Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Conversation with a Bookstore Buyer

Book publishing, especially publishing for younger readers, is full of gatekeepers—people who stand between a manuscript and the reader, and whose decisions determine what does and does not show up on bookstore and library shelves and in the hands of readers. Agents can be gatekeepers; parents, librarians, and booksellers can be gatekeepers. But there are two positions that, for better or worse, practically no book can circumvent if its author hopes to reach a wide audience: editor and bookstore buyer. Now, I'm an editor and I've blogged a bit about how I make decisions. And other editors and agents also blog, as well as make presentations at conferences on how they work, etc. But I think we hear comparatively little from buyers, especially independents, and I, for one, am very interested in how their decision-making processes compare to mine.

Fortunately, Jennifer Laughran, a buyer for Books, Inc in San Francisco and grand poobah of their fabulous Not Your Mother's Book Club has agreed to indulge me in an online conversation that will no doubt answer my questions and raise a few more (commenters, get ready). So, without further ado . . .

Andrew Karre: Please give us your job as a buyer in a nutshell (coconut, if necessary). What do you do in a typical day?

Jennifer Laughran: I wake up early and read Shelf Awareness, PW, the NYT, the SFChron, look at the schedules for NPR, and whatever else has found itself in my email overnight. I also write a blog for "Not Your Mother's Book Club"; I try to do author interviews and the like during this time. Then I head to the store. The first thing I do is place special orders, then restock with wholesaler and publisher orders.While I'm doing that, I am continually reading book reviews, emails, etc., and adding things to my "to be ordered" list. I also have relationships with a lot of librarians and teachers, so I may spend some time fulfilling a large order for a school book fair or something like that. I also plan events. Event booking happens sometimes six months in advance; book ordering, poster-making and publicity matters need to be dealt with about one month in advance. I am on the phone and emailing a LOT nailing down details for events. Since part of my job description is to keep the store looking good, I spend a little time each day walking the floor and merchandising displays. I might also be helping customers on the phone or on the floor. I'm the in-store buyer for the whole store, but since my specialty is kids & YA, I get a ton of questions. Then there is the little matter of returns... yes, I also have to decide which books get the boot.

AK: When I read reports on sales visits from our salespeople, I'm always amazed at how quickly buyers have to decide on whether they'll stock a book and how much. I'm also pretty sure authors must feel the same way about editors, though, because we often say no based on only a few sentences. I know for me, good decision-making comes down to balancing emotional reactions and economic realities. I need to love the book and be able to make everyone else in the company love the book, otherwise we won't be able to sell it effectively. But I also need to make sure everyone is falling in love with books that we have a better than reasonable chance of selling. There's an awful gray area where I have to be careful not to fall in love with something I know will lose money or to fool myself into believing I'll eventually fall in love with something that I know will make money. I'm not sure there's a question in there, but basically, I'd love to hear you muse on your decision making process. Do you have time to read a selection of a season's titles before making buys? How important are covers?

JL: We have a main office that does frontlist buys for all the stores. This is how it works: We often get the catalogues and boxes of galleys or F&Gs (“folded and gathered”-ed.) in advance. When our kids’ frontlist buyer, Miss Shannon, meets with the rep, she already has a good idea of what he's got. So she sits with him and a computer, goes through all his catalogues with him, while he tells her more about the books, shows her pages, tells her what the marketing budget is... or sometimes, in the case of good reps, tells her what she DOESN'T need. She'll look up the numbers for the author's previous books and decide how many of each book she wants at each store. We have multiple neighborhood locations, and each one has different needs. Something that'd never sell at my store, like a movie tie-in puzzle book (for example), might sell like wildfire at our airport store. It might take half a day to go through all the catalogues for a large house, but the decisions on individual frontlist titles are made shockingly fast. I'd say, a minute on average.

Yep, covers are important, but not as much as numbers for the authors’ previous books, the reputation of the imprint, the production style, the retail price, etc. The thing that is probably the most important, though, is the sales rep's faith in the book ... and really, how much we trust the rep.

(Backlist is even faster, by the way. I estimate that I spend between 3 and 6 seconds thinking about each title to restock!)

