How To Buy A Book

I’m a bookseller. Yes, I’m the guy standing behind the counter just waiting to help you find or pay or wrap your books.

I have been doing this for many years now and have learnt the system that’s set in place pretty well. (This isn’t saying much, there are many varieties but only a few basic things you need to know.) I’ve also worked on an online bookstore, so I have a rough idea of how that works too. For the record, in my opinion, it’s much easier to shop online but much less engrossing.

Here are some very basic things that the general public can learn from their friend, the bookseller. This will prevent him from going insane too.

Let’s say you’ve noticed a book at your friend’s house. You picked it up and read both the back and the front covers and you liked it. Now, you may not know this, but absolutely everything you need to know to get this book is on the back cover in 10 numerical digits and on the front cover in regular words. But for a bookseller looking up titles, words are just messy.

Now most people will forget this experience until they see the entrance to their local bookseller. As soon as they behold the neon lights they are drawn towards them like a moth to a flame. But now a strange thing usually happens.

As soon as they reach the counter to ask the bookseller for help, they forget any and all useful information about the book they so desperately want to own. Somehow they speculate that pouring out lots and lots of useless information will somehow replace the lack of a little good information that will actually help to find their precious book.

This customer–and I know because I’ve also been this guy–will usually repeat these lines: “I’m looking for a book … I don’t know the author or the title … It’s greenish. Does that help you?”

Thanks a lot. Unless you are describing Grisham’s latest courtroom drama or Kiyosaki’s latest way to make money with no effort, you are going to get the blank stare. Warning: Do not mistake this for insolence.

The average bookseller is surrounded by a few thousand books, which are constantly changing. These books are in flux. Very rarely does the same book appear in the same form in the same place of the store. It is a system that is completely transitory and flowing like a river.

If you really want to get the book try to remember these few tips:

1. Forget the publisher!

This must be one of the all-time greatest urban legends: Don’t worry about the author or title, but most importantly remember the publisher.

This may come as a shock, but when selling books over a counter, nobody cares about who publishes it. Knowing the publisher doesn’t help at all when you want to order it. All it does is slow down the process and slow down the service for your bookseller, who now has to attempt to find a needle in a haystack.

If you don’t know the author or the title, why give your poor bookseller the publisher? If a book is imported from overseas, the vendor (the people who distribute the book in your own country) has a completely different name—and many times, a local one. This is the most abstract thing to do since the book can change publishers at any time and normally the search engines on the store’s computers are far more adept at finding titles, authors and ISBN’s, but more on that later.

2. Get the title or the author!

This may sound impractical but unless you have a photographic memory write down the whole title, including subtitles, as well as the author’s name.

See Also

Sometimes it’s easier to find the author and sometimes it’s easier to find the title. It depends. If the author is John Smith, it’s very important to find the title too. Conversely, if the title is “Leadership” you’re going to need the author. And if there’s more than one author, write all of their names down. Fortunately, the more advanced search engines have a simultaneous title-author search function. But there’s an even better way …

3. Get the ISBN.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is 10 digits long (and will be 13 digits in the near future) and is on the back cover near the barcode. It is not the barcode itself. If it’s not there you will find it inside usually on the same page as the publishing details. Every single version of every single book in the world has an ISBN. If it doesn’t have one, you can’t order it and it isn’t a recognized book.

The ISBN is amazing because, like a key that opens only one lock, it is unique to each version of a book. This should please people who have tried to collect a series like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and discovered that they have The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in paperback with a specific cover by a particular artist, and when they went to pick up The Return of the King that they ordered from the local bookstore, they discover that it’s either a hardcover or it’s the incorrect artwork on the cover or it doesn’t include other things they want (like CD’s etc.). You get the idea. This kind of tragedy occurs when someone orders a book without the all-powerful ISBN.

You can’t go wrong with an ISBN, assuming the cashier types it in correctly. Speak the language of the bookseller world and equip yourself with the 10-digit golden key.

Hopefully this has helped you to make for slicker book buying and book ordering. And if you think I’m being ridiculous, just try to order a red, genuine leather, words of Christ in red, slimline, margined, gift Bible without using an ISBN. Exactly.


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