Thursday, November 6, 2014

Post-Pre-Trade Show Post

I'm sorry I had to miss CIROBE, even more so now that I have heard from a few vendors and customers who were there. According to vendors I heard from, the right buyers were there to make it a very busy show, with only a few tire kickers. Buyers who attended said it was quiet, which is perfect for them, and they found lots of good books to sell for the holidays and beyond.

The show was open early for the remainder wholesalers, then publishers were displaying for the last two days. One buyer told me he would not have gone if it were not for the university presses displaying for the last two days, and he was glad he did. Another buyer said she was able to break up the show into the two parts, doing what she sees as the more important work first. She stayed the entire length of the show, when in previous years she would leave early.

GABBS is coming up in Atlanta in March. They will have, through their partnership with SIBA, lectures and seminars before the show for bargain booksellers as well as all booksellers. They are located in AmericasMart and the show coincides with the Atlanta Spring Gift, Home Furnishings & Holiday Market Show, located in the same facility, which makes it an easy place to explore and buy sidelines.

Trying to convince buyers to go to trade shows is a little like trying to convince shoppers to shop independent booksellers. If a buyer who never goes, or has not gone for many years, does not see the advantages it is hard to convince that buyer without showing them. All I can say is ask the buyers that go year after year. Of course they won't want you to go because they love having a quiet show where they get all the good titles before you see them.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On Missing CIROBE and Friends

I'm sorry to say I was not be able to attend CIROBE in 2014. This was the last year it was held at the Chicago Hilton, where it started over two decades ago. This year it will be at the Navy Pier, a few blocks away, and a great space for a trade show, but not the old home. Just about everybody I know goes to CIROBE, so I missed seeing you all.

The reason I could not be there is that my wife, Gale, is fighting cancer and, while her prognosis is good, she is in a difficult phase of that fight, so I need to be with her for at least the next few months. She is, other than my everything, very important to the business on several levels, so I must apologize for my slowness and missed calls and emails lately. I'll get back to a better routine soon, but it will be a while longer before we're back up to speed.

Some of my customers no longer attend trade shows, which is unfortunate as they have much to offer, especially CIROBE, GABBS, and CIANA, as these are remainder shows and have some of the best, and best priced, inventory on the planet.

I always recommend going to GABBS, CIANA, CIROBE and other trade shows. If you would like to read some of my thoughts about trade shows, please check out my earlier post:, or a more recent one:

Please read my latest post in which booksellers talk about what is so great about bargain books:

I hope you had a great time in Chicago, and I'll see you next year on the Pier.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Grist for the List

I am a sales rep for Book Country Clearing House, a bargain book wholesaler. My primary sales tool is the list, mostly in Excel. I create them, manipulate them, tweak them, and email them to my customers. Sometimes I print and mail or fax them. That, other than going to trade shows, a little blogging, and visiting customers and my PO box, is life.

My customers are in a niche by themselves. Not every bookseller likes to buy from lists. This is another way of saying my customers are getting books others miss. To be fair, buyers who go to trade shows or visit warehouses get books those who don't do these things miss. But the lists are coming right to you at your desk. You can work in your pajamas as you select from current inventory that other buyers don't see.

My prospects, especially those who will never buy from me, often ask why we don't have a web site. I explain this, from the wholesaler's perspective, elsewhere in this blog, but suffice it to say that I have specialized in lists and if you are going to buy from me, you will have to work with my lists. As a result, I do not have many customers (I only have the best customers in the universe!). 

Other reps nudge me about this, telling me to get out on the road more often, and I do visit customers more than some. But the customers who pay attention and buy from my lists, a very specific set of customers, consistently get the best books.

