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Legitimacy of Staff Recommended Books
“I was wondering if I could speak to John/Jane Doe in regards to this book recommendation—oh, they’re not in at the moment?—that’s cool beans.”
First and foremost: I want to thank those employed by booksellers for their ongoing efforts in creating an environment where literature is at the forefront. This thought comes after hundreds of hours and buckets of cash being spent at bookstores, and it might spawn negativity on part of corporate marketing. I am not chirping a particular individual in this discussion; nor am I claiming these individuals to be dishonest employees. It is simply in the nature of endorsements that I have to ask questions concerning the legitimacy of recommendations and its holistic approach in going about it.
So often in chain bookstores there are recommendation stickers tacked onto books. At times they feature new titles, other times bestsellers, but mostly, the recommendations build (and/or maintain) interest toward blockbuster-worthy titles on credible lists. It is understandable that sellers do their best in a vast market of genres to spotlight titles that have proven acclaim and sales. However, the walls of a store cannot encourage anymore validation towards a novel than the adhesive plastic itself. Yet once it is regarded by an employee, the onus of marketing shifts and interest can be cultivated. With this in mind, I’ve often wondered whether or not certain Staff Recommendations by John or Jane Doe have actually been read by those who recommend them.
The most dubious of culprits involve movie tie-in novelizations. With adaptations come the nuanced difference in how much or little each medium spends to visualize a particular element of a story, and though they may be different, the story is wholly the same. But unlike reading a Wiki or skimming a review, you would actually have tacit experience with the story if you’ve at least viewed the film—call it user experience—and that’s what we indiscriminately buy into. We listen for second opinions to validate ourselves and it’s what we crave when making sound judgements. It doesn’t matter if you’re the type of consumer who asks for help or enjoys not being bothered when perusing books. We consider these sticker advertisements in good faith and this ultimately holds implications for being misleading.
The point isn’t that readers make gambles with these recommendations or that “no one reader is the same”. It isn’t even about staff not having expert advice for a novel either. The concern is rooted in hokey push-marketing and is about being disingenuous by omission of information to legitimize something they haven’t read for the sake of sales. We can agree that books are not films (and vice-versa) but without explicit indication that it is endorsed by someone who puts the weight of the title on the film counterpart, how can consumers truly reward the value of information being sold? You can praise the film’s source text through filtered glasses but that’s all it ought to be.
While this remains a small segment of marketed books, how do we go about engaging other titles being recommended—or is it all a hoax pandering to solid trend forecasting?
And so here I am, wondering if I should poke the bear with detective work to seek validation that recommendations have substance over form. That it isn’t all completely head-office or publisher influence to encourage marketing based on how much cash you put out. I’m not expecting these individuals to be a walking Goodreads directory of reviews—far from it—I’m merely curious as to whether or not they’ve read what they claim to have read. Granted, it’d probably be difficult to ascertain the truth in whether or not they’ve read the text or not (or just perused reviews) but I’m sure there are unique ways you can probe for thoughts.
How often do you read the blurb of a staff recommended novel? Do you end up purchasing it or shelving it in your mental TBR (to be purchased at a later time)?
Have you ever spoken to the individual who recommends the read? Were they knowledgeable enough to pique interest? How did the conversation go?
Was there a time when you were recommended a novel you’ve already read (by staff) and it didn’t seem like they weren’t entirely familiar with it—by simply reiterating the blurb or speaking holistically?
Also: how are you finding these recent Think Aloud discussions so far? “Interesting and Unique” topics are what people wanted to read more into (re: my blog survey results) and I’m trying my best to delve into the unknown.
19 thoughts on “[Think Aloud] – #7 – Legitimacy of Staff Recommended Books”
I thought about this when I recently went to a book store. Like your situation there were recommendations and comments on certain books throughout the store and I stood there and went ‘have they really read them?!’ and tbh I don’t believe they have or maybe one in every thousand recommendations from the store actual read and wrote a comment for the book =/ especially seen as most of those being recommended are either new releases, current popular books or ‘soon-to-be-made/released’ book to movie adaptations. But having said that; a lot of librarians love to read so many it’s the same with some that work in book stores as well? There’s bound to be people out there.
