Friday, September 13, 2013

Meltdowns, Thank Yous, and a Response to a Previous Post

It was great seeing about 30 of my closest friends in San Francisco on September 5th. I brought Nationwide Book Industries' samples, and joined with Armadillo, Bargain Book Wholesale, and Book Country at the Marriott Marquis to show about 20,000 samples to booksellers in a mini-trade show. We arrived on Tuesday, set up on Wednesday, sold books on Thursday, and flew back home on Friday.

On Tuesday afternoon, just after arriving in my hotel room, I discovered that my computer had stopped working. There was an arrow in the middle of a black screen, and I could move it with the mouse pad, and that was all I could do until I brought it to PC Doctor in Pittsburgh a week later and got the hard drive replaced.

So there I was, unable to enter or process orders, or send lists out for my other clients, not to mention keep up with my blog. There were a number of customers coming to this show who I had not seen for years, who I was looking forward to working with again, as well as customers who had not bought from me directly before, and I wanted to be at my best, not my worst. 

My wife and partner in bookselling, Gale, had produced a color catalog of new arrivals, books which had arrived in quantity at NBI after the samples had shipped, and printed lots of paper order forms and lists before I left, so I had a good old school backup in place. I had customers put sticky notes on samples they wanted quantities of, and they wrote their quantities and initials on the notes. I quickly got behind, of course, and went from stack to stack, writing ISBNs, titles, and quantities on the paper order forms. This is the way things were done before the age of scanning everything into databases, and it works, however those were also the days of having more than one person working a show, and it is almost impossible to hand sell, look for special requests, or talk and catch up with old friends when all you can do is write. It also creates a backlog of samples which are stacked and appended with sticky notes, as other customers miss them or must be reminded to only borrow from those stacks, not take. Some samples would have multiple sticky notes as different buyers would go through each others' stacks. One wrote a "2nd" on his to make sure I knew he had been behind the first buyer. He did not want to get anything if it meant the other buyer was shorted. Booksellers are such good people. You know who you are! 

Speaking of good people, two of my favorites are Gayle Shanks and Bob Sommer who own Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona. They placed their order with me (great order, by the way) and went on to buy from everybody else. About half way through the day, they came back to me, saying they were leaving early. Bob then gave me his computer, showed me how to get online, opened a spreadsheet, and said I could ship it back to him when I no longer needed it. 

I don't care how many spare computers you have lying about, think about all that it means to leave your computer with somebody else, all that is exposed and possibly compromised, work that you have done that might be lost. This was one of those moments in life when one realizes that one is truly not alone, that humans are not such a bad lot after all, and that Bob Sommer is a saint. When they award the Nobel Prize For Bookselling, he's got my vote.

Thank you Bob.

Another piece of that trip I feel very thankful for was getting to spend time with a buyer who I count among my closest friends. I am never able to sell much to him, as he is a big pin on the bargain buying map, hence closely guarded by the house reps, so we get together when we can and catch up with each other. It was in San Francisco that he told me that he reads this blog whenever I post, and thinks of it as an inspiration. He hopes I write a history of the remainder market here or even as a book. I told him it would have a readership of about 20 people, but he thinks it is a more broadly interesting history than I give it credit for.

I wonder if he took pity on me during my computer breakdown panic attack, or if it was a spontaneous barrage of positive energy, but it worked, and I felt much better after that conversation, and still bask in it now.

So thank you too, and you definitely know who you are!

Now, about that response to my previous post:

Because of my computer problems I could not write a post in time to make that week's edition of  Bargain Book News, so I asked them to use a post I had written between their editions, but not the latest. It is about a small show which took place in Boston in August and the fact that buyers from Asia had made the trip while booksellers from a few blocks away did not. If you would like to read that post, here is a link to it, which I hope works:

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.