There are some respectable advantages to lists (mine in particular, of course!), though I admit they take a little getting used to:

  ~ Sort by whatever you want, eliminate what you don't
  ~ Isolate and focus on authors, publishers, quantities available, categories, and price, quickly and easily.
  ~ Enter your order quantities in an easy-to-save form which can be saved as a receiving document when your order arrives.
  ~ Get a fast and clear picture of what is new since you last looked or ordered and what is selling elsewhere.
  ~ With lists you can order from only inventory that you have not ordered before, and you can order from lists of only what you have ordered before, a reorder list, if you wish.

A downside or two are occasionally cited by a few buyers. Some of these are the lists making issues more identifiable, same as they do for the benefits.

One of these is the eye glazing issue. While the same thing happens while you are looking at samples, jackets, or pages on a web site, it does seem that looking at lists for long stretches does test attention spans. The way around this is to tackle a bit at a time. Pick a category or an author and ignore everything else, then move on the the next sort.

Another issue is the perception that inventory figures are less reliable. I can put this one to rest. Almost every time I hear a complaint about this problem it is from customers who order from sites and tell me that the fill rate is about the same or worse than orders generated from my lists. The problem is not the venue or the vendor, it is the finite character of these inventories. If you wait half an hour to place your order, there may have been ten or twenty or one hundred other customers buying what you wanted first. This happens on sites as much, if not more, than it does on lists. The other thing to consider is that, while it is not always true, the lists are often the first iteration of the inventory, which then gets plugged into the web site. You are, in effect, getting a preview. This is not always the case, but it is one of the reasons fill rates are not better on one than the other.

If you are a bookseller and would like to sign up to receive my lists, please read my "how to order" page here:

This is a blog by a book wholesale sales rep and meant for booksellers and buyers working at bookstores. If you are looking for great books at great prices, please ask and I will recommend a great bookstore near you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Mass Effect of Books

There has been a lot written about why paper books are better for the brain and better at being, well, books. Something about reading from a page of paper, possibly magnified by handling the paper as one reads, adds to our comprehension: we are better readers from paper than we are from screens. Maybe it's in our DNA. It might take some practice to get past a few thousand years of reading from physical surfaces. But what about how amazing books are all together?

Photos of beautiful spaces full of books are popular on social media sites. There are cathedral-like spaces filled with thousands of books shelved all the way up to the rafters, old libraries and reading rooms stretching off into the hazy distance, jammed with old leather-bound tomes. There are bookstores of otherworldly proportions, built in repurposed old churches, factories, banks. There is something about seeing so many books shelved together in wonderful spaces that is awe inspiring. 

For me, one of the advantages indies always had over the chains, in the old wars, was that they were bursting with books. The chain superstores had a wide open feel, big empty wall spaces filled with really great graphics, spacious reading areas filled with big comfy furniture, lots of padded carpet in wide aisles. But many of the indies, especially the ones that survived the battle, are crammed with books. Yes, they are beautifully merchandised, the interiors are sometimes award winning retail spaces, but these spaces are completely dominated by endless surfaces of books, everywhere the eye can go. There are a couple that I can think of which verge on the dangerously overstocked, to the point of being difficult to navigate for fear of being buried under a collapsing stack of books or, I think the technical term is, perfect.

It feels great to walk into one of these places, or any place full of books, any library or bookstore. Quiet, vast, inviting, they convey a palpable sense of permanence and wonder. One of the perks of working in a bookstore or library is opening cartons of new arrivals, getting that first look and feel. But it is the mass effect of all those countless books together that is capable of altering awareness. Standing in a large library or bookstore or any vast book collection, looking down an endless aisle lined with books from floor to distant ceiling, is a unique experience. 

Even in this age of mass production, knowing that each of those volumes on that wall of books, in the entire world full of books, was created after the painstaking, zillion step process it takes to publish a physical book, boggles the mind.  

Knowing that a hard drive the size of a sandwich can hold all human knowledge, a truly amazing achievement of computer science, while interesting, is not the same thing. It does not take us to the same place. Experiencing e-books, on whatever device with whatever technology, is a singular, one-by-one experience. We look at a list of books, we decide based on the list to pick one to investigate before reading, we click on that one. It might be an image, but we are still looking at a flat, undifferentiated list. We might read the reviews or some bibliographic details and make the decision, either to read that particular book or continue on down the list. We process this all while our eyes are unblinkingly fixed on a screen we can hold in our hand.

