Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Booksellers and booksellers

Booksellers are the people who sell books for the independent bookstores that employ them, the people who, when they see you walk into their bookstore, walk to a shelf, grab a book, and put it in your hands. They do this because they know you and they know how to put you together with the books you need to read. You buy the book and read it and are not surprised to discover that you never want to put it down.

How wonderful it is to have these people in our lives, without whom we would not have a livelihood. Now that e-books and other gadgets are proving not to be the death knell for bookstores the manufacturers and publishers were hoping they were, it's safe to say human booksellers are still necessary, still amazing, and still sought out by readers everywhere.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ben's Back

I stopped writing here about 9 months ago. I had to get a handle on sales and could not put time into writing, so had to take a break. 

Not that I will keep up with my old self, but I'll get back to posting a few things now and then. 

If any of you are new followers, please let me know. I can see the number of readers per day and where they are in the world, but not who they are. It's encouraging to see that the number of people reading has increased significantly. Maybe it's better if I don't write!

A customer visiting the warehouse yesterday told me he enjoyed reading and suggested I start writing again. I hadn't thought of it for a long time and now, because of you-know-who-you-are, I'm back.

More soon!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

'Tis the Season

This is the time of year I start to hear from customers about how they're doing, how their sales increased, or stayed flat, or went down. Some are reporting that their sales went through the roof. Maybe a chain store that opened near them in the 90s closed, and now the independent owns their town again. Maybe they opened a new location and it went gangbusters. Or maybe the local demographics had a sudden change. I had one customer tell me their sales went up by over 100% this year. Of course I told him it was all due to the bargain books he was buying from me, but who would listen to an old remainder rep.

The ABA says they had another increase in members this year, and several bookstores were sold to new owners rather than closed, another very positive new trend. When I was at CIROBE a few weeks ago I noticed more young (read: under 40) people than usual, and these included buyers and owners. Recently when I am prospecting (sorry if I spammed you recently, it's a hazard of having a bookstore) I have a hard time keeping up with new businesses. 

The news is never all good. I lost a few customers this year. I hear from others that they are laying off employees or cutting their buying budgets or both. Every one of these booksellers did everything right. Some were the best booksellers for miles around, but something tipped the scales and they had to take measures or throw in the towel. 

There are a few oft-heard refrains. Amazon and the rest of the e-world are still taking up lots of space in the marketplace, even as people begin to go back to real books. Browsing continues to seem like the forgotten passtime of a bygone era, though I have heard a few booksellers say that they are seeing it ticking up again. Customers walk into a bookstore with their phone out and show it to the bookseller and ask for the book on the screen, but it seems like a bit fewer of them just turn around and walk out if the book is not in stock. Creating impulse sales has become much more of a science than it used to be (cue the plug for bargain books...).

To my readers who have decided to close up shop at the end of the year, I want to say thank you for your business over all these decades, thank you for being pillars of your communities, for providing beautiful spaces and experiences for the friends, family, strangers and travelers that walked in your door, for being the reference librarians you didn't know you had to be, and for being such gracious hosts to all of us in the trade.

To those of you who have recently opened a bookstore, or who are thinking about it, or bought one this year, thank you for taking a chance on our wonderful old industry. You will find everybody in this new family of yours strangely accommodating and eager to help in whatever way they can, and I am not just talking about publishers and other suppliers, but other booksellers as well, often even the competition in your own town.

There is a lot to learn, lots of new challenges, and there are lots of new opportunities. We might be a bunch of recalcitrant old curmudgeons, but we're here to help. Welcome to the book business.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Putting Your Best Square Foot Forward

It used to be a rule that if you carried bargain books you put them in front or toward the front of your bookstore. It was a way of saying thank you to your loyal customers and welcome to your new customers. Impulse sales were created as customers walked through the bargain areas to get everything else they needed. Sidewalk sales in front of main street bookstores were great promotional tools.

Then came calendars, eating up bargain book space in the front zones around the cashiers and foyers during the biggest retail months of the year. Then kiosks (if by kiosks we mean gargantuan swaths of real estate that could have been stand-alone stores on their own) to sell Kobos or Nooks or whatever other brain melting tech was being pushed by the media moguls at the moment. The space traditionally used to sell bargain was just about gone, squeezed into small end caps around the security hardware or along the baseboards next to the restrooms.

Now that books are kicking the assets out of e-readers, and calendars are a bit more obsolete every year, how about putting your bargain books back where they belong? The electronic stuff can go on slat boards near your reference and education sections, or maybe near your retirement and senior health books, judging by the demographic that still swoons over those things, and you can watch as your customers buy all those books they now know they love all over again.

