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Adjust for the middleman.

1 Post author: MaryCh 18 October 2017 02:40PM

This post is from the point of view of the middleman standing between the grand future he doesn't understand and the general public whose money he's hunting. We have a certain degree of power over what to offer to the customer, and our biases and pet horses are going to contribute a lot to what theoreticians infer about "the actual public"'s tastes. Just how a lot it is, I cannot say, & there's probably tons of literature on this anyway, so take this as a personal anecdote.

Nine months as a teacher of botany (worst gripes here) showed me a glimpse of how teachers/administration view the field they teach. A year in a shop - what managers think of books we sell. The scientific community here in my country grumbles that there's too little non-fiction produced, without actually looking into why it's not being distributed; but really, it's small wonder. Broadest advice - if your sufficiently weird goals depend on the cooperation of a network of people, especially if they are an established profession with which you haven't had a cause to interact closely except as a customer, you might want to ask what they think of your enterprise. Because they aren't going to see it your way. Next thing, is to accept it.

I work in a bookshop that is a part of a publishing house and also sells some selected books from several dozens of other PHs. Think about 9000 kinds of "our" products + 4000 kinds of "theirs".

Recently, things changed a bit. Two wonderful professionals retired, one was given a very different administrative position, and one went on to another job because she didn't want to adjust to a new team after 10+ years with the old one.

It made me, for a while, the unofficial authority on literature for adults and non-fiction non-school-related-stuff for kids. (My new colleagues currently specialize in: maps and atlases (our "senior salesperson"); stationery and such; "books in general" without knowing the products of the publishing houses we have historically dealt with (edit: the person does have several months of relevant experience); logistics; and organizing everybody. They are all willing, capable and smart and will get acquainted with this specific job too soon enough, if they don't go on to something else. Just listing their backgrounds as examples of people who actually sell the thing.) I waited until the rush for textbooks mostly petered out and started to Enjoy My Power for the Sake of the Greater Good (TM).

Meaning, I sent a few requests for some additions to our stores. Then the phone rang.

"It's [the central office], they want to know why do we need as many as five of that man who mistook his wife for a hat? Nobody buys it."

And there are perfectly good reasons for a shop to not have precisely that book. The translation into Ukrainian is recent, and we didn't have anything by the publishing house before, so customers don't expect such things from us and won't ask about it for some time yet. The change needs to get momentum, and it might not ever get momentum if we put that book on a shelf and let people pass it, but it won't be the end of the world. There are other places in Kyiv where you can find anything to your taste.

The guy from [the central office] didn't need to say it out loud. He was amused, polite and supportive, and of course we received the five requested copies which I immediately bought and presented to my friends and relatives within a week (one insisted on buying it from me); but it was made clear that we should be more selective.

And I went then to the storeroom to look at stuff like the history of Ukrainian football that will never be out of date because it's about the Good Times, and a book about accounting that is so out of date it's no use for anything but insulation, and that one about boxing; they are practically never bought, but we are obligated to have them because we are officially a branch of a particular publishing house that owns [the central office]. There are whole series of fiction we keep in case the author needs a few for a presentation.

I talked about it with my new colleagues. The stationery one quietly asked me to request another MWMHWFaH, because she'd taken a peek and liked it; the logistics one shrugged and said he hadn't heard of the writer; the general-books one made an interested face; and the maps-and-atlases moaned that we'd have to count everything for the grand revision we're about to have. The organising-everyone one will talk to me himself, if he sees fit.

...

So now I plan to put a photo album on "my" desk, with pictures of the stuff I'd like to sell and the relevant data to easily compose a request for literature, with YOU CAN ORDER written on the cover. And a big notebook for customers' recommendations (ideally, we'd have a microphone to record them.) And maybe a poster with some author portraits near the entrance, laminated. But it's a tiny patch on a hole that eats itself; the main problem is that non-fiction books are considered entertainment for kids and YAs. (I can pitch most things I like as directed at YAs with a straight face, too.) Not for grown-ups.

And one can shout at the top of one's lungs that hurray, we do have popular books on e.g. math and physics, but 1) they are way more "popular" than even Soviet-era books were, and those are old, and foreign books are expensive, and 2) nobody ever hears about them except from a few fanatics and I don't believe that reading your kid fairy tales is good preparation for heavier stuff. For the stuff that you don't even know exists. There are just too few people who can recommend them, and then books go to the shops to die, and then managers don't want to satisfy other shops' requests for more, and then - it ends.

And on-line bookshops are not doing that great here [citation needed].

...

So, next time you think about putting your ideas into some defined format designed for easy distribution and wide adoption, put in a term for the middleman and it will move your estimates closer to the truth.

Comments (1)

Comment author: Elo 18 October 2017 10:18:17PM 0 points [-]

Very true. Need to work out how to incorporate this better into my life.