Friday, May 16, 2008

Book Buyer Blogs: Voodoo Curses and Refreshments

Beyond the book itself, the rep's thoughts, and sales history (if any), what influences your buy? How much does a marketing plan, for example, sway your other instincts?

Remember, for frontlist we are buying six months or so in advance, so the only thing I really have to go on is the catalogue copy and rep. If it is a book that the pub has dedicated a large marketing budget to, that will be part of the rep's pitch. He might say something like "we're tremendously excited about this one, it is our lead title, we've had great reads from booksellers, so-and-so and so-and-so blurbed it" in which case, I'll probably get a stack. Or, "this might look dumb, but trust me, it is gonna be everywhere," and then I'll probably get a couple.

Post-publication, you are guaranteed brought in if you have a glowing review in the New York Times, my city paper's book section, NPR or Oprah. Also, post-publication, if a staff member reads it and is handselling it, I'll keep a stack. And if you are a local author and mensch, same.

For an author with a history, what (if anything) helps to overcome a lower sales history?

It is better to be a brand-new author with nothing but fresh-faced innocence, a big grin and a shiny new book, than to be a ho-hum writer with a few books that have lousy-to-meh sales histories. A new book has nowhere to go but up, and optimism from the pub can be high. It is much tougher to get excited about something that feels shopworn.

In my opinion, the only thing that will overcome a history of meh sales is a breakout book – either get a big promo push from somewhere, you gain a fan with an NPR show, you get a movie deal, you write a different kind of book, or you just somehow catch the zeitgeist. It certainly happens, all the time, but it is tough to predict what book will be the breakout, or why. Perhaps the why/how of a breakout is a question for the editorial side -- though I suspect that if anyone knew the answer to that, they'd be too busy counting their gold coins to read and respond to blogs.

What is involved in the decision to place a certain title cover-side-out instead of just shelving it (showing only the spine)?
Sort of in this order: Newness, Quantity, Space, Cover Hotness, and Personal Preference. We tend to try and face out everything that we have more than three copies of. This is hardly a science – sometimes we just need to fill some space. While it is a fact that all books sell better on a shelf with lots of face-outs, sometimes and in some sections, there is just no room.
What is the average time that a title remains that way?
Until we need more room on the shelf, or something cuter and newer comes along, or we sell down too far. One book does not a faceout make. [EA clarifies: a single copy of a title rarely gets placed face-out because it sits too far back on the shelf and is shadowed. And, understandably, booksellers want to promote most prominently the books that are taking up the most space (or money) in the store.]
What is the busiest time of year for books to be bought/sold?

Christmukkah is the busiest time from the retail end, of course. October is usually the busiest time for the events people. May is pretty crazy for buyers. Summer is dead for everyone, in my experience, though the store does pretty well with paperbacks and required summer reading.

How are author signings arranged at stores? Does it have to be through the agent/publisher or is it bad if the author tries to manage that him/herself?
The "big six" publishers – Random House, Penguin, Harper, Simon, Hachette, Macmillan – and to a lesser extent, HMH, Scholastic and Candlewick on the kid's side -- typically set up author tours through their in-house publicists and our events coordinator. If you are an author with one of these publishers, please please speak to your publicist and get the OK from them before you approach any bookstore. It is profoundly annoying for all when an author and publicist are working at cross-purposes to one another. This is a quick way to end up with no event, and booksellers and publicists with grudges against you.

If you are local, or with a smaller pub, you should still ask the publicist, but you will probably end up setting it up yourself. (Advice about that is too long to go into here, and in any case can be found all over the net.)

Not exactly up your alley but is it bad to bring treats/food for either the employees or potential customers at a books signing?

I like to have treats at events, but every bookstore probably has different ideas about that. I would ask the events person, make sure they allow food, and that way they'll be prepped and have a table ready for you.

Remember, make it NEAT food, nothing that will get ground into the carpet, and light/clear beverages (white wine, sparkling water) only. As far as yummy treats for the staff – always appreciated, in my experience. We make minimum wage and are hungry!

What happens when someone (not me) calls up and special-orders a book (not mine) that's not on the shelf and then doesn't pick it up? Does that book (again, not mine) end up just being shelved? Or does it go back to (not my) publisher?

Someone places the order, someone else receives the order, someone calls you and finds a place to put your order on the hold shelf. There it stays for a week or two, while we spend staff time calling you and reminding you. If you don't pick it up or refuse it, it goes in a box under my desk. When I have time, I look through that box and decide what stays. 95% of the time, these books get sent back to the publisher.

If this is a short-discount or non-returnable title, you also get a voodoo curse put on you.

If you'd like to know a couple of GOOD ways to get your book into the store -- with no voodoo curses -- I can tell you...


Kalynne Pudner said...

The post stops here? Wait -- I get it. A series!

Anonymous said...

Would love to know the "good" ways to get books into a store. My YA book has been written up in the NY Times and LA Times and is STILL in only a handful of Barnes and Noble stores, and then only the ones that friends and family have walked into and asked them to stock it...

cindy said...

oy! go on!

LindaBudz said...

OK, I'm probably being dense or missing something here, but I couldn't figure out who the guest blogger was? Or maybe it's someone who wants to remain anon?

Sarah Miller said...

"Sort of in this order: Newness, Quantity, Space, Cover Hotness, and Personal Preference."

Perhaps this goes without saying, but in a small independent shop, quantity and personal preference are often synonymous, or at least closely linked. In my experience, the order would be something like this: Newness, Personal Preference/Quantity, Cover Hotness, and Space.

