Posted by: paultovell | November 26, 2009

Tovell’s Law of Booksales

Today I have observed a scientific law.  Logically, there is very little reason for booksales in libraries to work.  We withdraw books that no-one is borrowing because they are old, tatty or unpopular. We put them in a jumbled heap with very little thought about display or sequence on a table, and then we make lots of money when people buy them.  And yet these are the same books that no-one wanted when they were only a few metres away on a shelf.

Surely, this proves once and for all that customers look at books differently depending on their context.  Faced with several bays and hundreds of books, not much looks appealing.  Yet select twenty, put them somewhere else and automatically, something happens inside the customer’s head and they start ranking them.  Well, I wouldn’t take that one, but the one next to it looks a lot better, and so does the one on the end.  Which should I pick up?  I can’t decide – I’ll take both. But the human brain cannot rank 100 books in a manageable way, so this kind of thing doesn’t really happen amongst the shelves.  So we just need to use this process more in our stock management, and bingo.  It is of course the same principle that we use in displays and promotions already, and the reason the returns shelf is so popular.  I just hadn’t seen the Law of Booksales as a proof before.  I’m not convinced that customers really want a blinding amount of choice.   It may make them feel secure in the knowledge that they can find anything in the library, but it doesn’t translate into good issues.   At best, it’s a perception rather than a truth.  And I can’t help wondering if “rationalising” the stock is a great way of getting customers to tell us what they actually want, rather than us guessing.   But it’s been ages since I’ve seen a “Can’t find what you’re looking for? Just ask!” sign.  Where’s that kind of promotion gone off to?

Just need to put the law in scientific terms: I guess it would be,

Immediate Context a Desirability*

(*No alpha symbol on this page – my hazy memory tells me that means “is proportional to…”?)

So there’s something to think about – what in my library does my brain automatically try and rank?



  1. This is really interesting – I definitely think too much choice is a barrier to successful brain operation… I have the same problem with music in spotify – infinite choice makes by brain sort of shut down.

    Perhaps we need a two-tier system (when I say ‘need’ it would of course be a logistical nightmare to even attempt and would probably cause much rioting and space-issues) where there’s a concentrated, focused group of books on a subject, easily recognisable and available. Then behind that, all the rest of the books on the subject, for the people who are looking stuff up in the catalogue rather than browsing.

    • Yep I agree, that kind of system would work very well. The problem would be space though, I suspect – a small group of books on each popular subject would take up a lot of room, unless you relegate the remaining stock to the stacks or a “reserve” collection. But you could argue that that’s perpetuating a system that already happens. I think the real issue is about perception – how you convince someone that the library does have stock that they would like.

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