At a recent staff meeting, Janet Grant filled us in on a Bookspan/Publisher’s Marketplace webinar she attended a week or so ago. She took great notes on many topics but one point stood out to me. The presenter observed that it’s harder than ever to launch a new novelist since the demise of hand selling. The demise of hand selling? I had to chew on that for a few days.
What is hand selling?
Hand selling is when the sales person takes a product from the shelf and romances it to the customer. It’s a powerful sales tool. You’ve seen many forms of it in your life as a customer. It’s when a guest walks into a bookstore and says, “I just lost my mother. Do you have some good books on grief?” The sales associate (often called the frontliner) puts a hand on her shoulder and walks her over to the self-help section and opens two or three excellent books on the subject and explains a little bit about each one. Hopefully that customer will walk out of the store with the perfect book on the loss of a parent, perhaps a short gift book on the first year of grief, and a new journal to help her work out some of her feelings on paper. That’s hand selling.
On a shelf, all books pretty much look alike, you must open them for the magic to happen. Of course, we have the cover and the back cover copy to help entice a buyer, but there’s nothing like a frontliner coming up, taking the book out of the customer’s hand and saying, “This is my favorite book of the year. I couldn’t put it down and read it in one very long gulp. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Some of the big box bookstores used to have frontliners tape a little signed card of recommendation to put on the shelf housing their favorite books. It offers a passive hand sell. Certainly better than nothing.
Why did hand selling die?
Hand selling happens at brick and mortar stores. I’ve visited some amazing stores where this still goes on, like Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Vero Beach Book Center in Florida and several others, but stores like these are becoming rare. Some Barnes and Nobles do a great job of hand selling, but not all. With the demise of real time bookstores, hand selling books is becoming a lost art. And when a book by a new author goes on the shelf in a store or on the virtual shelf online, how is anyone to guess the world that lies between the covers?
Is there anything to replace it?
Not really. There is nothing like holding a book in your hand and having someone rave about it, but here are a few possibilities:
- Word of mouth— This, of course, is the magic elixir. If people start talking about your book, there is no way to stop the momentum. The sad thing for authors is that we can’t make this happen. It happens or it doesn’t.
- Ninja attacks— I’ve heard of writer’s friends, parents and crit partners who will haunt bookstores and when a customer comes into the vicinity of their target book, they pick it up and hand sell. During covid, I don’t know if I can recommend this quirky form of book stalking, but hey.
- Reviews— Reviews are the most effective way these days of hand selling. An online review is the sweetest gift you can give to an author whose book you loved. Plus it’s a great way to hone your own writing skills. Frustratingly, authors can’t really make this happen. We can implore everyone we know with our best puppy-dog-eyes but unfortunately, it’s hard to write a good review and too many intend to do it but never get around to it. And, even more pressure, some of the promotional sites are only interested in authors who have masses of reviews.
- A Starred Review— if your book receives a starred review (book of distinction) from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist or Library Journal, this is going to mean attention from buyers and hopefully readers. You will be able to leverage this in your own social media.
- Social Media— If people write about your book on social media– honestly write about it– that’s akin to word of mouth. And it works. Last week, Rachel McMillan gushed about an advanced copy of Amanda Dykes’ upcoming book, Set the Stars Alight. I’m Amanda’s agent (and her biggest fan), but I hadn’t yet seen the completed book. Rachel’s review sent me on a search for an arc to read for myself. I couldn’t wait for the published copy. Social media works but, again, the author can’t gin this up. Of course you can copy and paste a great comment or review to your own pages with a big thank you.
- Awards— Awards are another way to attract attention. If you end up a finalist, on a shortlist or an actual award winner, you can leverage this in many ways.
Yikes, this is much longer than I intended. But if I’ve missed something, please chime in. Or, even better, if you want to offer kudos to a store you frequent that still does a good job of hand selling, I’d love to see you praise them in the comments.