Friday, June 15, 2012

Pride of Place

Author ELLEN WHYTE explains her obsession with positioning and confesses she’s not above giving her books a quiet boost

ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING THINGS in the world is to see your book for sale in a bookshop. Suddenly the book you’ve sweated over, had bad dreams about, and wished you’d never started is sitting there, looking all shiny and new. It’s a great feeling.

If you are Terry Pratchett or Charlaine Harris, your books will fly off the shelves the instant fans know a new book is available. For those of us who are not in that category, a little extra push is always needed. Half of the push comes in the form of publicity. The other half comes in the shape of positioning, the shelves the bookshop devotes to your book.

Publicity is needed to let people know the book is out, and to persuade readers that their lives won’t be complete until they have at least one copy for themselves, and several for their best friends. Good positioning in the shop helps those people find your book easily. After all, you don’t want them to become bored looking for your wonderful book and buying something else!

As I live off the money I make from writing, I’m always interested in pushing the envelope. Good positioning isn’t enough. I’m interested in great positioning, the sort of positioning that helps persuade people who’ve never even heard of my book to see it and buy it too.

I read scientific papers on buying behaviour and make a point of interrogating shop managers on a regular basis. They tell me that there are a few golden rules.

The Science of Positioning
The entry is usually the “decompression zone”, an area filled with promotional items and fun things so that people slow down, take a look around and relax. In bookshops this is where you get magazines and potential bestsellers.

The back of the shop is stocked with “must buy” staples. This is so that shoppers have to pass by everything else, in order to get there. The theory is that the more they see, the more likely they are to buy something. In bookshops the pencils, papers, and schoolbooks are often at the back.

The rest of the stock is placed in such a way that shoppers are encouraged to linger and look about. This “dwell time” is important for boosting sales. Recent surveys where companies tracked shoppers by plotting the positions of their handphones as they transmit automatically to cellular networks found that when dwell time rose by just one per cent there was a sales boost of 1.3 per cent. This is why bookshops have little enclaves of shelves where you find yourself moving automatically from one shelf to another, from history to political history to autobiographies and other related items.

Finally, premium goods are placed at eye level and in places where they have maximum exposure. In a bookshop the prime space is at eye level in the centre of a big wall of shelves or on the top corner of a shelf where it can be seen from all directions even by people who are not that close.

Another titbit is that if you can only have part of a shelf, you should aim for the right-hand side. This is because our eyes drift automatically to the one side. If you are right-handed, and most people are, this means your eyes drift to the right.

Finding Logomania
So when Logomania: Fate & Fortune came out in December, I rushed to the local bookstore in order to admire it. As it looks into the history of popular phrases, and give examples of how these expressions are used, I thought they’d be in the Language & Reference section by the dictionaries and reference books. It wasn’t there.

When the first book, Logomania: Where Common Phrases Come From and How to Use Them, came out, I found it in the foreign language section next to a book that taught Polish to travellers. As such, I went digging about the adjacent shelves. Nothing.

I had a brainwave. As Logomania: Fate & Fortune focuses on the Western and Chinese zodiacs, it might be in the Astrology or New Age section. Honing in on that section of the shop, I found my book.

Pride of Place
My book had a shelf all of its own. The top shelf was dedicated to books from Lillian Too, and the second shelf was devoted to Joey Yap. While I was flattered to be in such august company, this was a problem. The best position for a book is at eye level. My lovely book was at eye level only for the average four-year-old—which is not exactly my target group.

Also, all I could see was the spine of Logomania. The gorgeous dragon on the cover, drawn by designer Ng Seng Chee, was completely hidden.

What I did next has to stay a secret between us.

I quietly took several of my books off the shelf, and put three on the very end of Joey’s shelf. I was careful to take up a tiny space at the end only, which I’m sure Joey won’t mind as he’s a generous soul.

I placed my books facing out, so that the handsome dragon was clearly visible. That dragon is so lovely that passers-by won’t be able to resist picking up the book. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. I then did the same to the other shelf.

Afterwards I rearranged my books on their own shelf too. I left half as they were with just the spine showing but I turned the other half around so that the dragon was facing out. Who knows if a nice four-year-old won’t pick up the book and say, “Mummy, buy me this lovely dragon book?”

Then I picked up three books and quietly carried them across to the Language & Reference section. Again, I made sure I didn’t obscure anyone. I picked a nice big shelf at eye level, and placed my books on top, with the dragon facing out.

My next step is even subtler. I’m asking friends to go into their local bookstores and to ask in a very loud voice, “Do you have Logomania: Fate & Fortune, by Ellen Whyte? I hear it’s absolutely wonderful!” It’s my way of giving buzz and word-of-mouth recommendations a bit of a push.


WHEN YOU TELL YOUR FRIENDS you spent a day and a half figuring out the origin and history of the phrase “the ghost in the machine” they will probably think you’re nuts. At least, mine do. 

My love of etymology started when I was about 13. That was when I got my first big dictionary with very short etymological entries. Reading about the development of words gave me a sense of history. It also brought new meaning to some old stories I was reading.

At the time I was studying for my 0-Levels, so when Hamlet says, “Get thee to a nunnery” to his mum, I looked up nunnery because I hadn’t heard it before. I learned it meant both a convent and a brothel.

I knew that Shakespeare was writing for Queen Elizabeth whose father Henry VIII took over all the monasteries and convents in the country and pocketed the money and treasures he found there. As Henry claimed that all the nuns and monks were corrupt and licentious, I realised that Shakespeare was playing on the double meaning. It made Hamlet much more interesting.

Later on my reading showed that the image continued for centuries. For example, in the early 1800s the madam of a brothel was generally nicknamed an abbess. Some people may not find this at all interesting, but to me it’s fascinating.

I have a bookshelf bulging with dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopaedias and other reference books and I am completely hooked on learning the stories that lie behind the words and phrases we use every day.

I also have a passion for mythology and the occult, which is why Logomania: Fate & Fortune takes a look at Chinese and Western zodiacs and the history of related popular phrases.

For those born in the Year of the Rat, we look at the stories behind “pack rat” and “like rats deserting a sinking ship”, for those who were born under the sign of Pisces, we look at the stories behind the zodiac sign as well as phrases such as “to sleep with the fishes” and “neither fish nor flesh”. In addition, there are chapters on popular fortune-telling concepts: wealth, luck, devils, saints and more.

Reproduced from the Annual 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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