Motivation 3.0 for Booksellers in the Trenches

drivecoverNote: I try to keep this blog pretty general interest, but this post is all about bookselling and bookstores.  Feel free to read it if you aren’t in the book biz, but I can’t promise it’ll be interesting.  Book reviews and beer reviews are coming this week, so just pop back by tomorrow or check out the archives if this doesn’t do it for you.

Last weekend, I traveled down to Hartford, CT for the 36th annual New England Independent Booksellers Association trade show.  It was a wonderful three day event, with lots of opportunities to meet publishers, authors and other New England booksellers.  Along with meals with authors, educational sessions and an exciting trade show floor, one of the highlights of the weekend was the keynote address from Daniel Pink, author of the bestselling A Whole New Mind.

The focus of Pink’s address was the intrinsic, internal factors that motivate us (or our business, or our employees) to perform at a high level.  Researching his new book Drive, Pink found that the incentives that have been used for hundreds of years – punishment for poor performance, financial incentives to improve or speed up performance, and essentially a focus on economic rather than personal fulfillment – are not the best way to improve performance.

Instead, the “key to high performance and satisfaction is intrinsic, internal motivation: the desire to follow your own interests and understand the benefits in them to you.”  Specifically, Pink said that the keys to the new world of motivation are autonomy (active, engaged and self-directed work, with some control of time, task, team and technique), mastery (desire to continually improve at something you enjoy) and purpose (trying to accomplish something more fulfilling than simply profit).

Pink promised in his address to give booksellers cheap, actionable suggestions for ways to motivate everyone at their stores to perform at a higher, more satisfying level.  And for the most part he did, suggesting offering employees time to work on pet projects (like the BBC’s 10% time or Google’s 20% time), giving a chance for education to improve mastery of their job, and having employees devote attention to identifying a purpose and pursuing it.  However, at a certain level it gets harder to offer these opportunities to employees.  At the frontline bookseller level, especially in the thinly-staffed stores where employees do everything from accounting to cleaning the store to planning events, offering time away from the front counter gets harder and harder to do.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few actionable ideas about what frontline booksellers at your store can do that offers some serious and fulfilling motivation.  These are all things that I’ve done in my years selling books, and Pink is totally right – doing jobs that let me express some creativity were not only more fulfilling, but ultimately led to more sales and a better store.

  • Create promotions and displays: Let your employees make book displays and promotional material for the store.  Like every other store, we have displays for holidays and local events, but when given autonomy to make a display about whatever I’d like or around whatever theme I want, the displays always came out just a little better.  Creative thinking can go wild when there aren’t thematic restrictions on making a display, and you can end up with some really appealing books that might not have sold back in the stacks.  Same with promotions.  I made some bookmarks for our store last year, and now they’re so popular we can hardly keep them around.
  • Brainstorm events and host events: It seems like there’s been a shift in bookstore events recently to hosting more and more “authorless” events, events like hosting dinners based on cookbooks in the store or bringing in knitting and sewing clubs.  Let your booksellers brainstorm ideas for events that you can base around books at the store – after all, the folks among the shelves know what books are in the store better than anyone else.  To really let your employees show some mastery, see if anyone would like to host an event themselves.  If someone is an expert cook, knitter, photographer or even editor, there’s an event that can be planned around it.
  • Order unique stock: Even if you have a buyer for the store, let your employees look through the catalogs, seek out galleys of books, and have a hand in the ordering process.  This one should make a lot of sense; if someone is REALLY excited about a book, they’ll be able to sell it better than anyone else.  If s0meone is an expert on a subject, they can be even better than a rep at finding the best books and filling holes in your stock.
  • Find purpose and promote it: Ask your employees what they think the purpose of the store is.  Is it serving the local community?  Education?  Making people happy?  Once you find a purpose to really latch on to, go nuts.  Right under the surface you might find the next “Eat, Sleep, Read” or Buy Local movement.

These are a couple ideas off the top of my head, but there are tons more booksellers can do to feel motivated.  In my years at the store, meeting with publishers reps, writing recommendations, blogging about books, and starting a book club are just a few more things that really made me feel the autonomy, mastery and purpose Pink writes about.  Every bookstore is different and a lot of people have been doing this longer than me, so what else is there?  How can you make sure everyone at your store is loving their work?

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3 responses to “Motivation 3.0 for Booksellers in the Trenches

  1. A lot of great points. Our store is independent but survives on a mix of new, used and remainder books. Our employees are typically so stretched for time that putting on extra events requires more effort than we have. Honestly it’s a chore to get them to write a book review for our blog! Yet whenever they get the chance to be creative in their own ways, they always excel. I forwarded this post on!

  2. I totally agree with you. I am a former bookshop owner. When I owned the store, I tried not to keep a me boss you worker attitude. The front window displays were done by one of the staff with input from other employees, everyone was encouraged to look through catalogs, etc., to recommend titles they thought we should have. Time off was freely given, especially when the time as used for the benefit of others.

    I have always felt that if a bookseller felt that they had a vested interest in how well the bookshop did, whether it was through a paycheck (meagre) or their personal touch or input, they would be a happier employee and that would translate into a better bookseller.

    Thanks for bringing this subject up.

  3. Hey, Josh- as a bookstore owner who was there for Pink’s presentation and a little baffled as to how to apply his principles to an underpaid staff, I REALLY appreciate your thoughtful perspective. Thanks for putting it down in print! (And I hope to meet you next time…)

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