Bargain books are not just discount merchandise, they are the entrĂ©e to unexplored categories and authors. Your customers will thank you with their dollars for giving them the opportunity to get acquainted with whole new reading realms, and for being able to try out new authors without spending the big bucks, so pack up the "kiosks" and stack up the bargains!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Of Sales and Bookselling

Sales is not generally considered to be one of the top professions. Most people who go into it end up there due to extenuating circumstances. Something was missed or got bungled along the way and sales was the default career. I'm sorry, I know I just offended some readers, but even you know what I mean. Not many people go to a top college with the goal of becoming a salesperson.

I was at a block party a few years ago. The demographic of the block we lived on was heavily weighted toward the academic. CMU and U Pitt professors lived there, one of whom was an astrophysicist. I happened to be standing next to him at the block party when he said to me, "you're in sales?" I said yes and he turned and walked away, making it clear what he thought of me, though he knew absolutely nothing about me. This may or may not be typical, and he was displaying one of the lower behavior traits associated with nasty people, but it was a good illustration of how sales folk are perceived.

Being in book sales is a sort of hybrid. So many of us are here because our love of books is inextricably hooked into our need for food, clothing, shelter, and college tuition for the kids. There was no getting around the fact that we writers, painters, and readers were no good for anything outside of books, but that we had to provide for ourselves and often others, so we made the best of a low-paying industry. Average pay for a pharmaceutical sales rep is $64k, and I'm sure that average is severely dragged down by lots of entry level types who make somewhere between zero and minimum wage just to get in the door. Average starting pay at many publishers probably really is just zero, since their internship programs allow them to hire overqualified debtors to work for free.

But if you must support yourself and/or others, get a driver's license, pack your car with samples, and hit the road (see illustration, below). As long as books will be books (as opposed to electronic gizmos), there will be a need for this, and almost nobody expects you to do it for free. It is very hard work and there is no guarantee of success, but it can also be gratifying and interesting. It might help to have a working knowledge of books and literature, but one of the best sales reps I know in the business has a background in plumbing supply. He's just very good at developing great relationships with key customers.

A good car for going on the road selling books, not to mention picking up buyers at airports, the Mercury Grand Marquis can carry about 900 pounds of samples, plus one 225 pound sales rep. (Overweight sales rep and oversize Rizzoli coffee table book added for scale.) Photo by Mark Skinner

Booksellers know all about the relationship business. There is not another retail category more invested in social media, community outreach, schools, and the spirit of public service. Relationships between booksellers and their customers are deep, long lasting, and meaningful. The same can be said for the relationships between booksellers and other booksellers.

When you have author events, that is sales. Your cashier tells a customer you have another book by the author of the book the customer is buying; that's sales. Paying a full-time staff member to maintain your social media is sales, even when most of the content is not directly sales related. But how about when you have an author event for an author who is well known for controversial views, who receives death threats, whose event at your bookstore causes you and your staff to receive death threats, but you go ahead with the event because you feel it is the right thing to do? Is that sales? You announce you are going out of business and your community spontaneously generates a massive outpouring of support, including but not limited to financial. Is that sales? Books are a hybrid product, more than a product, perhaps the central and defining product of civilization. Some booksellers, feeling just this, remain poor all their lives just to keep their bookstores alive in their poor communities. 

Peter Drucker said that the purpose of a business is to create a customer. All of the above can create customers, whether intentional or not. I write this blog not just to promote my and my employers' business (which is a good thing since it does a terrible job of that), but to promote the bargain book industry overall. If I can't convince you to buy from me, but convince you to buy bargain books at all, and you buy from my competitors, your bookstore becomes more successful, your customer base grows, and I have helped create a customer. I have also done my bit to keep you in business for another day and maybe you end up hiring a buyer who gets serious about bargain and eventually starts ordering books from me. Stranger things have happened.

I received more than the usual amount of feedback regarding this post, much of it from those who felt a bit maligned by my seeming denigration of sales as a profession, but most of that relating to an interpretation lumping booksellers in with that perceived slight, something I did not intend to do.

I am sorry I made it seem I was negating sales as a good and honorable career. My words stopped short of expressing my feeling that sales is actually a core profession. Whether looked down upon or not, nothing happens anywhere without it. 

Sales careers comes in all shapes and sizes. Commission sales in a wholesale marketplace, such as selling remaindered books in bulk to large customers, is not quite the polar opposite of bookselling, but it's close. Its commodity trading aspect is closer to that of my customers who sell strictly online and process lists as data only, without looking at categories or authors, without caring about the look and feel of a book.

I have always tried, and sometimes succeeded, to treat my lists as a bookseller would want them treated, with emphasis on the actual subject category, not the weird mismatched ones our large databases come up with, and authors all with the same format so you don't have to look in five different spots on my lists for the same author. The big challenge is to do this in a short time span so that I get the list to you before warehouse shoppers get the best books. My M.O. is to get the list out within an hour of generation, which means I can never get it as fine tuned as I'd like.

