What I Learned from Selling Communion Margarita Glasses

For a short time I considered a career selling Bibles.

Yes, Bibles. And clergy wear, candles, communion wafers, and refill writing pads for those visitor sign-in books.

My husband was studying at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC and I needed a job. So I worked in the Wesley campus bookstore, a Cokesbury franchise, and eventually put in an application for Store Manager when a neighboring campus Cokesbury in Alexandria, Virginia, had a vacancy.

I didn’t get the job. But that was OK.

As a nonfiction editor I occasionally do have a gig that deals directly with religion or spirituality. But what I want to talk about here is a broader lesson I learned about bookselling. It just so happened that when I learned it, my stock consisted of Bibles, framed cross stitch John Wesley quotations, and other smells and bells that religious leaders (and the people who appreciate them) need to buy.

OK, so this is a digital image of a cross-stitch, but whatever. You can purchase it from the Etsy store of neverdyingpoet

Digital image of a cross-stitch. A saying attributed to John Wesley, it was an often-requested gift item at the Wesley Seminary campus store. You can purchase this version from the Etsy store of neverdyingpoet

So here’s the lesson: in bookselling, there are categories.

Although our varied experiences as readers may lead me to get something different from what you got out of the same book, most books are written with a single purpose and are destined for a certain shelf or section in the store. Even in a campus Cokesbury store where the emphasis is on religious scholarship and church leadership, there are books that do different things, for example:

  • Entertain
  • Ignite discussion
  • Teach practical skills
  • Take readers on a journey
  • De-mystify a complex topic
  • Help readers look within themselves

Our store carried selected works of fiction, but nothing that could be described as “Christian fiction.” That’s what the Zondervan store at the mall is for. My co-worker Chett and I enjoyed many a private snark about confused Zondervan customers.

But seriously, if you’re a writer, you need to think about this. Which stores are in the business of selling books like yours? What shelf do you want your book to land on?

I like to think a dose of irreverence spiced up the customer service experience when I was on duty at Cokesbury. A routine clergy robe fitting just might, once or twice, have ended in a parade of accessories such as chasubles and mitres, ably modeled by Cokesbury employees.

Worship aids such as elegant stoneware chalices may have been decorated with a few too many plastic grapes, resulting in a display that more closely suggested a Bacchanal than a sober Good Friday service. We love Jesus, but we drink a little.

Actually, making light of the serious business of church leadership helped me to tease out book categories in a fairly sophisticated way.

Take the Bible, for example. There’s a reason the Bible is the top selling work in print, ever. And that reason is…what? It’s the inspired word of God? Well, OK.

But also: market seg-men-ta-tion. A Bible isn’t just a Bible.

Among Bibles you have the Serious Study Bible, in single or multi-volume options. You have the Floppy Bible, which is a thick, leather or faux-leather-bound tome that may be picked up from the lectern and thumped on for emphasis. You have the Adventure Bible, which looks like a graphic novel and is great for children and teens who are reluctant readers. And you have Bibles with first-person testimonials in sidebars to help users focus on any number of things: recovery from addiction, their role as caregivers, and so on.

Whatever you are working on now, it probably won’t sell as well as the Bible. Sorry if that is a hard lump of coal to swallow.

But if you know who you’re selling to and where they are likely to look for books like yours, then you are well on your way to success! I wish you all the best.