Hey Borders, You’re Doin’ It Wrong

Neil Gaiman had a very interesting tweet this afternoon:

RT @librarythingtim: RT @bookpatrol Borders employees now have to sign a non-blogging contract? http://ow.ly/ijSr

Which points you to A.J. Kohn’s used books blog, where some of Borders’ more ill-thought-out practices have also been discussed (including by employees), including its “make books” plan.

Let’s talk about the make books plan a moment, shall we?  I intended to blog about it when the news first broke, but well, you all know which road is paved with good intentions.  From the article:

In January, soon after CEO Ron Marshall was hired, Borders began an independent-style strategy on a superstore scale. With thousands of titles from which to choose, the idea was to select a few works favored by Borders national sales officials and promote them nationwide in the spirit of a local seller, from prominent placement to personally advocating (“hand-selling”) books in the stores.

If you’re a bookseller, you’re probably wtfing right now.  If you’re not, get ready to.  Here’s how handselling works:  you read a book.  You really like it.  A customer comes in and says “Help me find a good book.”  While you talk to them and figure out what kind of books they like to read, you realize that the book you really liked is one they’d also enjoy.  So you tell them about it.  You go over and get a copy off the shelf, and put it in their hands so they can flip through, read a few pages, decide whether or not to take it home with them.

When you’re handselling, you’re an advocate for the books you love.  You’re so passionate about this title, this author, this series, that you want everyone you know (and lots of people you don’t) to read it.

You are not shilling a book because corporate headquarters said so.  You’re not doing it because someone high up decided to make a book a bestseller, and you’re damned well not doing it because you can get in trouble if you don’t meet quota.

Borders employees were, understandably, vexed.

In statements to Publishers Lunch, Border’s spokesperson Anne Roman seems to be suggesting that the people who are upset are suffering from a case of sour grapes:

Roman observes that “some employees–and maybe this is more common among intelligent, highly educated and independent-minded people–do not like being asked to recommend certain titles–they want only to share their own personal favorites. We find that attitude to be less than helpful to our customers as our buyers have pinpointed great titles and we know that our customers count on us for guidance. Believe me, none of our customers has complained because a sales associate recommended a great title–make book or otherwise…. My feeling is that out of 25,000 employees, these comments represent a very small minority who resist the idea of being asked to recommend a certain title because they believe only their personal recommendations are valid. We obviously disagree, and judging by sales trends, so do our customers.”

Only want to share personal favorites?  Oh, come on, now.  The point of handselling is to share your favorites. Suggesting that those employees only believe “their personal recommendations are valid” is equally insulting.  That’s not what the employees were saying at all.

Look at their comments on the Used Books Blog (scroll waaaay down to May 5th, 2009.)  Look at the comments on the PW thread.

What the upset Borders employees are saying — and what’s intuitive to anyone who, y’know, gets handselling — is that you can’t put a quota on handselling.  You can’t push books that you didn’t particularly care for and call it handselling.

If Borders sent ARCs out to the employees and said “Our buyers thought this was great, and we hope you’ll give it a try,” that’s okay. That’s great, as a matter of fact.

But where they go horribly, horribly wrong, is saying “Our buyers thought it was great, and because of that, you need to suggest it to customers.”

That’s not handselling anymore.  If Borders wanted to run a promotion highlighting certain titles — call it whatever the hell you want, “Borders Recommends,” “Featured Titles,” “Oh Hey, We’d Like This to Be a Bestseller, How About Buying a Copy?” — there’s nothing wrong with that.  But to suggest that what they’re doing is handselling is deceitful.

And now the non-blogging contract.  So, rather than giving the employees another place where they might, y’know, say “Hey internets, I read this really great book,” they’re taking that away, too.  Seems like it covers all kinds of social media, too:  facebook, twitter… what about book sites like Goodreads, Shelfari, and Librarything?

Bitching about one’s company or coworkers in a blog is a pretty bad idea.  You never know who’s reading it, and what might get passed along to your boss.  Employees who leak information that’s supposed to be confidential do so at their own risk.  Employees who say nothing but negative things might find their bosses asking “Why are you here, if you hate it so much?”  A bit of self-editing is a good thing to learn.

However, it floors me that a company that sells books — who, you’d think, would defend free speech — is effectively censoring the people who work there.

You know the drill by now, kids.  Go show your local independent bookstores some love.  See what true handselling’s all about.  Check out stores’ websites.  Read some excellent booksellers’ blogs.

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