Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Don't Buy That Book

The September Rush starts today. That's a term used in academic bookselling to describe the busiest time of year for campus bookstores -- the time when the new fall term starts and thousands of students will be coming into the bookstore looking for their course materials.

And because the "Rush" starts today, I'll be uttering a phrase quite regularly: "Don't buy that book."

It seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn't it?

I mean, I'm a bookseller. That's where my main stream of income comes from -- selling books. My job is to oversee all book related operations of the campus bookstore at McMaster University. Like most retail operations, we have particular sales goals to meet on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. However, owned by the university and run from the Department of Student Affairs our mission is to assist in the academic process. Thus, the needs of students and faculty are often our FIRST concern.

And that's why, repeatedly, I will advise students not to buy a particular book for a first year course.

I'll be spending most of my time in the next several weeks out on the sales floor not to ensure that we meet our sales targets, but rather to ensure that me and my staff are informing students to the best of our ability -- that customers are getting information that allows them to make an informed decision on their academic purchases.

Let me go back to a particular book that I'm going to advise students NOT to purchase.

First, there's nothing wrong with the book. It's a great book -- it does an excellent job of introducing students at a first year level to their subject of study. It is priced of $113.25 for a new copy or $84.95 for a used copy, which, while expensive, is comparable to the other books like it on the market for that subject area. (Our textbook operation carries both new and used books and place them right beside each other on the shelves allowing students to decide which they would rather purchase.)

But there are two factors students need to know about this particular book in question that aren't at first apparent.

One, the book is listed for the course in question as OPTIONAL. Optional means that the faculty member teaching the course doesn't require the students to read the material contained within it. A book can be listed as optional for number of different reasons -- the professor might suggest it to some students in the class who want to read further on particular topics covered in class, or that it could be used by those having trouble and need the extra reading, or perhaps there are particular chapters or items within it that might assist students with one or more assignments, tests or exams that will come up in the student year.

In THIS particular case, based on two previous years of feedback from students who have taken the class with the same instructor and same optional textbook, I know that most students who have purchased the book are sorely disappointed that they bought the book and consider it a huge waste of their money.

Here's why. The faculty member in question never requires the students to open this particular optional book once during the course of the class. And he does such a good job of covering the topic area he is teaching that he doesn't need to refer to the textbook. Any readings assigned are all contained within a custom coursepack that the professor and the department put together themselves. It sells for $45.95. If a student purchases that and reads it and goes to all their classes, they'll have all the content they need to succeed in the course.

Which makes this optional textbook un-necessary.

Which is why I strongly urge students NOT to purchase it.

(When there's time, or when the students press for more reasoning, I sometimes add a caveat. I tell them that if they plan on skipping a lot of their classes and thus missing out on the content provided by the professor, this particular textbook does an excellent job of providing them with the basics they'll need to succeed in the class. So if they plan on skipping classes, I suggest they buy the textbook and read it cover to cover. But then I remind them that they paid a lot of money to be enrolled in university, so why would they choose to skip a class and spend more money?)

Sometimes, the students actually listen to what I'm telling them. And, hopefully, I helped them make an informed decision that is right for them.

But it still seems counter-intuitive for me to do such a thing, doesn't it? I mean, if I tell people not to buy something from me, doesn't that jeopardize my livelihood?

I don't honesty think so.

Yes, I'm a bookseller. Yes, selling books is how I make a living.

But the key, in my mind is selling the right books to the right customer. And this works not just for selling academic books that are required for courses, but also for general interest books that people are looking for whether they are doing research, wanting to know more about something, or just for the sheer pleasure of reading (ie, enjoying a great novel).

I don't want someone to buy a book and be disappointed. I want them to be satisfied with their purchase. I want them to buy a book and find it interesting, useful or a good read.

And that's where the real pleasure of bookselling comes from.

Selling the right book to the right person at the right time.

Hopefully, the customers who I advise not to buy a particular book because I don't feel they are going to find it useful will remember that. Hopefully, they'll remember the honesty and integrity with which I advised them. And THAT will bring them back in to my store the next time they are looking for a book.

And on that next visit, my job isn't to sell them a book, it's to sell them the right book for them. And, if it's the right book, I'll gladly sell it to them.

If I believe it's the wrong book for them, well, you already know what I'll do, won't you?


Anonymous said...

Happy Rush, Mark! Hope all goes well for you and your staff. --Lauri

Unknown said...

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