By Amelia Bashford, Misha Manani and Rowan Groat
Bookselling is a great way to gain transferable experience in and around the publishing industry. You learn about consumer needs, are immersed in the market and can develop your communication skills. This can take place at both bookshops and charity shops. The Christmas period can be especially busy, so there may be a higher demand for seasonal booksellers and/or volunteers. We have interviewed two individuals to gain insight into their experiences with bookselling and also share our top online resources for upskilling.
In Conversation with Stephanie Goulden, Book-Toker and Fiction Bookseller/Buyer
How important is social media in bookselling? Would you recommend future booksellers use social media to build their portfolios and if so, how?
Not as important as some people think. I work with many other booksellers who have nothing to do with social media at all, both professionally and personally. Bookshops do benefit from creating a social media presence, for sure, but it’s not key to the role. Only a handful of the booksellers in our shop have anything to do with our company platforms. If anything, I have found it a fun extra layer to my job, rather than a key component. As for social media helping future booksellers build a portfolio, I think it’s a great (and relatively easy) way to showcase your interest in books, instead of just talking about it on CVs and in interviews. This is definitely only something that has been developing over the past few years though; I had a small book review blog that I didn’t post on very often when I interviewed for my job, so it’s not vital, but it can only help show that your interest in the industry isn’t just surface level. I think for me it was that I was doing a MSc in publishing at the time, but I’m definitely not suggesting everyone does that – there are easier ways! But that was how they knew I was serious about the industry, I think.
What does your average day entail and what is something about your job that may surprise people?
Honestly, every day is different! I go from interacting with customers, to putting up displays, to shelving new stock, to developing new promo ideas. Bookselling is really customer-focused, and I think people can sometimes forget that. I spend a lot of time recommending books, helping people find something they’re looking for, and occasionally sourcing books that we otherwise wouldn’t stock for them. Something that surprised even me was my buyer role – I didn’t even know it was a thing before starting my job. This will be even more applicable to indie bookshops, but I get to decide which titles we stock in the shop, which we push, which we need to order loads of because it’s going to be really popular. This means I have an interesting link to the publishing industry because I have meetings every month with publishing reps that come into the shop and discuss their upcoming titles. We’re currently working on March/April, so I get a good look at upcoming titles!
You have worked as a bookseller for more than three years, what tips do you have for those looking to work in a bookshop or get into bookselling?
Find a way to show your passion for books, don’t just talk about it - this is where social media could come in. In my current role, having a BookTok platform has helped me so much because I know the books that some of our customers are looking for, and now I’ve begun to predict trends. Importantly, however, don’t forget this is still a retail position. I think that sometimes bookselling is a bit rose-tinted and people forget you are still in a customer-facing role 24/7. Know what you’re actually getting into before you apply, because this role can be so rewarding (there’s nothing quite like watching a customer taking home the book you recommended), but it can also be difficult at times. Be prepared to work with a team. I rely on my fellow booksellers so much, you definitely need to make sure that you can work with people in a fast-paced and high-pressure environment.
What jobs, unrelated to publishing, would you recommend as good experience for those looking to enter the industry?
I’m going to sound like a broken record, but anything that involves front of house customer service. I’d had a couple of high street retail jobs before I got into bookselling and when I reflect, they really prepared me so much. Simply knowing the kind of things that will be required of you, how the structure of the working day feels, how you deal with complicated customer enquiries, all of that is so, so helpful.
In Conversation with Leah Currie, Group Export Sales Assistant at Walker Books and Former Assistant Buyer at Waterstones
What does your average day consist of at Walker Books?
As I work in the export sales department, an average day could include anything from updating lots of different spreadsheets that help us track orders and sales, to compiling and mailing out sales and marketing materials to support our books. I also create catalogues, order forms and themed book lists for customers all over the world, help solve order and shipping queries and attend meetings where we talk about all the amazing new books we have coming over the next twelve months and how we can best sell them. No day is ever really the same, which I love!
How do you feel your experience at Waterstones has helped with your current role as a Group Export Sales Assistant?
Working at Waterstones was an absolutely invaluable experience for my role at Walker. Talking to customers every day gave me the ability to recommend titles based on a theme or a specific subject. It helped me think on my feet and enabled me to talk passionately about books of all genres. The entire experience taught me so much about the publishing industry, which definitely made it so much easier for me to settle into my first publishing role. Now, working in sales for a publisher, I find I am able to use my time as a bookseller to help our customers sell our books to their customers.
How did you secure the job at Waterstones and what was your experience like?
After filling out an application (that I returned in person to the manager of the shop), I attended an interview with the manager where we talked about things like problem-solving, what makes good customer service, and, perhaps most excitingly, what my favourite books were, why I liked them and what other books I would recommend based on my favourites. I found the whole experience very positive and really credit my time spent working at Waterstones as providing me with the best experience I could have gained for getting into publishing later on.
As you worked at Waterstones for more than a year, what tips do you have for those looking to work in a bookshop?
I’m sure it goes without saying that a passion for books is a must, but as well as that, the ability to talk about books in an engaging way really helps too. Having a general understanding of the book market, as well as the local market, definitely helps you to know what you’re going to get asked for most frequently. Above all else, I would say a willingness to help (both your customers and your colleagues), working well as part of a team, an ability to chat to people and provide a knowledgeable service by sharing your passion for books (even ones in genres that aren’t your favourite) are all great places to start.
Introduction to Bookselling Course: Run by the Booksellers Association, this is a great training opportunity to learn more about how to become a successful bookseller and even how to open and run your own bookshop. The next course aims to be held in February 2022, so keep your eyes peeled. You can also become a member of the association, or read the industry articles found on their website.
Resources for Booksellers: Another resource from the Booksellers Association, which details many useful resources for new and/or aspiring booksellers. It includes links to insightful social media accounts, newsletters, magazines and campaigns.
Tips for Bookselling from the Shop Floor: An informative article by BookMachine, which covers ten tips for aspiring or current booksellers. These include how to understand your customers, create a positive digital footprint and connect with relevant communities.
Waterstones - Working in our Bookshop: This post from Waterstones covers the practical aspects of becoming a bookseller and includes a video that explores some of the best things about being a bookseller.
How to Get a Job in a Bookshop: Check out this video on YouTube from Anna, a Media, Journalism and Publishing student, who works part-time in Waterstones. She shares her advice for getting a job in bookselling.
Bonus Tips: Don’t wait for an opening at a bookstore, your local hospice or a charity shop, take initiative and ask directly if they are looking for help or if there are any vacancies available. Bookselling roles are not always advertised online, especially those in the independent sector, so it’s definitely worth a shot.
We hope you enjoyed reading this Christmas special for Issue Thirty-Eight, and many thanks to both our interviewees for their brilliant advice! Join us again for Issue Thirty-Nine where we will be kicking off the new year with Upskilling Tips for Students.