So, yes there are big differences between you and me, but we do have the same goal, which is to get as many great books into the hands of your customers as possible, and make a living while doing it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Inboxes Of Gold

I and most other book sales reps send lists of books to hundreds of customers every week. If I slack off or get jammed up and don't send the usual volume I start getting emails, phone calls, and texts from customers asking for the lists, or asking if they have been inadvertently deleted from the mailing list or if something happened to me. Sometimes I do inadvertently drop a good customer from my mailing list, which only happens when the accounts are shuffled and it takes a while to put things back together, or the customer has asked to be put on vacation while they catch up with receiving. I then lose track of when to put them back on and, weeks later, get a woeful email asking why I have forgotten them.

Customers have routines that vary as much as their bookstores. Some place small orders every week and have us pack and hold until there is enough to ship economically. Some order one large order per year. Some want reorder lists as often as they want regular lists, some don't want to order the same title twice. Most fall somewhere between these extremes. It might be imagined that the few hot sellers on every list go very fast to the first few customers that place orders, but it doesn't work that way because one bookseller's hot title is another's pass.

And then there are the customers that never order from lists. They might order at shows, or only order when they visit the warehouse or when a sales rep visits them. They might not order unless they are called with the few titles or niches they are looking for. Most will say they would rather receive the lists than not because one never knows when one might have the urge to peek. There are even some who another bookseller recommended me to, who call and tell me I must send them the great lists their friend told them to buy from, and after a couple of acknowledgements and questions in the beginning, I don't hear from them again.

I am fine with all of the above. I have a very full schedule taking care of the customers that do respond. Plenty of those customers would not give me amazing marks for customer service during some unfortunate period or two during our relationships as I get piled under by my to-do stack and my feeble organizational skills fail to kick in 100%. On the other hand, I must confess to a certain infinitesimal amount of pique with those who just ignore all lists, occasionally ask for a list, ignore that one as well, and then march purposefully up to me at a trade show wanting to know why they are not getting the best of the best like so & so over there, indicating the back of the head of some unsuspecting buyer, busily sorting samples and jackets into stacks of yeses and nos. 

The worst part is that I know so many titles that would have been perfect for the concerned buyer. They came and went several times as other buyers ordered in their 3s and 10s and 60s and 100s, all from the same lists that sat in the esteemed bookseller's inbox without ever being opened, gradually silted over by layers of more important and urgent messages.

Figure out a way to get those gems out of your inbox and into your customers' hands. Maybe you need to give this work to another buyer or employee, maybe you need to ask for some other format. If you have trouble with Excel, ask for paper mail, fax, or other document format. The important thing is to stop missing all the great deals. Grow your margins and make your customers happy by mining the gold in your inbox.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stack Them and They Will Sell

Before preparing for a customer visit, where either the customer visits me or I visit the customer, I go through a series of scenarios, thinking of what works for that customer's bookstore, what they have bought in the past, categories or authors or formats I think they miss and should buy. 

Part of this preparation is printing a reorder list for my customer, however, unlike the reorder lists I actually send my customers, this one includes everything they've ordered in the past, including sold out titles. This gives me a good picture of what the customer looks for.

The plan all seems so clear and perfectly compartmentalized, all neat and easy. And then I go into the warehouse, look at the customer's sales history, scan our list, looking for books to match my well laid plans. 

Most of my customers buy multiple titles per order in varying quantities, most buy many titles on each order that make sense based on their bookstores and purchasing history. But all customers also buy some titles that make little sense from either perspective. The simplest illustration of this are customers who say they do not buy children's or fiction who then proceed to buy a few titles in children's or fiction in hefty quantities, on every order.

I ask why the exception, and the answer is usually something like "this is a classic," or "this sold so well as a new book." Often the book is neither a classic nor a great seller. What happened is that somehow a stack made it into the bookstore for whatever reason and their customers ate it up. 

Bargain books are particularly well suited to the task of finding out which authors or subjects you think don't sell... do. Even formats. You think you can't sell fiction in trade paper because you tried it in front list, but then you do a table at bargain prices and it becomes the best selling square foot in your bookstore. At bargain costs and prices it's a lot easier to let your customers decide what works.

When I look at samples and lists, deciding what to bring to our meetings, I try not to overdo the tendency to educate my customer. Most have been doing this for years and know exactly what they need, and what they don't need is a lesson from a sales rep. But I can't always resist the urge. There are more than a few titles I bring which I know to be counter to how my customer buys and they almost always take at least one or two of them. Sometimes these ringers do turn out to be lemons, but more often they sell very well.

There's no need to buy junk nobody can sell, but do try something new in every buy. Your customers will thank you.
But first, you have to buy the books...