Thursday, December 15, 2011

Top 10 Reasons My Customers Like to Buy From Me (not necessarily in this order)

My lists are in a consistent, easy to read format.
I add data my suppliers are missing.
Upon request, I will track titles you order which are sold out before your order ships and let you know when they become available again.
You can tell me to put your account "on vacation" if you would prefer not to receive lists for a while. Give me your restart date and you will receive lists again beginning on that date.
I handle issues between you and my vendors. I even issue invoices, credit memos, and statements on behalf of some vendors.
I keep a database of all lists I receive. This means, as time goes by, my data gradually becomes better and better. As you order more from me, I will be able to alert you to authors and titles you might not otherwise be aware of.
I can design a program to meet your needs. New arrivals lists, just your categories, books without marks, just tell me what you want to see on my lists.
Most of the lists I send to my customers are of inventories not available on wholesale web sites. Most of my wholesale clients can't or don't want to list their inventory on the internet due to their agreements with their source publishers.
I sell only to independents, niche  retailers, and small businesses. This means I am not dividing the lists or my time between those who can buy in the thousands and everybody else.
I occasionally come across one-of-a-kind deals which only I am offering to my customers. These might be from retailers who are overstocked on a great title, or a non-book distributor trying to offload book inventory they procure with other deals.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Competing for the Source 2

Occasionally you will jump on a list, hoping to be among the first to order and, therefore, be assured a good fill rate, only to receive, when the shipment finally arrives, a fraction of what you ordered. Or you will watch my lists and discover that between one week's list and the next, 75% of the inventory of one wholesaler disappeared.

One reason this happens is your competition shops the warehouses. Usually the effect is not so obvious, but if one warehouse is visited by two or 3 large customers in a 2 or 3 week period, it can play havoc with orders and inventory. About 4 years ago I was present when one customer made a deal with the wholesaler to take virtually all of their inventory. This was one case where the haggling was hugely successful for both parties. That wholesaler's list did not recover for six months. Most orders placed at the time had to be canceled.

For most buyers, warehouse visits are out of the question unless they have a wholesaler within a day's drive or if there is a trade show the buyer attends which is located near a warehouse. Still, if you ever get the chance, take it. You will be taken more seriously by the wholesaler, find wonderful surprises everywhere you look, and get a feel for how the supplier treats their inventory. It also does not hurt to get a better understanding of what it takes to do that business, a daunting challenge that few bookstore or internet buyers appreciate. Maybe most important, use the opportunity to get to know the financial manager and talk about terms and what they need from you to improve them. This can make a big difference down the road.

(Shameless pitch time: Please let me set up a warehouse visit for you with one of my lines. I can figure the best times to visit and tell you if someone you're thinking of visiting is running lean at the moment. A big part of a successful warehouse visit is not to come in too close to a large buyer's visit or after a major sales push.)

Another reason you might be missing titles is that there are those among your competition who really do jump on the lists. I have customers who buy regularly, broadly, and order within hours of my sending the lists, even so far as sending me an email within minutes saying, "I see you have such and such by so and so, please put in an order for me for 50 copies, I will get the rest of my order to you later today." And I might receive this email at 10:00pm on a Saturday. Yes, we're nuts, that’s why we're in books.

So, no need to be extreme, but do pay attention, and think about visiting a remainder wholesaler's warehouse or two.  I'll tell them you're on your way.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Competing for the Source 1

When I got my start in bargain books in the early 80s it was common practice among buyers, especially the bigger buyers, to always bargain with remainder wholesalers. The most common method of operation was to accept a certain number of titles at the asking price, and bargain for the rest. Some buyers would haggle for every single book. Now the only ones insisting on "a price" are the chains. Have you looked at a chain bargain section lately? How's that working for them?