If we fall in love with something--and we all do fall in love with things, naturally--we've got to be prepared to eat it if it doesn't do well. If I don't think I can convince the booksellers to throw their handselling weight behind an unusual or special book, I would be leery about bringing it in. If the publisher’s terms are bad (i.e., the book is non-returnable or has a short discount), I would err on the side of NO.

AK: Once you've been selling a book for a while, how do you determine whether to keep stocking a book or whether to return it?

JL: Good question. If a book is selling consistently, I won't return it. I try to keep twice as many copies of a book as I sell in a given week. Sadly, though, there's only so much room on the shelf. One of the hardest things to learn about this job is that there is very little room for sentimentality when it comes to returns; if a book isn't selling, it's taking up space we could give to something else. I once heard an estimate that a book has to make at least 10 cents a day to earn a place on the shelf. That sounds about right for paperbacks, but hardbacks are probably closer to 25 cents. There isn't a formula per se, it's different for different sections at different times of the year -- but generally, if it is a hardback and it hasn't sold in about three months, it has to go. Paperbacks get a little more leeway. Books that are considered "core backlist" get even more leeway, but will be returned once in a while to get rid of shelf-worn copies.

AK: Several times a year, I meet with our sales force as well as marketing and publicity to present them the titles I've acquired for the upcoming seasons. Basically, I'm passing them the baton and my enthusiasm for the books so they can get them onto the shelves and in to readers’ hands. Once you've made your buys from a publisher's catalog, do you meet with booksellers at your stores or otherwise communicate your impressions? I know bookstores can help to break out a book if they really get behind it. How does that happen?

JL: It's similar, really. Every day I have conversations with the main office and with the staff at my store about new and important titles. We also have several rep presentations for staff throughout the year, where reps from the largest houses come to visit us and talk about their lists, as well as buyer presentations where the buyers share their favorites. In addition, booksellers have the opportunity to attend our regional trade show and other educational seminars provided by the ABA; this, I think, makes even part-time frontline booksellers invested in the industry as a whole and very aware of new titles.As far as how a book breaks out--well, we have champion hand-sellers on staff. I know what books the customers in my neighborhood tend to go for. If we handsell something, it's because we believe in it, and our customers know that. In addition, we encourage everyone to write shelf-talkers for beloved titles. Those titles tend to sell about ten times the number than books without shelf-talkers. Obviously, it wouldn't work if EVERYTHING had a shelf-talker, but in the spirit of friendly competition, we always like to see our pet books sell the most!

AK: What, if anything, does your store do to separate teen books from books for young children?

JL: I have them in a physically different location. It's close to the kids section, but there is a distinct difference. The teen section is next to the manga, graphic novel & science fiction sections. We find that teens are much more likely to shop all those sections if they don't have to step around squalling toddlers to do it.

AK: As an editor of a comparatively small YA list, I try to strike a balance between consistency and diversity when filling out a catalog—that is, I'd like people to think, "oh, that's a Flux-type book" without being entirely sure what that means. This is why we've got the "point of view, not reading level" tag line; it's broad and can cover a lot of different books, but it also tends to bind them together on a certain level. This also helps to narrow the field of books we consider for publication. Is this something bookstore buyers try to do? Since you can't stock all the books, do you try to create a certain feel for the section—establish a sort of broad theme?

JL: Sure. My mission is to give people what they've come in looking for, but also to make sure they are surprised by something new and delightful every time they come in. I absolutely think that my taste is apparent in the store's selection. I can't exactly articulate what that means... but if all the inventory of all the stores were in a lineup, I could pick mine out.
When it comes to YA, I prefer very smart, saucy books. Generally, that means... ooh, how do I say this... I don't carry mass-market weepers or pulp crime books or books marketed as "Christian fiction". Yes, I am well aware that these are genres that do well in lots of markets... mine isn't one of them. If we begin to have large demand for these types of books, I will reconsider my buying habits. Our tagline for Not Your Mother's Book Club is "Content May Not Be Suitable for Parents," and I tend to think that applies to the YA section as a whole.

AK: After we agree to publish an author's book, authors typically say that they're willing to do anything to help promote their books. We say “great,” and then there's an uncomfortable silence, after which the author says, "so, what should I do?" I know the various ways I answer that question, but what about you? From a buyer's perspective, how can authors most effectively advocate for their books to readers?

