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The Perks of Being a Bookseller

Being a Bookseller: Good enough for Audrey Hepburn, good enough for you

The day I moved to New York, I remember staring out the window of the car and happening to see a sign hanging in the window of the Barnes & Noble in Union Square with simple, but incredibly important information: “We’re Hiring.” Once my dad and I unloaded the car, he drove away and I walked back to the bookstore to fill out an application. I was called in a few days later for an interview.

Something about being a bookseller creates ties that bind. At parties, I often find bookseller friends breaking off into their own group—a bit of an intimidating clique for outsiders and a strangely familiar group for those who have ever answered the question “Where’s the nonfiction section?” A driving factor behind the bookseller bond is simply that we love books. Especially in New York City, many employees’ love for books also translates into career ambitions, and many people I worked with went on to great jobs at big houses.

Personally, I’ve found bookselling to be a huge advantage in trying to get a job in the greater publishing industry. When I was going through a period of many interviews with major houses, I found myself being asked about my bookstore experiences more often than my internships and education. Especially with ereader discussions and talk about bookstores in the face of Amazon, I found that I was privy to industry issues just by being on the sales floor on a regular basis.

With this in mind, I thought I would talk to some of my friends, now in publishing, about our time working as booksellers. Especially having worked at one of the largest stores in the city, I was curious about how their retail experience prepared them for their careers and how valuable they felt those experiences were to what they’re doing now.

Humble Beginnings

When I began my time bookselling, I was a junior at NYU, with student loans looming and a passion to work in publishing upon graduation. Working at the store seemed like a natural fit. Alana Heiss, now an International Sales Representative (Europe) at HarperCollins, was in a similar boat: “Since I was studying literature and philosophy at NYU and living at an NYU dorm on Union Square near the Union Square B&N, it just made sense to work at the bookstore.  Free and/or cheap books were certainly in the immediate back of my broke college-student mind.  Farther back in mind was my resume, wondering what would look good on it once I graduated and needed to find a real job.  ‘Publishing’ was still a vague idea during my sophomore year of college when I started working at B&N, but it just seemed like the career path of choice for someone studying literature in college.”

Working at a bookstore also complements academic interests in the book industry. “In high school, I was really involved in the creative writing program and was editor of the literary magazine for 3 years,” said Gleni Bartels, now Managing Editorial Coordinator at Sterling Publishing. “My Creative Writing teacher was the one who made me aware of the fact that I could actually have a job making books, and when I realized that, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I went to school for writing, literature, and publishing and got a job at a Barnes & Noble college bookstore.”

Many booksellers at our store were recent graduates (and in many cases, recent transplants to New York) who were waiting out the job search. In some cases, employees at the store already worked at major houses but were bookselling part time to help make a little extra cash on the side. Chatel Theagene, currently Executive Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief at Essence magazine, was working at HarperCollins when she decided to pick up a seasonal position at Barnes & Noble. “I came into book selling with a main goal, and that was to connect more with the customer,” Chatel explained. “This is one of the main concerns I had while working on the business side of publishing, that I was missing a hidden connection. I understood going in that this would be the most valuable asset I could learn on a regular basis, and it was.”

The Bookseller Advantage

When asked what the most important skill they picked up from the job, “customer service” was the first thing on everyone’s mind. “Customer service skills in any capacity are invaluable; they can be applied to any social situation,” said Gleni. “I learned how to effectively hand-sell a book, even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, but I also had to come to terms with the fact that the public doesn’t always want to book with the best plot or the most beautiful writing, sometimes they just want teenage vampires, and I can’t really get mad at them for that, because at least they are reading something.”

“In sales, it’s my job to talk about books to all kinds of customers,” agreed Alana. “Understanding the structure of the book business, which you learn firsthand in a bookshop, is key to anyone trying to get their foot in the door at a publishing house.  Learning how to deal with stressful, unfamiliar situations (for me, big author events) translates to learning a new job.  And dealing with people in general with grace and humor and decency is one trait that, while very difficult to master, will make any job that much easier for you, whether it’s bookselling, book publishing, or anything else.”

Working at a national chain in New York City also had its advantages, providing an important connection/affiliation for certain jobs. Leigh Malach, current Sales Associate at Random House, “…joined the B&N sales team after working in B&N, so [she] had a lot of insight into the store that none of [her] coworkers had.” For example, she added, “They all worked on coop, but I was the only one that had looked at the publishers’ plans and evaluated what actually went on the table and where. ” For Gleni, the transition from bookseller to Managing Editorial Coordinator proved an even more synergetic move. “I wouldn’t have my current job without bookselling since I’m technically still employed by Barnes & Noble,” she admitted. “But regardless, it did make me think of books through the eyes of a consumer and not just the publishing side.”

Career ambitions aside, there were always the unexpected perks of working at a large New York store. “Working at the bookstore in Union Square allowed me to see a ton of celebrities, which is always fun,” said Gleni. “I remember during my first shift at the store, I saw Chris Rock going up the escalator and it made me realize ‘Hey, I live in New York now!’” She was quick to point out, however, that there were also downsides: “I also had a difficult customer scream at me from the middle of the store that I was ‘the reason people use’–right in front of Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite writers.”

Is Bookselling Right For You?

Though the case can certainly be made that bookselling is helpful for a publishing hopeful, how essential it is remains up in the air. “Obviously, it’s not 100% necessary, but I highly encourage anyone interested in publishing to try bookselling,” Leigh advised. “It’s a unique experience and gives you firsthand experience working with book buyers.  Because ultimately, everything we do in publishing is for them!”

Chatel echoed Leigh’s sentiments: “I’d recommend book selling to anyone who wants to understand the full scope of publishing. Nothing beats hands-on experience, but whether it’s necessary is a bit relative. Regardless, it’s such an asset to have as a reference.”

Working with something you’re passionate about and getting first-hand experience for future reference? Not a bad way to earn a buck.

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  1. […] Noble, you’ll have a vital new cornerstone to your resume. Take a couple of minutes to read this article of quotes from publishing executives who got their start as booksellers. Or check out this Tumblr post by a Hachette recruiter, who […]

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