Gradually, over the years, the smart buyers discovered that they would get nearly everything they accepted at asking price, and very little to none of what they bargained for. As the wholesalers expanded and developed their customer base, they found that the books most bargained for by the bigger buyers were the very titles they could almost be sure of selling out at their asking price if they waited a little for the orders to come in. This realization reversed the order in which lists were sent out and accounts were called on. In the early days, the largest accounts with the biggest budgets were called on first, as they would spend the most per visit. But as the wholesalers' cost per book increased, it became clear that the larger accounts were not a place to make profits. The big hagglers became the dumping ground for the books that could not be sold at asking price, or where the titles were on hand in such scary quantities that something had to be done to make them go away.

Now we live in a market where the biggest buyers, other than the chain buyers, never look at the price, beyond verifying that they are not silly high, and only focus on what they need for their customers. The smaller bargainers still meet with some success, but seldom receive a full order. I had one last week ask why they did not get the beautiful pop-up for which they offered $1 less than asking price. It all went to the folks paying the price, and some of them did not get any due to how fast it sold. I even had an account offer to pay more for a certain line as they were continually being beaten to the punch by their competition. This offer was turned down, as it should be.

I'm not saying there are not occasions where you should try making an offer. One example is if you have a local author, maybe not a big seller on the national market, whose title shows up on one of my lists in relatively big numbers. Chances are, if you make a reasonable offer, you can get the price down for a chunky quantity. But if you have been accustomed, over the years, to getting a discount or special net prices, you have become used to very low fill rates and generally low-sales titles coming through. Maybe it's time to recalibrate your buying strategy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The (Un)Importance of Price

We tend to think of price as the defining characteristic of bargain books and remainders. If you're an experienced buyer, you probably have a built in formula for what sells at what price and what cost it takes to get there, including factors such as percentage of list price, weight, heft, look and feel. An ex-bestseller is known among remainder buyers as a hard sell if the cost is over 15% of list price (meaning you're probably selling it at a 65% discount or cheaper). Wonderful coffee table books, cookbooks, course adopted classics, endlessly favored children's books, and scientific-technical can take a higher cost if you have the customers for them. Impulse buys tend to be lower cost and price. Rules? 25% is the limit. Only large print. Never large print. No, there are no rules here, but you know it when you see it, especially if you've been doing this for a while.

Yet… Most buyers will pay more for a book which has a unique combination of qualities that defines it as exactly what fits in a particular way in their store or on their site. They have not seen it anywhere else, or around much. Or they buy it whenever they see it, with any wholesaler. It was never a great seller when it was front list, but sales have gradually picked up over the years, and now, at 60% off on the back table, near the coffee bar, you can't keep it in stock. You have a reading group that always prefers everything in trade paper, and here it is, finally, in trade paper at a bargain price.

If you are a customer of mine you have probably noticed that many of my lists are effusively highlighted with what I call "sellers," some are not. These are titles and authors which my customers buy. I don't go with what I think should sell, just what my customers buy. I also don't highlight anything under a combined sale of 20 total within the last 90 days. Have you noticed how many titles are highlighted? If I have been working with a wholesaler for a while, it might start getting annoying as sales build to the point that every few lines are highlighted. But it's an education. You wouldn't have guessed what sells without paying attention to this stuff. All buyers, without exception, are humbled by their sales reports. Nobody can predict what their customers will buy, outside their in-house bestsellers lists. One year, many years ago, there was a run on dressage titles. Every bargain book on dressage remainder guys could find would magically sell, at costs up to 25%; retailers selling them for up to 40% off. Then they died. Now they muddle along between travel and literary criticism. 

Another interesting thing, for me, is that most of my customers will order off my lists at the asking cost. Very, very few orders are for high quantities at lowball offers. A few more will make offers on a few titles of a few points off the asking, while paying asking on everything else. I will write about the pros and cons of this approach in later posts, but the point is, again, these are widely different offers for very different titles, every time.