How often do you read the blurb of a staff recommended novel? I rarely go into book stores so like once in a blue moon.
Do you end up purchasing it or shelving it in your mental TBR (to be purchased at a later time)? Nope, I have a big enough TBR and a list of books I want ASAP to take these recommendations seriously =/
Have you ever spoken to the individual who recommends the read? No I haven’t but now thinking I should!
Glad to hear I’m not the only one who thought about this! I specifically poked at store clerks and not librarians cause I feel like the vibe to upsell the novel is different depending on perspective. Or maybe it isn’t. But I feel like perhaps librarians have a greater [genuine] vested interested rather than sales staff. But I guess that’s only based on my personal experience.
You should let me know how that discussion goes (and if they seem like they actually read the book versus a wiki!)
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I’ve worked in quite a few bookshops now and you don’t get hired if you don’t love books. Generally there’s little staff turnover because everybody loves the fact that they get to talk books all day every day. I’ve always had to review a title in my interviews (or several because I can’t stop). Generally you can trust the recommendations but as I’ve said below, there are some exceptions.
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I’m glad you could tell us =] as two people who haven’t worked in a book store, we had no idea! Glad we can hear the opinions of someone who has worked there ^_^
I’m a buyer for a chain store (technically, although we only have one chain in my country!) and we don’t practice staff recommendations in the sense you’re talking about. Some of the other chains here have done that in the past, and I know (via publishers, suppliers, other store’s buyers) that a small number of their staff actually read the books they recommend. Usually, they would choose books they find interesting instead, whether or not they’ve actually read the book. I think only one of the other chains still practice this, though – the others have mostly given up on doing staff recs, doing basic discount promotions instead.
At my store, “recs” are done mostly by buyers, although we do get input from our sales floor staff when we need to. We don’t call our picks “staff recommendations”, instead using the phrase “gems of the month”, focusing on hidden gems that people might overlook in favour of the more popular titles. Since our criteria is simple – we have to have read the book, and would truly recommend it to others – some of us do end up choosing popular titles or movie tie-ins every once in a while. We don’t put our names in the newsletter, but if customers walk in and want to speak to the buyer, we will happily discuss books with them (er, maybe I’m just speaking for myself since we’re all super introverts. But we do meet the customers, yeah.) I read and rec about three to four books for each of our newsletters (for SF/F, YA, and Comics/Manga). A lot of time is needed for this as we sometimes don’t like a book enough to rec it and would have to start the title-selection process all over again, so on occasion we write our blurbs while still in the middle of a book, which may cause regret when we finally finish them.
A lot of the titles we like and rec do end up in the following yeear’s YALSA media awards/Hugo/Nebula lists, though, so maybe our choices aren’t really always “hidden” gems…?
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This is a wonderful perspective–thanks for sharing!
Recommending books based on interest (whether or not they’ve read it before) puts a lot of trust in the novels content and the hype surrounding it. Although, I’m sure it could pay off for the majority of the time (on a quick skim of early reviews).
While I don’t work for a bookstore, I do feel like the ratio of popular fiction-to-hidden gems is like 10:1. Perhaps it’s a difference in regional marketing as a lot of focus here (in Canada, from what I’ve seen) maintains the hype of certain books/series as it correlates to the screen versions.
I’m curious as to what this newsletter you speak of is. Is it an online publication or something in store? Actually going out of your way to write blurbs about recommendations sounds pretty time consuming but I applaud the personalized touch in recommending. All we get is a name sticker (it isn’t very convincing if you think about it).
It is very time consuming, but it’s one of my favourite things about my work. We had an in-store newsletter, with the gems-of-the-month blurbs that we write, as well as themed selections we curate, that get table highlights in-store. Starting this year the management decided to do away with the paper version of the newsletter, but we still do our themed table selections, and have an e-newsletter for our card members.
