On Thursday, March 13, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association hosted its first-ever “Careers in Bookselling” event, a day of panel discussions on what it takes to establish a long-term career as a professional bookseller. The program at the Random House offices in New York City drew more than 40 booksellers and other book industry professionals from across the NAIBA region.
Conversations centered on a series of diverse yet interconnected aspects of bookselling, ranging from finances and best practices to existing and emerging job titles. The program culminated in a discussion of what owners and publishers are looking for in a frontline bookseller.
After an opening keynote by Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, on her own multifaceted career in bookselling, Chris Doeblin of Book Culture in New York City and NAIBA President Margot Sage-EL of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, New Jersey, shared the mic for “Structures & Finances of Bookselling.”
Doeblin encouraged those in attendance to think scientifically about their work in retail. He recommended Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill (S&S), a book which inspired him to take the science of retail seriously and to try to make continuous improvements based on the store’s numbers. “You have access to a lot of sales data,” said Doeblin. “Use it.”
Sage-EL echoed Doeblin’s emphasis on using scanned data to inform buying, inventory, and display decisions. “Bookselling seems totally intuitive, but it’s the selling of the books that pays salaries,” Sage-EL said, encouraging booksellers to trust the facts over their assumptions about a book’s track record. “We might love something that isn’t resonating with customers.” She also called attention to the language that booksellers use in reference to those same customers, stating that she has moved away from thanking them for their support. “The store isn’t a charity,” Sage-EL said.
In a conversation called “Who We Work With, How and Why,” Jenn Northington of WORD Bookstore, which has locations in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey, discussed the organizational relationships that factor the most prominently in a bookstore’s day-to-day operations. Northington highlighted key publishers, wholesalers, trade associations, and support services that booksellers should be familiar with and provided examples of innovative ways booksellers can connect with other local businesses to form mutually beneficial neighborhood partnerships.
Toby Cox of Three Lives & Co. and Roger Pantano of McNally Jackson Books, both in New York City, led a discussion called “Jobs in Stores,” which enumerated the possibilities for frontline booksellers to advance into both existing and emerging positions. Pantano provided details from McNally Jackson’s employees on what each of their jobs entails, from events coordinator to social media manager to children’s specialist. He also emphasized that positions that did not previously exist ended up being created by those who had already worked in the store in another capacity.
Cox confessed to what became a theme for many of the day’s featured speakers: that for the first nine years he was in bookselling, he didn’t think it was a real job. It took a transition into publishing for him to appreciate how much he valued about bookselling itself: “Though my time at Random House was invaluable, publishing was not where I wanted to be on the spectrum of the book,” he said. Cox purchased Three Lives & Co. in 2001 and has embraced bookselling as his long-term career ever since.
In the final talk of the day, Francine Lucidon of The Voracious Reader in Larchmont, New York, discussed “What Owners Are Looking For” when hiring and promoting booksellers, while Ruth Liebmann, director of account marketing at Random House, highlighted “What Publishers Are Looking For,” which she explained simply as “to help booksellers sell more books.”
Lucidon and Liebmann agreed that the key to standing out was for booksellers to show that they care by going beyond the routine. From finding something to do when there is “nothing to do,” to taking on additional responsibilities without waiting for tasks to be delegated, to communicating enthusiasm for a new book with sales reps during prepublication, extra effort will breed recognition from supervisors and the greater professional community. Both also advised booksellers to share what is unique about their stores with media outlets and customers alike to help spread the word about the indie resurgence. “People want to find reasons to do more for the independents,” Liebmann emphasized. “Bang the gong.”
The day included a lunch with two featured authors, each promoting an upcoming book and armed with complimentary galleys: M.J. Rose, author of Collector of Dying Breaths (Atria) and Alena Graedon, author of The Word Exchange (Doubleday).
“Careers in Bookselling” was organized by NAIBA, inspired by its Board of Directors and spearheaded by Executive Director Eileen Dengler.