The bottom line is, if you know your customer, your source, and your timing, bargain books can work at low or relatively high costs.  Your first priority is to get what you and your customers need.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

You know your customers are missing some great authors...

I wrote last week about using remainders/bargain books/overstocks (see my glossary page here) to differentiate you from your competition.

Somehow part of that and in its own place at the same time is the idea of using bargain books to create more interest in authors you think should sell better everywhere. I think it was T.C Boyle who said many years ago (or was it William Boyd?) that remainders made new readers for his new books.

A trade paperback novel at $3.95 - $5.95 is much more attractive to a customer wondering if an author is worth a try than is a full price book, even at a slight discount,  or an e-book. They become impulse buys at these prices. I think the same thing can happen with buyers such as you or your employees. You get hooked after a few good deals and start experimenting with authors you did not have a market for, bringing in more sales, customers, and profits along the way.

Some of my customers, including the largest, mix bargain, new, and used all on the same shelf space. Customers are driven to try authors this way. Seeing the new book next to the older title encourages bigger rings at the register. These are some of the most successful booksellers in the world, so they might have a thing or two right.

Backlist trade paper is a great source for me, as they get returned in big numbers after every fall and winter college semester begins. You can encourage your customers to discover or rediscover great classics they might not know they missed.

Think about this next time you post to your blog or create your next newsletter. Try a bargain page where you list your best bargain buys of the week or month, again trying to move your customers to authors you think should have better sales everywhere.

I think I'll work on that four word glossary now.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rejection Selection

One area where remainders can have an impact is in differentiating you from your competition.

A funny thing sometimes happens during the course of my day. I receive orders from various customers for books which other customers have turned down, sometimes vocally and stridently. Some of my best sellers are only so because one or two customers buy them in significant numbers. There are times when one customer will order something frequently enough to entice them to start ordering it from the publisher. And it could be anything. It has even happened when one customer is blocks away from the other.

As an independent bookseller, you have a unique knowledge of your customer, your community, your ability to sell one book or category above another. You have been hearing this for years from the ABA and all the indie pride bloggers, but you might not realize how powerful this is until you really start looking at remainder lists, maybe not until you've been buying them for a while and have a section of your store or postings turning over regularly.

Then you walk into another store and look at their bargain selections, if they have one, and realize how yours, which sells well and excites your customers, is so different. This does not happen so much with new books. There will be some. But the nature of remainders and buying remainders usually creates a greater difference between bargain selections than front list. You have strong opinions about what can sell well in your store, but much stronger opinions about what can't, and you turn that on full force when you're looking at a remainder list. Oddly, the guy down the street has a very different idea of what makes up the muck at the bottom of the pond, as does the remainder buyer at Wal Mart, and the one at Barnes & Noble has a completely different idea again.

Now go add a table to your bargain section and get creative.

Monday, July 25, 2011

More About Leases

I'm getting away cheap here, but this guy backs me up on my lease piece:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Borders' Employees

I can't say I'll miss Borders too much. They were not a good customer for me. Their stores, after the first few years, started looking bland and corporate, with some big exceptions.

From a livelihood perspective, I will be impacted by reduced print runs and lower returns.

But 10,700 booksellers lost their jobs. This is mind numbing. I'm not talking about the top level, most hired from outside the book industry, or the geniuses that hired them, but the booksellers, buyers, and "lower" level managers. These are people who worked very hard at low pay for years to do the best they could with revolving door leadership whose style alternated between inaction and bad decisions. A few will find work in the book industry, but most will probably move on, and this is too bad. If there were a way to harness all that experience and knowledge, some great new bookselling ventures could be created.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thinking and Books

While the press last week focused on how the book is dead and the masses have moved on, I was thinking of my visit to a friend of my son, who needed a guinea pig in an experiment his lab was running, something about looking at how people make choices and what they do with the results. As we sat talking, I was struck be the layers of sticky-notes covering the walls and other vertical  surfaces in his office, some linked by arrows pointing to others, some stuck in patterns to indicate they were part of the same idea or train of thought, while some were alone. My eyes wandered to one wall of the office, half covered by a large white board, scrawls of different hands in various colors everywhere, only where it was not also covered by sticky notes. On one end of the table where we sat across from each other there was a stack of legal pads, seemingly full of scribbles and diagrams, doodles, drawings, notes, and more stickies.

