Afternoon in a Bookstore

Last week my youngest daughter turned 9, and one of the things she wanted to do for her birthday was go to Barnes & Noble. (Cool, huh?) So my girls and I spent part of an afternoon hanging out in the bookstore. They love to browse the stacks, grabbing books off the shelf, sitting on the floor to read for a few minutes, putting them back and moving on, eventually deciding what to buy. That gives me a lot of time to walk around the store doing some browsing of my own.

I have to admit that I spend so much time on Amazon that I don’t get to the brick & mortar bookstores as often as I should. I’m saying this to myself as much as to you: As writers and publishing professionals, there is no substitute for getting to the bookstore regularly and spending an hour or so looking around. Each time I go, I learn something new or have some kind of a revelation about books and publishing. And each time I go, I remember why I wanted to get into publishing in the first place.

This time, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of books, the incredible number of words sitting there in that store. It put the latest publishing figures (400,000 books published last year) into rock-solid perspective. I saw and felt what it really meant.

I love reading. But I have a limited amount of money. And I have a limited amount of time for reading. How will I choose which books to buy, out of all those thousands?

Some books caught my eye because they had a compelling title. Some had a really cool cover design that made me want to pick them up. I was attracted to familiar author names and picked up some of their books to see if I wanted to read their latest. Finally, what made me pick up certain books to take a closer look was that other kind of recognition factor:

Hey, I think I heard about this author on NPR.

This name sounds familiar, doesn’t she write a column in a magazine?

I read a review of this book in People magazine.

I saw this author on the Today show.

This is the book my friend told me about.

In other words, it’s platform, it’s publicity, it’s word-of-mouth—it’s anything that gets your name and/or book in front of people more than once so that there’s a recognition factor that finally reaches a tipping point and causes them to buy it.

Mary DeMuth wrote a blog post about how it typically takes seven “touches” before a consumer will buy a book. (Read it here.) My point today is that unless you are “out there” spending some time in the retail stores, you won’t have a strong feeling for why this is true. I think walking amongst the stacks gives you a visceral, gut-level understanding of some of the realities of the publishing marketplace. It gets you out of your own head, away from your own deep desire to see your book on those shelves, and helps place it in context.

The market is crowded. There are so many books, which on the one hand is a wonderful thing because there are so many kinds of people—it’s nice to have “something for everyone.” But on the other hand, it makes it much more difficult for the individual consumer to find what appeals to them. And it makes it more difficult for each individual writer to see their own book published one day. There is just so much competition. This is why we are always harping on platform.

We spent about an hour and a half in Barnes & Noble, and I admired the way my kids chose the books they wanted to buy. They took their time. They browsed, they opened books and read. Since I had the luxury of “time,” I did the same thing. But usually, consumers don’t have the luxury of time. They need to make their decisions more quickly. Hence the need for the many “touches.”

I find I choose different books when I’m standing in the bookstore than when I’m shopping on Amazon, and this is one of the reasons it’s so important for me to get out there. Usually I’m looking for something specific on Amazon, but in the bookstore, I’m open to anything that catches my eye.

I bought three books for each of my girls, and three for me. (An expensive day!) I buy books at least once a week on Amazon, and sometimes I forget how fun it is to browse, choose, and walk out of a store with a bag full of books. Just for kick, here are the books I chose for myself:

Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs From Killing Your Soul by David L. Goetz. I had never heard of this book nor the author. (I never would have found it by shopping on Amazon.) The title captured me, and I opened to page 1 and started reading. I didn’t want to stop! It captivated me and I’m looking forward to finishing it. What made me buy it? A catchy title, a strong message, and compelling writing.

Revision and Self Editing by James Scott Bell. I’m always looking to expand my library of books on the craft of writing and editing. This type of book helps me continually get better at editing my clients’ books. What made me buy this one? Tons of word-of-mouth recently, plus the fact that I think the author is a terrific writer and he knows what he’s talking about. Really excited to read it. (This is one I would have bought on Amazon because I was planning to get it anyway.)

The Host by Stephenie Meyer. What made me buy it? I’ve heard so much about this author and read countless reviews of her work. I haven’t read the Twilight series yet, although I want to. This is Stephenie’s first book for adults and I’m dying to see what the fuss is all about. However, I don’t know that I would have gotten around to buying this on Amazon. The physical presentation sold me… it’s a beautiful, weighty, mysterious-looking book. One of those that reminded me why I love books. I couldn’t resist.

By the way, this one’s 619 pages which is somewhere between 150,000 and 190,000 words… for those of you who may think I have some sort of prejudice against long books, I don’t. The market does, but there are always exceptions… especially for already-bestselling authors.

