered a refund to those who feel they bought the book based on misleading marketing. But Makin added that “we’re not offering refunds to people who don’t ‘like’ the book.” Four weeks after publication, only a handful of the dozens of people who preordered Watchman have asked for a refund and the title has been the store’s #1 seller since its release.
Makin believes the store’s refund policy on Watchman—which gained national attention—is part of a larger cultural shift. He argued that with information being more easily shared via social media, people have much higher expectations of authenticity and integrity in the public arena. Indie booksellers are uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of this shift, since they traditionally have a reputation for sincerity and honesty, Makin said. But, he added, if the indies exaggerate the hype that can accompany books, they will lose the trust placed in them by readers.
Lexi Beach, who opened Astoria Bookshop in Queens two years ago with Connie Rourke, said that she’s never had a rule book when it comes to running the bookstore. After finding herself crying when she finished the galley for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between Two Worlds, she decided to act on her visceral response. “I felt compelled to do anything I could to get people to read it,” Beach said.
Beach chose something more typically associated with chain retailers and online booksellers: deep discounting. In her case it was because she knew that a $24 hardcover is a luxury for some people, and she wanted to get it into the hands of as many readers as possible. “I don’t think the conversation this brings up should be a luxury. I’m not a teacher. I’m not an activist. But I sell books, and I can choose to sell [them].”
Beach decided to sell the first 150 copies of Between Two Worlds at her cost ($14), after which she will sell the book at full price. In the meantime her customers’ trust in her assessment has encouraged them to follow her example. One customer bought an extra copy and gave it to a woman waiting for a train. Inside she placed a note to “pay it forward” and encouraged the woman to pass it on after she read it."