And, between each desk, desks on which sat state of the art computers, there were bookcases, some full of books. Many of these were to be expected, "The Access 2010 Bible," Visual Guide to Excel 2007 Macros," "Visualize This," "Learning Monotouch," but then there were the occasional thriller, one cookbook, and I think I saw a complete Yeats, but maybe it was Keats.

I asked about this preponderance of paper, and after being met by a blank stare, my computer scientist interrogator said that paper is better because you can handle it. I thought about this, and later did a little reading on the subject, and it seems that there is a link between handling the language, literally putting your fingers on it, moving it about, ripping off a corner to pass to a colleague, penciling a note between paragraphs, and how well the information settles in your mind.

I have since discussed reading habits with doctors , other computer scientists, and a pharmaceutical sales rep, and have found that very few of them have embraced e-readers. They say some similar things. My doctor even said that he remembers books in the best way if he smells the pages. This was before he knew I make my living by wholesaling remainders and overstock books to booksellers and others that sell books. He just volunteered his experience. 

Now, I am not deluded enough to think that my industry and livelihood are not taking a big hit from the current infatuation with e-books,  and I also believe we have a long way to go before we figure out how those of us who hang on to this ancient traffic in scrolls and books will survive, but I do not believe this is being plotted out on the music industry template. There are so many people writing about this who have no knowledge of the way books have been sold for the last 500 years, and very few of us have looked at what the paper/mind connection is and what it does. Humans have been doing their thinking with paper for thousands of years, long enough to somehow be in our genes.

So maybe we will become a tiny industry, selling books to the smartest people on the planet. I'm in.

Friday, July 15, 2011

To Lease or Not To Lease

Bad leases and landlords have put way more bookstores out of business than anything else. It's undoable for most, but the opposite end of the spectrum, stores who have bought their buildings have huge advantages. Strand and Powell's come to mind, but smaller, off the beaten path stores all over the country have done this and they never go away.

Regarding selling out of one's home, there should be an exception to the law for books, as there is (was?) for years at the post office and on the sidewalks of NYC. Yeah, that'll happen.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Opening a Bookstore

I hear so much about how opening a bookstore now would be too risky. E-books, e-readers, online competition, video games, tablets, smart phones, it seems we have a perfect storm of negative pressure on bookstores.The chains are struggling, many indies are struggling, the press is full of stories about weakness in the bricks, mortar and paper book market.

Yet my customer base grows. I now sell to more booksellers who sell more in more venues. They often have a physical presence, either a storefront, and/or regular expos or fairs, plus internet marketplace sales (eBay, Amazon, Alibris, etc.), plus some kind of direct marketing. The storefronts that rely more on used and bargain books seem to be doing better now than they were a few years ago, though that observation might just be based on my increasing abilities and their diminishing reliance on "new" books.

I think that if one does not expect to get rich, and is willing to work hard, and has resources, this is a good time to open such a business. The folks who ruined the old ways are now moving on to other things, such as marketing e-books and electronic devices, or bankruptcy court. The customers who are still buying books will continue to do so for some time to come, and will look for the interesting place to buy. The incredible growth in e-reader and e-book sales has not been matched, not by a million miles, by a decline in book sales. On the contrary, some categories have remained flat or continued to grow.

This means there has been a huge increase in the number of people buying "books." These were not all your customers. These are people who thought of books, if they thought at all, as uninteresting alternatives to TV or other entertainment. As the years go by, we will see some of these folks start to buy books.

Back to the email, I have lists to send, and new customers to send them to.