JL: Hmm... well, it's hard. I give the same advice all the time:
DO: Join SCBWI... and pay attention. Do school visits. Do participate in the online kids’ book community. Do meet your local librarians and booksellers. Do work with your in-house publicist, if there is such a beast--you don't want to be working at cross-purposes. Do be friendly and cool... this is a very small industry!

DON'T: Be pushy. Don't try to "trick" me by special ordering a bunch of your own book and then not picking it up... it's a waste of time, I'll just return them. Don't send me a whole lot of unrequested promo material--it's a waste of money, I'll just throw it out. Don't harass staff members.

Seem like no-brainers? You'd be shocked.

AK: Any other thoughts?

JL: I don't think so! But I'm happy to try and answer questions, if anyone has any more... this has been fun!


Anonymous said...

Fantastic interview, Andrew.

I was so impressed by Jennifer before. Now, I'm even more amazed.

crissachappell said...

Very cool interview.

Lisa Yee said...

Great information. 10/25 cents a day. I'd never heard of that before, but it makes sense.

Jennifer, what do you think of all this e-book stuff that's happening?

Little Willow said...

Jennifer rocks! Great to see an editor and a book buyer having an open discussion. Andrew, key questions; Jennifer, great answers. Shelftalkers are a wonderful asset. Booksellers and book buyers that know their product and handsell books are the BEST asset. :)

Literaticat said...

Lisa: I don't think I'm really qualified to answer that, as I don't know too much about it. I've heard that people who are giving away portions of their book (or sometimes even the whole book!) online are increasing sales for themselves... but I haven't seen any actual numbers to back that up.

As far as e-books to be read on e-readers - I think we have a long way to go before the technology is good enough to really catch on, AND I think that children's books are the least likely to be affected... people will ALWAYS want to give real books to kids.

(I hope!)

Anonymous said...

Wow, wonderful information. Thanks to both of you for taking the time to share your insights.

Paula said...

Great information. Andrew and Jennifer thanks for helping to de-mystify the process.

lauren myracle said...

Dudes! Y'all rock! Verrrry fun interview to read--and so smart. Go, Andrew and Jennifer! :)

Anonymous said...

Andrew and Jennifer, this is really great, and I'm looking forward to the other half. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview.
Jenn, I am wondering:

do you think getting a galley or F&G makes a big difference in your decision to buy a new author? how about a book from an established one?

How much do you credit the white box, and what do you think of the new children's white box?

alexgirl said...

Wicked interview, Andrew! It was very informative and only a liiiiittle bit depressing. Or maybe I mean daunting. Or maybe I'm just overwhelmed by the whole process. No pressure!

Literaticat said...

E. asked: "do you think getting a galley or F&G makes a big difference in your decision to buy a new author?"

For picture books, F&G's are great - but even just a few pages are a must. I think the art is the most important - we've got to see it, catalogue copy can never do it justice (IMO).

We get a LOT of galleys. I think way too many, in fact. But they are very useful, both in the decision to BUY a new author as well as in SUPPORTING the new author. Like, for example, I can give away galleys to teenagers, who then will have their appetites whetted for an author. Also, for reviewing purposes, galleys are excellent.

Like anything, it's subjective: If the book looks good, I'm dying for the galley. If it looks lame, I complain of "galley fatigue." And established authors, same thing. For example, I would have DIED waiting for your new book to come out for real. DIED. The big heap of mysteries by my desk? Not so much.

THAT SAID, I am in a rare position. I can afford to have galley fatigue because I get 9 million of them a day. We get visited by reps ALL THE TIME. Most small indie booksellers DON'T* (witness the mad scramble for freebies at BEA, while I'm trying not to pick anything up at all.)

I think the white box is a boon, as it gives regular booksellers (who rarely, if ever, have relationships with reps), as well as folks in Podunk Nowhere, a chance to see materials that they might not get to see otherwise. YAY BOOKSENSE!!!!

As for the special kids edition - I've read about it, but I've never actually seen it in the wild. I hope it's good!

* Why don't they get visited by reps as often? Some of them don't have the ability to buy direct from pubs, or their orders are so small that they are not even a blip. More to the point, though, is that pubs sales forces are getting so small that one rep's territory might cover 2, 4, or even 8 WHOLE STATES. Now, we are a huge account in a major city - they are more likely to spend time on us than on "Little Joes Bait Shack & Bookerie" in North Dakota.