Have you been to a bookstore lately? What did you buy? If you haven’t been to one in awhile, I challenge you to try and get there within the week, and tell us about your experience. Happy shopping!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Jennifer F. on August 5, 2008 at 6:55 AM

    >Rachelle –

    I just wanted to tell you how much this post helped me. I’m working on a proposal and decided to take you up on your advice and head down to the bookstore. You’re absolutely right: there is no substitute for standing in front of the shelf where your book would go and seeing just how much competition is out there.

    Especially that this proposal was solicited, I think that I’d fallen into the typical new author trap of losing sight of the big picture and assuring myself that my story is COMPELLING! and UNIQUE!…so it was very humbling to stand there in Barnes and Noble and see shelf after shelf of compelling and unique books in my genre. It made me realize just how much I need to step it up.

    Thank you!

  2. Jennifer L. Griffith on June 4, 2008 at 5:17 PM

    >”The Legend of Colton H. Bryant” by Alexandra Fuller.

    I just posted “why” on my blog. I am amazed so far as this has Pulitzer buzz. I will likely finish it in 3 days, which is a miracle in of itself.

  3. Krisan Matthews on June 4, 2008 at 2:49 PM

    >I’m very interested in reading Loving Frank, especially since Frank Lloyd Wright was such an influential figure in Chicago. There’s been quite a lot of buzz here ever since it came out. I just was waiting until it came out in paperback before I bought it.

  4. Rachelle on June 4, 2008 at 2:37 PM

    >Cool, Krisan! I’ve heard Loving Frank is really good.

  5. Krisan Matthews on June 4, 2008 at 2:31 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I took your advice and visited the nearest bookstore (a rather small Waldenbooks) today at lunch. It had been some time since I last browsed for some new reading material and I couldn’t pick just one book.

    Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find two of the books I was hoping to purchase. (I guess that’s the problem with a very small bookstore.) But I did end up buying three novels that each caught my attention:

    A Foreign Affair: A Novel of Victorian England by Caro Peacock

    Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

    Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

    Now the question is…which do I read first?!

  6. D. Gudger on June 4, 2008 at 12:49 PM

    >Ah, to know I’m not alone in the world of “lurking”. Whenever I need a break from home, hubby and kids, I lurk at Borders or B&N. The smell of binding glue and coffee…

    Just can’t find that online.

  7. MelanieWrites on June 3, 2008 at 9:41 PM

    >I shop for books online only when I can’t find what I’m looking for in a local store. I love getting lost in a bookstore. I remember finding some old Betsy, Tacey and Tibbs books (an old series for girls) when I was a kid, and in one the girls got locked in the library after closing. I thought it would be a dream come true.

    Last book I bought was Colleen Coble’s “Anathema.” The Family Christian Store had ONE copy. I was disappointed in them, but devoured the book in two days.

  8. Kim Kasch on June 2, 2008 at 8:54 PM

    >Loved Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse, I bought The Host.

    I am currently reading Blue Bloods and Old Magic.

    Amazon may be EZ but there is nothing like the feel of a book flipping through fingertips.

  9. david fry on June 2, 2008 at 7:28 PM

    >There’s something wonderful about pulling a pristine copy of a new novel off the shelf. The smell of new pages hints at discovery. Recently I came home with the following acquisitions (courtesy of birthday contributions) – My family is finally realizing that for me to say that all I want is a simple gift card to a bookstore, I really mean it. I explain that my searching and selecting the books is all part of the gift. So here’s my latest collection …

    @ Border’s
    1) Fossil Hunter, by John Olson
    2) Angel – Alton Gansky

    @ a local Christian bookstore:
    1) ADAM – Ted Dekker
    2) The Dead Don’t Dance – Charles Martin
    3) Facing Your Final Job Review – Woodrow Kroll
    4) Feel – Matthew Elliott
    5) Abomination – Colleen Coble

    And the mystery of finding a gem not so shiny …

    @ a local used book store:
    1) Enchantment – Orson Scott Card
    2) On Writing – Stephen King
    3) Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

    But aside from this, a trend I’ve seen lately that bodes well for all of us. A library branch on my side of town is consistently shelving new releases of CBA novels! AND, many times they are hard to get – always checked out. I walk in about twice a week and scan the new arrivals … 14 day loans – and consistently I say, “Yes!” as I see another CBA title in the bunch. This is cool. And with summer here and 3.5 of my 5 kids wanting to explore the library, I’m saying yes a great deal.

  10. Anonymous on June 2, 2008 at 6:29 PM

    >I confess. When my first book came out I took them off the shelf and put them on the special display end cap, after signing them….

    oy vey.

