October 1998

Harry Hoffman

A true leader
Interview by
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After years in the business of distributing, then retailing books, Harry Hoffman decided to write one himself. The Pocket Mentor grew out of his empathy for young people who have taken jobs in the world of business but do not have a clear idea of what the business world is about he says he used to be one of them. He wrote The Pocket Mentor for such young people—as well as for older managers who feel their careers have stagnated but may not understand why. BookPage spoke with Hoffman by telephone.

BookPage: How did you get into the book business?

Harry Hoffman: I was very lucky. I started out as an FBI agent and left the Bureau to sell soap to retail grocery stores in New York City. Eventually, I found my way into the library supplies business. I was approached at a library convention and was asked if I would be interested in talking to some people at Ingram Book Company in Nashville. I visited Ingram Book Company, liked the people I met, and three months later moved to Nashville. I wanted to try new, different ways of doing business, and I was fortunate that the owners of the company let me have the freedom to run the company in ways I thought best. This was new for me. I had not had this freedom at other places. I believe that if the owners had not given me the freedom to try new ways of doing things, Ingram Book would not be in business today. Many companies and owners today would benefit from this approach.

BP: What do you think makes book people special?
HH: Book people are very intelligent and dedicated to their business. They are outstanding, smart, nice people, and very nice to deal with . . . without exception.

BP: What advice can you give to struggling independent bookstores?
HH: An independent that is not strong in its particular niche and is not in a highly populated area may have a difficult time surviving the arrival of a superstore. But I think many independents could convert into superstores themselves. Find a big empty building in a fairly good location with parking, take more space, put in a cafe. This is not difficult. A good strong independent can work on getting financing from banks and good terms from publishers, and use creativity and imagination to find a location that is not too expensive. If the independent has been solid in its community, there are probably people in the area who would like to sponsor a thriving local bookstore. Most important, the bookstore owner should examine the need to make his or her store or concept better than anyone else's. People who are creative about their bookstore concept and inventive about securing capital have a better chance of surviving as independents.

BP: Is there an industry-changing idea you thought of while you were in the business that you still think should be implemented?
HH: Short books! This is the biggest opportunity that publishers have, and I've been preaching it for years. Publishers need to look at their competition, not only at other publishers, but at all the other things that are competing with books for a person's time: TV, computers, the Internet . . . with all the other demands on time, 300-to-400-page books can be overwhelming. Publishers should continue their publishing programs but also consider developing short-book imprints. If I were in a position to do so, I would start a short book company immediately, publishing short books on many subjects, getting excellent well-known authors to write the books. Instead of taking a year to write a book, an author might write two or three books in a year.

BP: Your book is short . . .

HH: Well, yes, and I hope young people will be able to glean a few things from it . . . and I hope high-quality short books of all kinds will be written by authors better than I. Harry Hoffman developed a small company that served as the Tennessee Book Depository into the largest book wholesaler in the world (Ingram Book Company), and then went on to take the Waldenbooks chain from an unimpressive number-two position among book retailers to a successful number one by the time he took early retirement in 1991.

Get the Book

The Pocket Mentor

The Pocket Mentor

By Harry Hoffman
Andrews McMeel
ISBN 9780836267648

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