Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Book Industry Right of Passage: Bookselling

After last week's post about my visit with my mentee who wants to be a jacket designer, I've decided to do something about the paucity of information out there on How To Get A Job in Publishing. After all, I give a talk on the subject every year at my alma mater, and I think it's an absurdly hard industry in which to get your foot in the door. So each Thursday, I will posting tips on breaking through.

First up, the most useful experience you can have for a career in publishing is to work in a bookstore. Whether you want to work in editorial, design, sales, marketing or any other department, you will learn so many invaluable lessons when working as a front line bookseller that your future jobs will be made easier. When helping actual end-customers, you'll hear them say things like, "oh, what an ugly cover" and "I'd never read a book by a woman" and "but that's a children's book." While you may never be able to persuade them to see things your way, you might learn A) what covers turn consumers off, B) that aside from a few exceptions most women writing in men's genres might want to consider obscuring their gender, or C) that while teen cross-over books can break out, you can't count on buyers to see past the category.

Personally I learned:
  • Not all New York Times bestsellers are bad. In fact, when I gave them a chance, I really liked a bunch of them
  • Oprah is a God
  • Faced-out books sell
  • Spinner racks were invented as a torture device for booksellers
  • The books on the front tables are not what booksellers like, but are paid for by publishers
  • Keep your receipt for all textbooks
  • You can in fact keep working when the power goes out so long as you have a calculator, and a pen
  • I don't clean other people's bathrooms
  • I am not cut out for retail

There is a funny website called Not Always Right that tells horror stories of retail life including at bookstores. My favorite is the woman who's looking for something that is looking for something that is "like a book, but not a book" (and no, it isn't a magazine.)

So here are some tips for applying for a bookstore job:

  • Go during a weekday, when they aren't busy.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Dress business casual. For the application drop-off also, not just for the interview.
  • While droppng off application, ask to talk to a manager. Briefly chat with them, tell them how much you love to read, how you'd love to work in a bookstore, etc.
  • Expect them in an interview to ask you what are the last five books you read. They expect to hear about current books, not Faulkner and Shakespeare, regardless of your student status. They might ask you how you would recommend those books to a customer.
  • They might ask you a question like, "if a customer came in and said they loved The Help, what else would you recommend to them?" (A hint: it's good to ask the customer what they liked about the book. You might recommend different books if they liked the women's relationship or the Southern setting or the civil-rights storyline.)
  • If they only have a cafĂ© position open, take it, but keep reminding them that you want to switch to bookseller when a position opens up.
  • The children's department isn't a popular department so it might be easier to get a job if you're willing to work there (You should also know something about some children's books.)
  • Expect them to ask you to explain how your prior experience will translate to the bookstore. Ideally, explain how you had an issue with a customer and worked it out to everyone's satisfaction. Expect a customer service type question or two.

Also, ask around. I know “networking” can be confusing, but here’s what I found out AFTER I started working at the bookstore:

    • Assistant manager Kay’s best friend had worked with me at a previous job
    • Shipping & Receiving Supervisor Russell had been in my Chemistry II class in high school
    • Bookseller Jim had been in my Chemistry I class in high school
    • Supervisor Charles went to my college, and his little brother was in my class.

I did get the job anyway, but it would have helped if I were able to make any of those connections beforehand. You might not think you know anyone useful/helpful for networking, but it’s just not true. What would happen if you posted on Facebook that you want to work in a bookstore and does anyone know anyone who works in a bookstore anywhere? You might be surprised.


avisannschild said...

I'm looking forward to reading more of your tips, even though I'm not looking for a job in publishing!

By the way, Not Always Right is still up and running! I subscribe to them in Google Reader and saw new posts just yesterday...

Carin Siegfried said...

Thanks for the tip about Not Always Right! I found it up again today so I've edited the post. I'd tried it 3-4 different days and just couldn't get it to come up but it's back!