Saturday, August 17, 2013

Go There

There is something wondrous about the world of a publisher's rep. I'm sure they would beg to differ, and rightly so, since this is purely a bad case of the grass being greener. I know their lives are not at all easy, and becoming less so, but I have always thought how nice it would be to just have a territory and have accounts in that territory and therefore get commissions on the sales to those accounts just because they are there. To show up with a wee case of slick new sell sheets about one best selling forthcoming title, and write an amazing order. Ah, the life.

To put it mildly, it does not work that way in my world. If I don't receive and process your order, I may not ever know it exists. I am often with a customer who assumes otherwise and starts to talk about something they ordered, only to discover that I don't have it in my sales data for them because I never saw the order.

I'm not complaining (well, not much), other than to use this as an illustration of what I think is a divide between the two sides of the trade. I don't mean the buyer and myself, but between bargain wholesalers of all stripes and booksellers who buy and sell mostly new books, who either dabble in bargain, or have a buyer who has to divide her time between new and bargain. Buying new is much easier (sorry, with a few exceptions, it really is), and therefore most buyers who want results both fast and large can make quicker work of their frontlist and backlist buys than they can of bargain. It's a different story with buyers who know the bargain market and buy frequently here, but for this discussion, I am talking about the trade book buyer who sees bargain as a sideline or one category among many. I think most bookstore-employee buyers fit this description.

I recently returned from a bargain trade show, the Boston Remainder & Overstock Show (yes... BROS). I have heard a few negatives about this show, mostly along the lines of "oh why do we have to go to a show in August," (best show to kick off your holiday buys, for one thing) but generally speaking, this show was a huge success for the few vendors and buyers who attended. There were, perhaps, a dozen vendors, which made it relatively easy for the buyers to work the whole show, and most of the buyers were serious bargain buyers who are very familiar with the vendors and wrote some serious orders. Three of the vendors are local to the area and had open warehouse hours before and during the show for buyers who like to shop warehouses, and this drew more buyers in, from as far away as Malaysia. The show itself was only open for two days. This is a sort of ideal formula for a remainder show. The best stuff has just enough time to sell out, and there are very few buyers who are disappointed.

The one thing that struck me was that here in the capital of New England, where there are so many great independent bookstores, I did not see more than two or three buyers from the region, other than the biggest buyers, who do not even work for bookstores. I wonder why, after all these years, those of us making our living in the bargain book industry, who love independent bookstores and have been trying for so long to convince them that they will improve their sales, businesses, and customer loyalty by putting bargain books in their mix, have not been able to do a better job of it. If overseas booksellers see the value in flying their buyers to bargain-only trade shows half the world away, it should be simple to convince local buyers to walk a few blocks or maybe take a bus.

There is a reason the most successful booksellers have substantial bargain departments and have made it a priority to keep growing that side of their business: It pays off, handsomely. So they send their buyers to the shows, showrooms, and warehouses.

I can only restate what I have been saying for years and what my competitors, suppliers, and customers have been saying for even longer: You need to pay attention, buy bargain, grow your business. We bring them to you, but you need to take that last step and actually attend the show, or let us in your door, or drive to the open warehouse. We are not just sales types telling tales. It's work, but you really need to do it. Stop putting it off. If you have to hire one more employee, so be it, but it really should be you. Owners are the best buyers of bargain. If you must hire, make sure you hire somebody who knows what they're doing. Better yet, promote. Do the work, count your money. 

Don't let the buyers from Malaysia get all the good stuff.

Feedback Received September 6, 2013:

I received a well-thought out response to this post, via email, from one of my regular customers. I asked him his permission to use his words in a further post, and he said yes, so that's what I am doing here. I'm breaking up his email into separate points and putting my responses between them. I am labeling his words as "Customer" and mine as "BA:"

I'll tell you why I stopped going to shows.  There are two major reasons.
1. When I first started going to CIROBE, 20 years ago, I would get catalogs from various remainder dealers once or twice a month. When I went to CIROBE, the books would be fresh.  Most of the books on display had not been in the catalog, or were in the catalog that was so new that they had not been mailed out yet. The best books sold off immediately, if I wanted a shot at them, I had to be at CIROBE.
The internet changed this.  I get email lists several times a week. 

Yes, and you order almost immediately upon receiving them, thank you very much!

The best books are sold off within hours of the list going out. Most of the remainder houses sent me the list of what they were bringing to CIROBE the week before the show. I go to the show and essentially see the books that nobody had bought: a complete reversal of the way things used to be.

Which is why it is so important to buy early from the lists, as you do. 
This "good stuff being gone before it starts" is one of the hardest realities of bargain trade shows. If and when you do go to shows, always make an appointment with your sales rep. At least your rep then knows you are coming, and when, and should make sure that you see whatever is best for you to see. More great stuff makes it to shows than you think, but it has to be pulled from the haystack by people who know where it is.
One more thing to look for are new arrivals. Sales folk often have boxes of samples shipped at the last minute, books which did not make the deadline for the big sample shipments. And one more one more thing: Watch for jacket kits. If you see there are cartons or file folders of dust jackets in a booth it often means this is where the shortest quantities are, which are often the best titles.

2. Scale.  I've got a 3500 square foot store.  But I've only got one location.  So this limits me on what I can buy. 
Numerous reps had minimum orders that were just too large for me to consider. It's not that I don't make real orders.  It's that their minimums were designed for chain stores. 

