Learn From 18th Century Booksellers

Today’s consulting, freelancing and business coaching world is awash with advice, tips and courses on how to get more clients.  Doubtless, this is an important part of any business’s growth and success. Those of us in business, consulting and freelancing are always looking for clients. 

But, there’s another key component of success that’s often missing in the discourse about getting more clients. 

Before I get there, let me sidetrack;  but stick with me because it’s relevant. 

Annually in April the world celebrates Independent Bookstore Day.  Social media becomes awash with laments on the decline of the independent bookseller and pleas to purchase books at independent bookstores. 

I’m supportive of all these sentiments — we’re in desperate need for warm and inviting places where we can explore and handle books we want to buy.  But, there was a piece of the discussion for why we need more independent booksellers that I think is often missing  —   the power of community  

A Bit of History

Independent booksellers have been around for centuries.  The earliest booksellers in Greece and Rome were scribes who copied the designated text onto papyrus scrolls for the purchaser.  

In the world after Johannes Gutenberg when books became the bound entity we know today, it was the printer/publisher who was also the bookseller (not to mention often the editor).  The common publisher/bookseller model was to print in the back of the shop and sell in the front of the shop.  Many were shrewd businessmen and women.  Often they were ‘media savvy’ mindful of their cultural community and the political winds.  

Today, these endeavors are largely handled by separate entities but in the recent past the functions of printing, publishing and book selling were often co-mingled.  Many writers had close personal and financial relationships with their publisher/bookseller. 

Lord Byron, author of Don Juan was close to his publisher/bookseller, John Murray II.  Murray (and others) famously made the decision to burn Byron’s memoirs after news of the poet’s unexpected death in Greece reached London. Murray felt the memoir was scandalous; thus he burned it page by page in his office fireplace.  One can only imagine what smoldered within those pages.  

Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and often considered the mother of modern feminism, had a close, personal relationship with her publisher/bookseller, Joseph Johnson.   

By all accounts, Johnson was a warm and generous spirit who became known for his hospitality as much as his bookselling.  His weekly dinners known as the, ‘Johnson Circle’ became gatherings for like-minded writers and thinkers to meet and engage in discussion.  It was at a Johnson soiree where Mary Wollstonecraft got to know her future husband, William Godwin.  The couple married and became the parents of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.    

Joseph Johnson had one of the most successful London publishing businesses in his era.  But, he wasn’t just a businessman focused on selling products and services to his clients — he served up more — crumpets, conversation and community. 

If you find your community and feed your community — they will return the favor.


So How Can You Build and Feed Your Community?

Each business and niche is different so you’ll need to explore opportunities and ideas in your own sector but a few suggestions that might work or spark some other ideas:

Volunteer at a Conference in Your Business Sector

Robbie Samuels who writes about networking and relationship building in his book Croissants vs Bagels and tackles the subject on his podcast, On the Schmooze suggests offering to volunteer at a conference in your industry.  Registration fees for high-end conferences can run thousands of dollars.   Many freelancers don’t have that kind of extra cash.  Offering to volunteer is a great way to get to know a community and hang with like-minded individuals — even if you’ll be put to work! 

Post Content on Social Media or Other Websites

With the development of the on-line world, many websites and bloggers are looking for great content. I’ve gotten more than a few great tips on how to run a business, how to better engage with clients and how to think creatively about my work by reading an on-line post.  I always make a note of the provider of a great tip — often signing up for their paid course or additional resources on their website. I’m currently in a fantastic Mastermind group I first heard about through someone’s free content.  I’m regularly grateful for the other freelancers who share their expertise. 

Reach Out to Organizations and Offer Your Services Pro Bono

Local community and educational organizations all have boards and volunteers — many of whom are successful business owners in your community.   Volunteering your time & expertise to worthy organizations in need of your talents will also bring attention to you and your business — and may lead to a contact with a board member or volunteer who might become a client. 

Take On a Student Intern and Provide a Modest Stipend

For many years I ran a non-profit that provided internships with a modest stipend to medical students interested in doing a clinical research project in gastroenterology.  To a one — the students were awesome and the goodwill that was generated for the organization could not be underestimated.  This may not seem like an immediate way to build community — but I guarantee the word will spread about your philanthropy and people who share your like minded attitude will remember you.

Some final thoughts:

  • Be genuine — life is too short for you not to be you. 
  • Be patient — building community is not about the transaction, it’s about the relationship.
  • Have fun — if you don’t enjoy what you do, nor will anyone around you.

If you find your community and feed your community — they will return the favor.

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