Great topic! I have also wondered about this and noticed bookstores often arrange displays at the front of the store to promote certain books. I can’t speak to booksellers, but some of my librarian friends seem to read whatever interests them and not necessarily the latest, most hyped-up books. If anything, I’m the silly one who falls for those books all on my own.
I used to work for a bookshop chain and we were quite often told that we had to have at least two recommendations per bay (bookcase). This is a great idea if you have read two books in each of your bays but I would find myself struggling when I got to the pregnancy and childcare section or sport. Our managers would often say “just make something up” or we’d take quotes from review sites like Goodreads or Amazon. If it’s a dedicated ‘Recommend’ bay however, these really are genuine. In my experience, there’s usually at least one person in every store that reads one or two books per week (I was never that person) so they usually read one new/popular title and one of their own picks.
I would probably say that about 80% of reviews are legitimate staff reads, however if you see something that simply says “A great holiday read” or “Really exciting stuff” then I recommend suspicion.
I think my experiences in seeing these recommendation stickers vary depending on the size of the chain store. I don’t think I’ve actually seen too many dedicated recommended bays in the smaller retail ones (for obvious reason) but I “think” I might know what you’re talking about for the bigger stores.
I just get dubious at times when recommendations for books are so timely with movie releases. I remember it was the opening weekend for Nolan’s Interstellar and the bookstore I visited had staff already recommending the movie tie-in novel. Not saying they didn’t read it but my skeptical hat was waving red flags.
Yeah we didn’t always have them. Usually after Christmas when we suddenly had loads of space to fill we’d put one in. I’ve seen some stores leave cards and pens out for customers too but that was a LONG time ago. A good idea though. Also every store I’ve worked at has a book group and they tend to read the new/popular books so recommendations may also come from them. I think you can usually tell by how personal the language they use is.
And with the movie tie ins, like I said sometimes they are just made up. Sometimes we’d just say ‘read it before you see it’ or something dumb like that. Or even use the film as a basis. Interstellar, for example, was a book of the film (rather than the other way around), and bookshops get advance copies and proofs/galleys to read and recommend before books come out. So quite often we get to read things before everyone else does. It’s one of the many cheeky perks of the job. I’m not saying that was the case, just that it’s possible.
I never really put much stock in the “staff picks” section of large chain bookstores/websites because they’re so vague and honestly, anyone could put anything there! But there is an indie bookstore near my hometown that I like to visit and they’re staff picks are much more authentic- they have little notecards taped to the shelves for their “staff picks” that have a quick summary, themes you’ll find in the book, why they liked it, AND THEIR NAME. So if I wanted to (which I never have) I could literally go to the counter as ask for “Martin” so I could chat with him about his recommendation. I love these handwritten little recommendations (they’re scattered throughout the whole store, not all lumped in a “staff recommended section”) and to be honest have been tempted to do a similar thing at bookstores/libraries and leave post its in books I love, telling people why they should read it!
I had to Google up these “staff picks” section that everyone is chiming about. I feel like most of the Canadian stores I’ve been to spread their reccs throughout the store (with employee names) and don’t necessarily have a core recommended area (although “New and Hot” is a close link).
I think you get that kind of genuine intimacy with smaller stores. They have more vested interest rather than mining you for all you’re worth.
That’d be an interest feature for you to consider: to leave those recc notes at stores/libraries and see who picks it up to read. Although I guess it might be a bit creepy and stalker-ish to see the fruits of your labour…
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It’s so tempting though!
I think it would be fun to approach one of the local bookstores and have them organize “Community Recommendations.” I often love to know what others have thought about a book before buying it to know if it is worth the purchase.
Terri M., the Director
Second Run Reviews
That’s a wonderful thought–what better way to encourage recommendations than for the customers themselves to do it. Although it might take a bit of consideration to compare a non-digitized versus digitized recc system, it’s ease of integration, and the overall reach!