Want to be an author? Work in a bookstore first
Bookstores are the perfect training ground for authors and publishers
Whether you want to be an author or a publisher, there are plenty of educational programs designed to help you get there. But in many cases, there’s no replacement for life experience. Writers’ retreats and internships can be important ways to get the kind of feedback and experience you want, but if you’re looking for a way to better understand the book industry, you might not have to look any farther than your local bookstore.
For Lisa Doucet, manager at Woozles Children’s Bookstore in Halifax and president of the Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (to mention just a couple of her roles within the Atlantic Canadian book literary community), one of the most valuable experiences someone interested in writing or publishing can gain from working in a bookstore is seeing the reaction to a finished product, first-hand.
“I think it’s valuable to work in a setting where you get to interact with the readers of a finished book, where you get to learn what they look for in a book and what stands out for them,” says Doucet.
For example, a children’s book cover may be artistically beautiful, but not kid-friendly — which means it might not sell as well as it would with a more age-appropriate cover. But sometimes it’s hard for a group of adults to decide what’s kid-friendly and what’s not. It’s much easier if one of those adults has bookseller experience, and with it, a keen understanding of what grabs kids’ attention.
Doucet also believes that bookstore experience can be useful to anyone with dreams of a publishing career, whether you hope to work as a writer, an editor or a publicist. And as a publisher, bookselling experience not only gives you insight into the potential markets, it also helps you learn how to develop a stronger business relationship with booksellers when it’s time to sell your own product.
“As a publisher, if you understand what’s happening at the other end of the process,” says Doucet, “it makes it that much easier to troubleshoot, to anticipate problems that might come up, and to be more conscious of the things that you can do at your end that will make things easier for the bookstores. Because you know what it’s like to be at the other end.”
For authors, bookstore experience helps create realistic expectations. Jo Treggiari, author of the young adult novel Ashes, Ashes and co-owner of Lexicon Books in Lunenburg, NS, began her bookstore career at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock, New York. She says working at the Golden Notebook gave her a better understanding of how much organization goes into planning an event.
“You never know when you’re going to have a ton of people or when you’re not,” she says. “And often the bookstore gets blamed when no one shows up, which isn’t fair.”
But the benefit of managed expectations for authors goes well beyond event planning. It also helps manage sales expectations. After all, as Doucet says, “Harry Potter only comes along once in a lifetime.”
“Bookseller experience helps you see that numbers don’t tell the full story,” says Doucet. “Even if we only sell 10 copies of a book the entire time it’s in the store, as a bookseller, I might be able to tell you about how it made a difference in the life of a child who read it at a time when they were going through something similar. I think when you’ve encountered those personal experiences of what books can mean to people, it helps you define success differently.”
And for authors, of course, there’s all that inspiration.
“When you work in a bookstore, you’re surrounded by books, you’re reading books, and every time you read a book, you learn something about writing,” says Treggiari. “Although I always wrote, I’d fallen out of the habit of it. Being at the bookstore re-inspired me and woke up my love of words. I don’t think it was a coincidence that pretty soon after I started working there, I wrote a book.”