  11. Melissa Biemans on June 2, 2008 at 6:01 PM

    >I WORK in a bookstore and totally get what you are saying about the feel of the store.

    My most recent pick (and there is about 3 a week) was “Sundays at Tiffany’s” by James Patterson. My cousin read it and suggested it to me.

    I too have read the Host, to see what all the fuss was about. I LOVED it so much that it went up in the “books I love” second of my blog.

    And “Chasing Harry Winston” by Laura Wiseberg. This is right up my alley. I love all things chicklit (which makes me wonder why my own novel is YA science Fiction.

  12. Robbie Iobst on June 2, 2008 at 4:54 PM

    >Great discussion! I love bookstores but sometimes feel overwhelmed, especially if I am in a I-really-want-to-be-published mood. The B and N near me has a great Starbucks and ultra comfy chairs everywhere so when I go, I plan on spending hours. My latest purchases: Searching for Spice by Megan DiMaria, (it’s her debut novel and a really fun read) Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, (the 50th Anniversary addition) and a journal. By the way, Courtney, I LOVED Stephen King’s On Writing.

  13. Anonymous on June 2, 2008 at 4:43 PM

    >Having a love for reading books is where my passion first began for writing. I have quite a few favorite authors (Christian and non-Christian) such as: Jerry Jenkins, Clive Cussler, Vince Flynn and even Tom Clancy.
    Everytime I go in a bookstore like Barnes and Noble, I find myself looking for the newest novels from my favorite authors. I’ve always been like that. I tend to order the same thing when I go to certain restaurants.
    I kind of feel like my writing style has been patterned a little bit after my favorites. Or at least I try my best to learn from each of them.
    I love to read and love to write so a local bookstore is a great place to spend some down time, if you have any. The white chocolate caramel latte isn’t a bad part of the mix either.

  14. Michelle Van Loon on June 2, 2008 at 4:25 PM

    >As a part-time seminary bookstore employee, these comments warm my heart. There is nothing more wonderful than pulling a volume from a shelf, finding a chair in a corner, and sampling the delights of a brand new book.

    I handle marketing duties for the store, and I rely big time on an author’s platform and visibility as I decide what books to highlight in our advertising.

    The experience has been invaluable to my own writing career.

  15. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience on June 2, 2008 at 3:04 PM

    >Our two oldest boys, 13 and 11, both ask to go to the bookstore for their birthdays (and the 11 yr old had a bday this week too)… Makes a mama who loves words smile, doesn’t it? And maybe there is more awaiting them in the stacks than just books? Like a kindred, browsing. Ah, but you can’t meet folks when clicking through Amazon.

    Potent stuff about platform, Rachelle. We may not like to hear it, but when we are out there touching, smelling, feeling books, we know it’s true.

    It’s more than just the words we write. Seven touches, indeed.

  16. courtney walsh on June 2, 2008 at 1:22 PM

    >I make a point to get to the bookstore every week or every other week. I think it energizes me somehow!

    Yesterday I bought three books, the one I’m most excited about is Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I can’t wait to read it. Two other self-editing/writing help books.

    I wanted to tell you I really appreciate all the info you post here. It’s so helpful! Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge!

  17. Deborah Vogts on June 2, 2008 at 1:01 PM

    >Love the topic today! My girls and I love to shop at bookstores, but unfortunately we live a long way from them in any direction and only have a chance to visit three or four times a year, if that.

    However, we do frequent our public libraries every week, which they LOVE. For Christmas, my daughters received gift cards for a bookstore, and we’ve been known to do that for birthdays as well.

    My most recent purchase was James Scott Bell’s book through Amazon. The buzz finally got to me, but it didn’t take much because I ADORED his first writing book. So easy to read & understand. Thanks for bringing up this topic and allowing us to chatter. Kindles may be hot right now, but there is nothing that can replace holding a big thick book in your hands and smelling those crisp new pages! Yum!!!

  18. Anita Mae on June 2, 2008 at 12:30 PM

    >I will use any excuse to get into a bookstore so when a friend of mine asked if the Harlequin Medicals had hit the shelves yet, I jumped at the chance to do a recce.

    Now I realize that Harlequins aren’t CBA, but as a writer, I target the Steeple Hill Love Inspired line so I spend a lot of time on the Harlequin site. After all, Jesus didn’t come to preach to the converted…

    Now, I don’t know if this is ‘done’ or allowed (Rachelle slap my wrist if you must), but if you want a tongue-in-cheek account about one of my forays into a bookstore, grab a coffee, put your feet up, and go here:

  19. Jessica on June 2, 2008 at 12:23 PM

    >When I was a teen, after work I’d go to Barnes and Noble and read a book until they closed. It was awesome!

