"I Didn't Like That Book": How Booksellers Earn Your Trust By Un-Selling Books

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Mesjak Founder and editor of, Independent sales representative

Although I'm now spending some of my time as a book blogger here at the Huffington Post and at my3books, my actual day job is an independent sales rep for a diverse bunch of small to medium-sized independent publishers.

I put the emphasis on "independent" because we are not employees of our client publishers, and we are free to steer each buyer toward the books that will best suit the flavor and personality of their store.

I'm able to act as a guide for my bookstore buyers because they trust me. That trust comes both from recommending great books that have ended up being staff favorites and, maybe more importantly, sometimes telling a buyer, "You don't need this book."

A sales rep's credibility (whether they be independent or house) is boosted as much by a sense of when to "un-sell" as it is by the ability to make a strong recommendation for a beloved new book.

Good booksellers earn trust with their own customers the same way -- by providing honest suggestions and reliable advice. Lanora Hurley is the owner of one of the bookstores that I sell to -- Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, Wisconsin. She said exactly that last week at a trade show for midwestern booksellers. Booksellers should "always be honest... Booksellers shouldn't be afraid to say, 'I didn't like the book." (quote from Shelf Awareness)

If the idea of just being honest sounds a bit obvious to you, if it sounds like what normal people ought to do every day, just stop and think about the stereotypes that our culture holds of people who sell for a living -- the Willy Loman type, the used car dealer type or the cold-calling boiler room type. Deep down, humans have a tendency to distrust people who are trying to sell something. As a sales rep, that is an uphill slope where we all start out at the bottom.

Because we live in a world where it seems that everybody is trying to sell us something, from our Facebook Wall to the floor of the grocery store to tiny messages on the stir sticks in our coffee shop, it is a powerful thing to make a negative recommendation, to un-sell something. We can be surprised when someone we are predisposed to distrust offers us an honest opinion.

Of course, in our personal lives, it's easy to be honest about a book (or a tv show, a concert, a play, or a restaurant) that disappoints us. We have no qualms about sharing our opinions -- "I didn't like it!" -- with our book group members, our friends or our families. Perhaps that's why Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book The Tipping Point resonated so strongly with so many readers. We like to be mavens about the things we feel passionate about -- to appear knowledgeable and to share our opinions.

But if it's so easy for most of us to be honest about sharing our opinions, there is one place that book lovers are frequently not as honest: in our own heads. Why do we keep reading books that we are not enjoying? Why will we suffer through an undeserving book to the bitter end, yet go out of our way to spare our friends the same laborious trek?

In The Rights of the Reader, Daniel Pennac's classic book about reading for pleasure, Right #3 is The Right Not To Finish A Book. "So we have a choice: either we say it's our fault, something's missing in our brain, we're just plain thick, beyond help, or we decide to go a la carte, explore the -- admittedly controversial -- idea of taste, and draw up our own menu of what we do and don't like." (Disclosure: The Rights of The Reader was published in a new translation by Sarah Adams, with illustrations by Quentin Blake, by one of my publishers, Candlewick Press, in 2008.)

The extremely knowledgeable librarian, NPR commentator, and author Nancy Pearl suggests in Book Lust a simple way to evaluate whether or not you've reached the point where its okay to say "I don't like that book." She calls it the Rule of Fifty: "If you're fifty years old or younger, give every book about fifty pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it or give it up. If you're over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100 -- the result is the number of pages you should read before deciding."

Whether you take my advice on dropping a bad book or not, I hope you'll check out The Rights of the Reader and Book Lust when you need inspiration and guidance for your next choices. Or you could just have an honest chat with a bookseller to see what they'll sell you.