I find that the minimum problem is not what it used to be. Back in the old days there were some truly absurd minimums designed, you are correct, to keep all but the biggest buyers away. Not only have those wholesalers long gone out of business, but the buyers they were in business to serve are mostly gone. The bottom line is, if you think a minimum is too high for you, just ask. Especially you, sir, who everybody knows and loves, but also any customer trying to make bargain work. If you show up, you have a leg up, and you may find the suppliers appreciate that effort. 

Further, I had to figure the cost of going v. what I got out of the place. By the time all was said and done I was spending close to $1000 to go to the show, airfare, hotel, show fees, meals, etc.  And I loose a week from the shop, which always included a busy weekend. If I was lucky, I'd spend $5,000 with the hopes of doubling my money.  More often it was closer to $3,000.  Not because I could not afford to buy more inventory, but because there was not enough good material or because it was priced too high for my market [I stopped buying imports because the "wholesale" price was not very different from my retail]. My time and money were better spent elsewhere than to spend a week spending $4,000 hoping to sell the books for $6000.

The financial side is the hardest for me to argue. Unfortunately you are probably right. Booksellers of all stripes work on tight margins and if your volume does not justify the away time or the results, there is not much I can say to the contrary, especially for someone like you, who is so attentive to the lists and buys so regularly without going to the shows.

However, regarding my post to which you responded, this was a show in the middle of Boston, yards and blocks from booksellers who did not attend. There was considerable effort and expense by the sponsoring wholesalers, World Publications Group and Book Enterprises, as well as the other exhibitors, to make sure it was great just for the local booksellers, and to avoid some of these issues. Newest and freshest stock was on display. There were no travel expenses, or very little.
It was still a great show for the vendors and for the booksellers who did attend, just should have been better attended by the folks it was created for.

I also should note that I wrote up far more orders than that.  But a large number were never filled because the wholesaler did not pull display copies when they ran out of inventory.  So I wasted a lot of time filling out orders that were never going to be filled because the entire lot was sold to B&N in a special preview they were given before the show opened.

This is a big issue for the sales staff at the booths. There is not time enough to weed out the o/s titles until a break in the action and that often does not come until after the show closes on the first day. Before it opens on the second day is when the weeding often happens, and it is just too late. We need to work on that.
Another part of this problem is that lists are being ordered from and sales reps are visiting customers in all parts of the world while the show is on, and if something sells out off site it is often not known by the sales staff at the show until they get a chance to download their inventory.

I've talked to other bookstore owners, people who used to go to CIROBE every year, who have stopped going to trade shows for essentially the same reasons.

Remember the first several CIROBEs? There would be a large pack of buyers waiting at the doors before the show opened, and when it did open, they would run in goups to the most desirable booths. Yes, run, flat out.
Those days are behind us, but the shows are still important and booksellers should still attend them. If it does not make as much business sense as it once did to go to buy for half a year's bargain sales, go for one or two days. Meet new suppliers, hash out arrangements with old ones, say, regarding minimums. Or backorders. Or returns. Just being there makes you more important to the wholesalers, and more so as time goes by.
Anyway, that's my 2 cents.

Priceless, thank you.


  1. Ben - Excellent column and the Customer's points are all good, and your responses to them well thought-out. Thank you for this extended piece, and for the kind words about the Boston Remainder & Overstock Show. I am the person behind that show, our first of these events to come out of GABBS Boston. I have worked closely with the GABBS Network for a number of years and when the Boston event looked like it had run it's course, Larry May allowed me to take over the program and run it in a new way. We made a number of changes to be able to both keep this event in Boston but to also make it economically do-able for vendors and customers alike.

    First, we moved the show to mid-week. This was as a result of the many buyers I talked with who requested the show not come during a weekend in the summer, an indie bookstore's bread and butter. Second, we moved out of the convention center and into a special events center to lower overhead and costs for all involved. Even parking was half of the price of convention center parking. And third, by going to a two-day format we tried to make this as close as a mid-week buying opportunity with the ability to either visit one of the sponsor's warehouses or simply work in your store for Monday and Tuesday, fly in for Wednesday and Thursday and be back "in the office" by Friday. Quick and easy.

    The event was a success and definitely helped vendors and buyers alike accomplish their goals. I am now preparing the 2014 edition and will be talking with many vendors and buyers again, to ensure this program best meets everyone's needs. If you have feedback or questions, or any concerns, please do call or email me. Every contact will be followed up on. Thank you.

    Bill Sell, Advisor Communications, (508) 596-6118

    1. Bill - Thanks for posting your thoughts.
      It was a great show. For one thing, the venue was beautiful. Do you think you can do that again? It was right in the heart of the bookselling capital of New England, architecturally and historically significant, and perfect for the show. I drove (only 9 hours from Pittsburgh!) and parked in the lot right on the other side of the block.

      The issues my customer mentioned are valid, however I think if some of the ex-show attendees came back they would have a very different experience than the one they remember. There are fewer buyers that come to the shows now, there is not so much competition for selection. The buyers who do come tend to be looking for more specific niches. There are still a few big buyers at these shows (not all of them from Malaysia!) and they do come early and stay all the way through, but again, they are not the spoilers they were years ago. There is also way more selection than there used to be.

      It's true that if you have a small store hundreds of miles from the show, going is not as important as it once was. Between web sites and sales reps visiting and sending lists, you have more than enough opportunities to buy the best stuff. But if there is a show a few doors or blocks away, you owe it to yourself to come and at least see what's happening. There is a reason so many buyers do still attend so many shows. They sure are not doing it for fun or to lose money!

      Again, thank you (and World and Book Enterprises) for putting on such a great show. It will grow as people realize what it is and how good it is to have it right there in Boston.

      All best,