A handy bookseller translation guide

Last night, 8:50 p.m.: While returning the phone handset to its casing, the 10-minutes-to-close intercom announcement complete, a woman bounds into the store. She immediately locks eyes and strides with purpose towards the register, her slightly open-mouthed smile leading the way, the drum major for her wide-eyed, expectant face. It’s the face of someone about to reunite with a long-lost friend.

Clearly Eager Woman: Do you have the new Greg Iles book?

Me: You bet!

I walk around the register and pick up a copy from the nearby pedestal point-of-purchase display. She takes the book in a two-handed grip, stares at it for a moment like a new graduate eyeing her diploma, simultaneously covetous and content. She then casually brings the book to her chest in a near-embrace.

Clearly Eager Woman: I’ve been waiting for today [The Bone Tree’s publication] since I finished Natchez Burning? Did you read it!?

Me: No. I didn’t read that one, but people really loved it.

Clearly Eager Woman: Ohhhhhh. It was so good. I love Greg Iles. Have you ever read him?

Me: I’ve only read one of his b–

Clearly Eager Woman: Which one?!

Me: Turning Angel. It—

Clearly Eager Woman: Oh! That was a good one! You should really read Natchez Burning.

Me: I don’t really read much in the mystery/thriller genre…

Clearly Eager Woman: Oh, but his books are so good. If you like to read, you should really read him.

While conducting her purchase, the woman continued extolling the virtues of Iles’ works—the mystery, the sense of history in the setting, etc. Transaction complete, she flashed a “see-ya-later” grin and made for the exit with geometric efficiency, off to share a wondrous evening reuniting with her friends.

* * *

To the uninitiated, this conversation is straightforward, requiring no further thought, certainly no deep analysis. Practitioners of the bookselling arts, however, recognize that things are being said between the lines.

This unremarkable, utterly everyday conversation spurred my thoughts that you, dear readers, might benefit from a handy bookseller translation guide. I bring you this at risk of my suspension—or possible excommunication—from the Secret Order of the Bookseller (what? it’s a thing). But in service to you, I will take that risk.

* * *

Before we get into this, I’m compelled to provide an operational framework for understanding the arcane knowledge that follows. First, a bookseller is only trying to make sure you get the right book for you. We’re in no way incentivized to get you something you don’t want. If you know what you want—whatever that is—we’re thrilled and most happy to get it for you.

Second, while there are perhaps things left unsaid, what is said is in no way untrue. We read. Most of us read a lot. We don’t like everything and we all have different tastes. Something that enraptures you may hold no interest for me. And that certainly holds true the going the other way. None of us want to treat your beloved book or author like the neighborhood opossum, unwelcome in even our trash can. So we deflect or choose to not expound. We’re no book snobs. We want you to love the books you read. Whatever they are.

With that framework established, what follows is an incomplete key to deciphering typical bookseller responses to a couple of common questions.

Question: “Have you read this book?”

Answer: “Yes” or “I did”

Translation: [with no additional context or qualifiers] “I didn’t like it”. (Note: If the book is one we liked, we’ll volunteer more information. If it’s one we really liked, we’ll likely begin effusing or issuing declarations like “you want that book” or offering unequivocal praise like “oh, you picked a good one!” Booksellers love to talk about books they loved. If they liked a book you’re considering, you’ll know it.)

Answer: “I did. It was good, but not for everyone.”

Translation: “I liked it, but I’m warning you: it’s weird/disturbing/violent/difficult/impolitic/etc.”

Answer: “Yeaaaaaaa-uh. It was…interesting…not for everyone…”

Translation: “It was definitely not for me or for anyone I call a friend.”

Answer: “No, I haven’t”

Translation: “No. And I have absolutely no plans to.”

Answer: “It’s been in my ‘to-read’ pile and I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

Translation: “I want to read it and I think I would recommend it, but I haven’t actually read it. Read it and tell me if it needs to move to the top of the pile or if it should be banished from this exalted spot.”

Question: “Do you know anything about this book?”

Answer: “No. I really don’t…”

Translation: “Never seen it before.” or “I’ve seen it, but never seen anyone buy it.”

Answer: “It’s been popular, but I haven’t really heard anything about it.”

Translation: “It’s a book many have bought, but no one has liked enough to ever mention it again.”

Answer: “People seem to love it…”

Translation: “Lots of people are buying it. They seem excited about it.” or “Those who’ve read it seem to really love it.”

Answer: “It’s been popular. You’ll likely enjoy it if you like that kind of thing.”

Translation: “I don’t read ‘that kind of thing’. Those who do are buying it.”

Answer: “I’ve read it.”

Translation: [if unaccompanied by additional qualifiers or explanation] “I’ve read it. Don’t.”

Answer: “Yes. I actually read that.”

Translation: “I didn’t hate it.”

Answer: “Yes. It’s a good one.”

Translation: “Yes. It’s a good one.”

Answer: “Yes. It was really terrific, if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s not for everyone.”

Translation: “It was terrific, but I’m warning you, you may not be into ‘that kind of thing’ and ‘that kind of thing’ may be disturbing or confusing or nonsensical to you. I’m warning you.”

* * *

I hope you find this brief translation primer helpful in getting the most out of your bookseller. One very important note: we need you to be as direct and forthcoming as you want when giving us your feedback on a book. Our recommendations to you are only as good as the information we have on what you liked and didn’t like. Please, if you hated something, tell us you hated it. This helps us better triangulate our recommendations for you.

And, please, please let us know when you loved something, especially if its something we recommended. That’s the best part of the job.

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