In our shop, putting a single copy face-out was by no means a rare occurrence. Reason being, books ordered in large quantities probably don't need as much "help" to sell. We preferred to give the underdogs a boost and let the sure things take care of themselves.

Deirdre Mundy said...

When I worked in a bookstore, part of what determined whether a stack was "face out" could best be describe as "depth to width ratio"

as in: if the multiple copies would take up less room face out than spine out, in a crowded section we faced them out.

Hope Vestergaard said...

Quoting: For an author with a history, what (if anything) helps to overcome a lower sales history?

It is better to be a brand-new author with nothing but fresh-faced innocence, a big grin and a shiny new book, than to be a ho-hum writer with a few books that have lousy-to-meh sales histories.

Can you clarify? Do you mean in terms of selling a book to a publisher, or booksellers buying books to stock in their stores? It seems unfair or at least short-sighted for stores to judge authors for having gone unnoticed for previous books. I can understand the decision to stock subsequent iffy books from previous bestselling authors, but from a bookselling point of view (bestsellers notwithstanding), it seems like it would make sense to judge books by their merit alone.

Deirdre Mundy said...

But CUSTOMERS use an author's past works as a shorthand for literary merit (or at least what they want to buy..) So if you happen to know that the customers in your area LOATHE John Smith, and in the past, when you've ordered John Smith noone will buy him, why should order him again?

In my own experience, I rarely walk into a store and think "Jane Auel... I really hate her books, but maybe this one will be different!"

Instead, I say "ooh! There's a Robin McKinley I haven't read, a new Tamora Pierce and... hey.... this 'Wicked Lovely' book looks pretty cool-- don't know the author... I'll giver her a try......."

So in that sense, a lackluster track record in THAT PARTICULAR STORE is a good hint that books by the same author might not sell well IN THAT PARTICULAR STORE.....

Hope Vestergaard said...

It's possible that some people remember an author's name because they loathed his or her previous work, but it seems a lot more likely that the previous work was simply not noticed. Even your example of how you shop (Deirdre) echoes that.

Unless it's a polarizing book by someone with real name branding (Ann Coulter, for example), I really have a hard time believing average book shoppers avoid authors whose previous books weren't well received. I don't think they even know that a particular author hasn't sold well in the past.

I can picture a store's book buyer recalling they didn't care for an author's previous work and/or that it didn't sell well in the store. But unless a book was hateful or factually corrupt, it still seems short-sighted not to give new books by old non-blockbuster authors a good look. I'm sure we can all come up with lots of examples of writers whose careers didn't take off until they had several books under their belt.

Andy J Smith illustration said...

Wonderful advice. Super insightful -- THANKS!

Anonymous said...

Hope: Reading every book is not a possibility. Author sales history is one of the only things we have to go on when choosing what to pick and how many out of the vast, gigantic, nearly unfathomable numbers of books that are released every season. (The other thing we have is rep pitch.)

I have a pretty small store. I can't carry everything, or even MOST things. It might seem arbitrary or unfair to you, but I have to choose somehow. I think that the combo (of past sales history and what the rep has to say) is a pretty good barometer of how a new book by the same author will do. And that is actually the thing I most care about when I am making decisions for my retail business - how the book will do. How many I will sell. Not how "good" it is, cause that is relative.*

I assume you agree that taste is subjective. If so, how can you suggest that the decision to buy a title for a store be judged by "merit alone"? Who gets to judge the "merit"?

Anyway, choosing by these criteria and letting the market decide what it wants is far more objective and forgiving than my opinion would be. I have cruelly discerning taste; if we chose books based only on how I personally felt about them, it would be a much smaller store.

*(All this aside, there are some books I'll buy just for the sheer pleasure of holding them, just because they are beautiful and wonderful and I am in love with them. But then I have to make damn sure that my customers fall in love too, and that they actually sell, or I won't have the luxury of picking things like that out again next time.)

Anon Book Buyer

Anonymous said...

Oh, and two more things:

I did not mean to imply that we only carry so-called "blockbusters" - quite the opposite. The NYT and other bestseller lists often have very little resemblance to what does well in my store. And THOSE are the numbers I am looking at.

Also, to clarify, if a book does just OK but not great, that means that I will order the next one in moderate amounts. If it is going to take off, it will still have the opportunity to do so. I am not skipping these titles. I skip titles where the author has historically bombed in my store *and* the next one looks terrible or the rep says "don't bother."


Hope Vestergaard said...

ABB: I have no doubt that your book stocking methods work for you. I have tremendous respect for our local indie's book-stocking decisions. "Merit" wasn't the most descriptive word I could have used. I didn't mean in a taste sense, but along these lines: universal appeal, timeliness, presentation, etc.

I'm not saying you're wrong about general indicators. But saying that poor sales indicate lower potential for future sales (and therefore not stocking them)could be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I know that book buyers can't read everything. I just wondered if you even have time to scan the titles or subjects of books by authors that haven't sold well in the past, or if are they summarily dismissed? If it's generally the latter, I think that's unfortunate for booksellers, book writers, and book buyers.

There are so many reasons beyond the quality of writing why a book might not sell well. What's the take-away here for authors? Change your name if your first book doesn't do well? Since this blog is written by an editor, I always assume the advice is meant for writers and illustrators.

Anonymous said...

Remember when I wrote that authors become brands? (Go back a few pages if not.) When you don't like a brand of you buy the same brand the next time you need a new pair of jeans? No. That's why if you're looking for a book, and you didn't like Jo Schmo's last one, you're very unlikely to buy his next one. There's lots of other choices.
-The Sales Rep
(Snarkiness in memory of The one-year anniversary.)

Saundra Mitchell said...

Clear, specific directions on what to do. Thank you. Thank you so much.

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