How to Be a Successful Writer: A Bookstore Owner Gives the Inside Skinny

It's such a beautiful, little, Brooklyn, exquisitely-curated indie that fits in perfectly with its neighborhood -- exactly the kind of bookstore alleged 'publishing pundits' like to scream is dying.
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The Book Doctors first got to be friends with Word Bookstore when we did a Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) at their Brooklyn store a couple of years ago. It's such a beautiful, little, Brooklyn, exquisitely-curated indie that fits in perfectly with its neighborhood -- exactly the kind of bookstore alleged "publishing pundits" like to scream is dying. We had a great event, packed the place, everybody was super nice and we got a typically Brooklyn crowd of writers pitching literary urban angst novel, werewolf investment banker one-percenter urban fantasy novel, and lots of picture books trying to be the next Go the Fuck to Sleep. When we found out they opened a bookstore in Jersey City, we were delighted. Not only did it fly in the face of prevailing "wisdom" that beautiful and exquisitely-curated can't survive, it says they can actually expand! So on May 22, we're doing a Pitchapalooza in Jersey City, to see what Jersey's finest writers have to pitch. And we figured we'd take the opportunity to pick the brain of owner Christine Onorati, the woman who's single-handedly proving that the death of the bookstore, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is highly exaggerated.

The Book Doctors: First of all, why in God's name did you want to get into the book business?


Christine Onorati: I majored in English in college with a focus on publishing. I worked in the publishing business for many years before opening my first bookstore, a small used and new shop on Long Island. My father owned stationery stores my whole life so I always thought retail was in my blood.

TBD: And why, in this economy, when everyone is crying about the death of the bookstore, did you choose to open yet another bookstore?

CO: We've been luckily successful with the model we've followed in Brooklyn, and my family in Jersey City kept saying it was the perfect location for a new store. So when the location and opportunity presented itself, I decided to move forward. I obviously don't believe that bookstores are dying or else I wouldn't have done it.

TBD: Why did you want to open a bookstore in Jersey City specifically?

CO: I always thought JC had a similar vibe to Greenpoint when I moved there over eight years ago. The feeling of community is strong and the residents seemed hungry for a store like ours. The time seemed right. And again, when the location presented itself, it seemed like the right move.

TBD: What have you learned about bookselling in Brooklyn that you're applying to opening your new store?

CO: Our model is basically the same. Make customers happy. Provide excellent customer service. Employ really smart, helpful booksellers. Be a place that book lovers can get together and feel comfortable and happy. Present great author events. Never judge a customer for their reading tastes.

TBD: How do you choose which books to sell in your bookstore, and which books to feature?

CO: I do all the buying for both stores. I try to always bring in a mix of what I know our customers will like and recognize as well as some surprises that they can discover. It takes time to learn the tastes of the neighborhood, but it's a fun learning experience.

TBD: Does it gall you when someone comes into your store and gets a lot of you or your staff's expertise, then says they can get the book cheaper on Amazon, and goes home and orders it online?

CO: This happens very rarely in our stores, thankfully. I think most customers are a bit too savvy to act this callously. But I know it happens elsewhere. And we can't stop it from happening online, if someone gets our newsletter and decides to order from Amazon instead. While we always focus on the positives and what we can provide as opposed to what we can't, we're always ready and willing to have the Amazon conversation with customers if need be. They need to know we can't compete with Amazon's prices and probably never will. But stores like mine are not solely about price, and I think most of our customers get that. Both stores gave us a really positive reception when we opened, and we're still getting it in JC.

TBD: Do you see anything commonality in successful authors?

CO: I think authors need to hustle more than ever these days. A smart social media presence can go a long way with building loyalty and keeping customers connected to their favorite authors.

TBD: What advice do you have for booksellers?

CO: I think the days of throwing books on the shelves and hoping they sell are done. We need smart, energetic booksellers who can provide a service that people can't get online from an algorithm. Pretension or a judgmental attitude have no place in bookselling these days, I think.

TBD: What advice you have for writers?

CO: Connect with readers. Use your publisher's resources to your best advantage. Build your brand. Keep writing good books that people will want to read.

Christine Onorati is the owner of WORD with two locations in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Jersey City, NJ. Before opening WORD in Brooklyn in 2007, Christine ran a small new and used bookshop on Long Island after working several years behind the scenes in book publishing. The Jersey City location opened in December of 2013. Christine lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband and son and is expecting twin girls this summer.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors.

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