  20. Katy McKenna on June 2, 2008 at 11:29 AM

    >Cathy’s comment about having a mom who took her to the library raised one of my favorite memories: at the Catholic school where I was educated, the challenge put forth each summer was to read 40 books before the next school year began. I could only check out eight at a time from the library, and Mom took me once per week to get eight more. Forty books? How about 96?

    My parents neither one drove a car at that time. We walked to the library, about two miles each way. Rain or shine. Galoshes, umbrellas, yellow raincoats, or perhaps (in the 100-degree heat) midriff tops and pedal pushers and thongs. The OTHER kind of thongs. 🙂

    Whether it’s to the library or the bookstore, moms who take kids to hang out with books are the BEST.

  21. Inspire on June 2, 2008 at 10:04 AM

    >My favorite bookstore is a used one in town called ‘Wonderbook’. It is floor-to-ceiling with every kind of book you could imagine. A few years ago, I picked up a romance written at the turn of the last century that was fantastic and beautifully written. I started collecting adding them to my library. One thing I love is the illustrations that are in them.

    Rachelle’s comments about platform building prompted me to add to my blog ‘InSpire’ today an article I wrote for Stepping Stones Magazine for Writers on the subject. Non-fiction writers usually have a platform already in place. It’s a bit more daunting for fiction writers. Many have asked me how should they go about it. It is a fact, we have to work smarter and harder.

    If only an agent would latch on to me they’d see one author that will do just that, from dusk to dawn.

    Hope you stop by.

  22. natalie on June 2, 2008 at 9:58 AM

    >That is a sweet birthday gift! When I was younger, I lived about two hours from any mall (or any civilization whatsoever really… 🙂 so it was always HUGE for me to go to a real bookstore. I don’t think Disneyworld could have even compared.

    The Host is on my summer reading list. I am addicted to the Twilight series. My friends get so sick of me talking about it … until they read it and get addicted too 🙂 Several girls I know recommended Twilight but what actually convinced me to pick up the books was the author’s website. She talks about the books she liked growing up – namely Anne of Green Gables (which I LOVE) and Jane Austen novels. She doesn’t watch horror movies or write in a horror genre, which made me think Twlight was more than some stock vampire book. It is. It is incredible. The pace of her novels is really something. The romance is my favorite part though. My brother read them and, of course, claims he only read them for the fight scenes. I’m like – suuure you did 😉

    It’s always interesting to hear what makes someone pick up a book. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  23. Marissa on June 2, 2008 at 9:46 AM

    >I wish my mother would have taken me to the bookstore for my birthday, what a great idea!

    It’s true, nothing beats a trip to the bookstore. My husband is in the Navy and we have relocated to a much smaller town so I had to venture to for books and it just isn’t the same. Our town just recently opened a B&N and I was so excited! I tend to have an idea of what I want when I go to the store, but I ALWAYS browse the shelves of that section… just in case something else catches my eye.

    Most recently I purchased A Passion Most Pure by Julie Lessman. I love historical based fiction and her cover drew me in and after reading the first page I went for it. What a great debut novel!

    I’ve just recently found your blog Rachelle and thank you for all your wonderful insight! I’m just starting to write and need all the help I can get.

  24. Marla Taviano on June 2, 2008 at 9:37 AM

    >This is the third or fourth time I’ve heard about Death by Suburb. A couple more touches, and I’ll have to buy it!

  25. Catherine West on June 2, 2008 at 7:39 AM

    >The first section of your post immediately brought back childhood memories of the approaching summer and the trips my mom and I took to the Library. I was such an avid reader that we would end up coming home laden with books, only to return them within a week and get another armful! Mom really loved to read Agatha Christie and other mysteries, and it wasn’t too long before I was picking those up as well!

    I love browsing through bookstores – like you, it makes a huge difference to me to be caught by an eye-catching cover. A lot of times the book itself doesn’t appeal to me, but the cover did. I just placed an Amazon order and got a lot of books on writing, including the new James Scott Bell. I choose books that I think I will enjoy because of the genre, or the author. I’ll also pick something if it’s been recommended.

  26. Chatty Kelly on June 2, 2008 at 7:36 AM

    >My kids (4 & 9) love the book store also, as do I. I just love the atmosphere there and of course the Starbucks inside doesn’t hurt.

    My favorite secular authors are Stuart Woods & Robert B. Parker, and I devour every book written by them. However, I read alot of Christian fiction too.

    Let us know how “Death By Suburb” turns out…I might go buy a copy.

