How to handsell: 8 tips for authors stumping for #AFI2016

The 2nd annual Canadian Authors for Indies Day is coming up on April 30, 2016. At independent bookstores across Canada, authors will be volunteering as guest booksellers, and that’s just the beginning of the bookish fun in store. Keep up with the BookNet Canada blog for updates, and don't forget to follow @authors4indies and #AFI2016 on Twitter. Lauren Stewart, former bookseller and BookNet's resident captain of awesome, offers some helpful tips to authors who might be stepping into unfamiliar territory:

Ever notice how after a trip to a small, indie bookshop you return home buzzing with anticipation to devour your next read, often brought to your attention by store staff? Of the many gifts that independent booksellers offer their patrons, authors, and the larger literary community coast-to-coast, one is the uncanny knack of their clerks to sniff out a particular customer's interests, inclinations, and needs to identify the perfect book or gift. And now Authors for Indies Day gives authors have the opportunity to be one of those clerks, to not only animate their local shops but to actually help out and offer bookselling support (no point-of-sale knowledge required!)

When I made the rounds to a few Toronto bookshops on Authors for Indies Day in 2015, it was clear that each store had adopted a very different strategy for the day. Some stores had interactive events, some had tables for their authors to sit behind and sign books, and several had authors stepping in and walking around the sales floor, offering assistance to customers looking to make a purchase—a relatively new challenge for authors routinely relegated to readings and autograph signings! It's to these authors that I offer a quick tip sheet for building your handselling skill set and getting more books into customers' open arms:

Familiarize yourself with the store

Before you start handselling, make sure you take a walk around the store to identify the titles they have in stock. (The last thing you want to do is recommend a title the store doesn't have on its shelves!) Flag the shelves or tables that have your favourite titles (and those you have authored) to be able to revisit them when necessary. Brush up on the details of the store's Authors for Indies event, any special promotions, etc. And don't forget to introduce yourself to the store staff and any fellow authors in the store—they're your platoon mates!

Introduce yourself: bridge the gap

Bookstores are undeniably happy places, filled with volumes that offer endless hours of entertainment to their next reader. However, even to the most seasoned bookstore customer, it can sometimes be overwhelming going into a bookstore and being confronted with so many new titles, so many new authors, and so many opportunities to find that next great read. A good way to break the ice and welcome a new customer to a store is to introduce yourself: not just your name, but explain what special event is going on in the store. Try this: "Hello, welcome to [awesome indie]! I'm [superstar author James Joyce]. Did you know that today is Canadian Authors for Indies Day? Feel free to poke around and let me know if you have any questions or are looking for a book."

Don't be discouraged: kickstart a conversation

As you well know from being a retail customer yourself, sometimes you just don't want to interrupt a sales clerk when you don't have a specific item in mind and only need some guidance. To break the silence, you'll find that the best retail clerks may follow-up their initial introduction with a quick "Hi, just checking in to see if you need anything" and a plug to a current promotion, a hot new title, or event details. You can explain that you're a local author, that you love shopping at this store (explain why!), and perhaps flag some great reads you found at the shop over the years or on a recent visit. Once you start the conversation, you'll remember that customers are just like you: they're visiting a bookshop to find a specific title or to discover their next great read. That, or they're superfans of your work, which will only help you convince them to buy something

Learn about the customer's needs

It may seem like the best bookstore clerks have a supernatural ability to anticipate and serve your every bookish whim, but it does take some serious fieldwork. The best bookstore clerks will ask questions about the person you're shopping for (either yourself or a lucky gift recipient), books that person has read, genres/authors/styles they like, and more. Generally speaking, your best bet is to ask questions that don't require a simple yes/no answer. Here are some examples:When I was a bookseller, I always found that the more information I gathered from the customer, the better chance I had to make the "right" match for them. (That perfect moment when you've recommended a book to a customer and they leave satisfied with their purchase—even better when your efforts are validated as they return to the store, hungry for your next recommendation.) As long as you're making an authentic connection (vs. nervously chatting and only talking about your interests), you'll be able to make a better recommendation.

  • Who are you looking to buy a book for? What's your relationship to that person?
  • What special event is the purchase for?
  • What's the last book you read? Or the last book you gave to that person? What did you like about it? Dislike?
  • What kind of book does the reader prefer? Long reads? Short ones? Fiction? Non-fiction? Graphic novels or comics? Similarly, are there any genres the reader will not give a chance?
  • Does format (like hardcover vs. softcover) matter?

For real: be real

The last thing you want in any store is to be confronted with the classic "used car salesperson" type of clerk. Make a genuine connection with the customer: if you've been enthused by a title, say so (and the opposite: flag the titles you didn't respond to). They say that people judge a book by a cover but, more often than not, it's a recommendation that makes people buy a book. Explain why you liked the book: was it the prose? Did it strike a chord with an experience in your past/present? Did you like the dialogue? Or the description of the setting? Just be honest, don't hold anything back (for example, I'm always embarrassed to admit the rare occurrence when a romance between two central characters sweeps me up though I'm well aware that some people long for captivating romance storylines), and make a connection with the customer. Listen, respond, engage. 

Offer a limited number of appropriate recommendations

As you're conversing with the customer, consider their responses to your questions and the information they've shared about the person the book is for. Cross-reference that information with books you've read (not just books you've heard good things about) and walk with the customer to the section of the store where you plan to pluck your first recommendation. Be sure not to drown the customer with recommendations: too many options will confuse.

Put a book in the customer's hands

This is one of the oldest retail tricks in the, erm, book: when you recommend a book, physically pass it to the customer. When someone handles an item in a store, they are more likely to purchase it (and the goal of Authors for Indies is not just to offer promotional support to our beloved independent bookstores but to convert that promotion into sales).

Close the sale

Once you've put the right book in the customer's hands and they seem satisfied (check for smiles, intense reading of the front and back matter, and discrete peeks at the price), start wrapping up your interaction: thank them for the chat, tell them that the store staff will help them finalize their purchase, and excuse yourself to help another customer!