  27. Rachelle on June 2, 2008 at 7:28 AM

    >Anonymous in Portland…
    I know what you mean about Powell’s. We are fortunate to be near Tattered Cover, another old, famous, huge local bookstore. I adore that place, and it’s usually a visit of several hours.

    My girls are 9 and 11. They spend time in the “adult” sections that correspond to their interests. One got a book on horses and the other got a book on dogs. They also browse the kids and YA sections. My 11-y-o loves fantasy and she got the second Maybird book. My 9-y-o got a book about gymnasts (she competes herself). The third book for each of them was mommy-chosen: summer bridge workbooks!

  28. Katy McKenna on June 2, 2008 at 7:07 AM

    >Your daughter had the most birthday fun EVER–a bookstore! My hubby and I have “date night” or “date noon” or whatever in B&N at least twice per month. I walk through the wonderful children’s section to get to the restrooms, and man, are those kids happy!! I want to sit down with them and soak up the kid lit joy!

    It is so true that many influences occur before we purchase a book–usually. I had reached my tipping point with the James Scott Bell book, also. So before I FORGOT I’d been tipped, I added it to my Amazon wish list. 😉

    I know this is weird, but Doug and I play this game where we go around to display tables and I have to guess HIS favorite cover on the table and he has to guess mine. Whoever misses has to buy the lattes. But after 31 years of marriage, we never miss!!

    The thing about the bookstore is, sometimes I really DO buy a book for its cover. If it’s that brilliant, it deserves to get bought. Ha.

  29. Karen on June 2, 2008 at 7:02 AM

    >Going into a bookstore is like going into a Godiva chocolate store for me. The good outcome is that there are less calories at the bookstore. I love to browse, to touch, to feel the paper and book covers and turn pages. Books have always been a wonderful world of adventure for me. Unfortunately the last visit was with my husband whose mind was set to buy two travel guides. We were in and out of the store in ten minutes. It was like only being allowed one bite of a luscious dark chocolate truffle.

  30. Yvonne on June 2, 2008 at 6:21 AM

    >I love browsing through bookstores! There’s something about being able to curl up on the couch under a warm blanket and escape into the pages of a book. When I get too busy, I actually feel ‘hungry’ for books.

    I have “Plot and Structure” by James Scott Bell. It is excellent! He has an easy-to-understand flow to his writing. I am definitely going to use his method to write the sequel to my novel.

    I’m curious about what books your girls chose. What did they like and what did they not like?
    Were they looking for a genre that wasn’t there for their age?

  31. Anonymous on June 2, 2008 at 5:29 AM

    >My family is fortunate to live in Portland OR, home of Powell’s books. An infamous warehouse of old and new books. Giant caverns for each genre. Towering shelves crammed with publications. Limitless roaming. Crannies and nooks to nest in and read. Frequent readings by authors.

    My family splits up according to our shopping desires and meets in the coffee shop in 4 to 6 hours. It’s our special treat 4 times a year. We especially enjoy Christmas Eve at the store because everyone who comes home to visit makes a run to this bookstore. It’s like a reunion.

    My teens choose a bookstore over ice cream for treats, and we often spend afternoons at B&N. I take a notebook and record “jacket-language”, look for agent names in a book’s acknowledgements,and find novels similar to my WIP. I always end up in the reference section perusing writing,and editing aids.

    Latest purchases:
    Whistling Season by Ivan Doig;
    Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet
    Give ‘Em What They Want:The Right
    Way to pitch to Editors and Agents by B. Camenson & M. Cook (we’ll see if this works)

    Teen Ager purchases:
    Wheel of Time #4-Robert Jordan (Has the series in paperback. Collecting hardcovers as money allows)
    Catcher in the Rye-Salinger (Who’d-a-thought-it? Still speaks to youth in that stream-of-consciousness way that drives me crazy).

    Long Live Bookstores!!

  32. Gwen Stewart on June 2, 2008 at 4:23 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    My own daughter, also my youngest, turned nine last Thursday. 🙂 We didn’t go to the bookstore as a family for her birthday, but we have been there within the last couple of weeks.

    I spent the first few moments overwhelmed, wandering. I puttered at the new release section before finally deciding what I wanted.

    We were gift shopping, and I was a good girl. I didn’t buy anything for myself. I bought my mom a couple of biographies, a late Mother’s Day gift, and my father one fiction and one non-fiction for his birthday.

    My next purchase for myself will be the new James Scott Bell book. Once my summer hits, I’ll haunt the bookstores and libraries several times a week with my kids, consuming books like bonbons.

    I can’t wait. 🙂