There are thousands of authors writing wonderful works and being published solely in the digital marketplace. Some of these authors are among the best writing today. Many of them are completely and totally alone, writing, publishing, and promoting their works to a faithful following of grateful readers. I believe that within a generation or two, as we come to grips with the fact that real books will not go away, the works of these digital authors will increasingly be published also as real books, perhaps by new publishers or new divisions at existing publishers, dedicated to mining this treasure trove. Their works will continue on as digital masterpieces, but will also be added to those beautiful cathedrals of books.
Want to read more about real books vs e-books, the mind-paper connection, and the resurgence of bookstores? Check out this list of articles:

And for more thoughts about reading and physical books:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The One Thing

For many things in life, there is a strategy that says: If you're going to do this thing, then the one thing you must do is this other thing.

If you're a bookseller you might subscribe to this strategy for aspects of your business. Books are so incredibly varied in so many ways that it is tempting to limit yourself to some categories or one category, to one or two sales scenarios, to a look. Maybe you only sell in a bookstore and school book fairs, or only on the internet. Maybe you have a children's bookstore, or sell only new books or only used books. I know of at least two booksellers who sell only books about trains. Imagine a hardware store that only sells nails. We are in an interesting industry.

Then there are the general bookstores, the big independents that sell everything. They sell new, used, bargain, non-book, calendars, services, and whatever they can make work. They sell online, in bookstores, mail order, at expos and fairs. They do phone sales, business to business sales, bulk sales, sidewalk sales, school sales. 

These are the bookstores an indie bargain book sales rep is going to have the most luck with. They tend to have buyers that specialize in or focus on remainders and bargain books. Those buyers tend to buy deep and wide, so that a wholesaler with a large inventory comprised of books in many categories will see orders from these buyers for at least something from most of those categories. These buyers know what their customers are looking for. 

They also usually know when they don't know. If a sales rep says that a title the buyer just passed on is selling well to many other buyers, the buyer might reconsider. However, they still have some of those old strategic limits when it comes to categories. They might avoid books about computers and technology, or health and fitness, or travel or business or, weirdly, children's. As with any buyer who says they are avoiding a category, they will see something that works in one of those shunned categories and suddenly buy a ton. It's the exception that proves the rule.

In my completely biased opinion, buyers should give everything a chance. Put books in front of your customers before deciding you know they won't buy them. I hear so often the surprise that something sold that just should not have. We know what our customers buy only because they buy what we buy.

However... If you're a general bookseller and you're going to buy only one category for your bargain department, make it children's, cooking, or art. Children's bargain books sell like ice cream at the beach. Parents know real books are important to their children's development and children know their parents have a hard time turning them down when they want a book. And, oh yes, kids love books. Cookbooks sell no matter what, but they tend to sell better as bargains because of the original high list price and because the customers buying them know they will get some very rough treatment at home.

Why art? It can be a hard sell. They are expensive to begin with and mostly still expensive as bargain, but they have the increasing appeal of books which really just work way better as real books than as e-books. This is also part of the appeal of children's books, but much more so with art. Paging through an art book, be it a monograph or a technique book, is an unbeatable and unique experience. So, if art is on your shun list, make a few exceptions on your next bargain buy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sections, Departments, Palaces

One of the more common questions I'm asked by booksellers who are thinking of starting to buy bargain is where to put it. They are often concerned with displacing other parts of their inventory that are performing well for them. My first impulse is simply to say that those will still sell, now from another area of your bookstore, if you do move them, but it is better to look at the ways other booksellers handle bargain successfully and decide what works best for you.

1. Everywhere

Some of the most successful booksellers put all bargain formats everywhere in their bookstores. This means that whether they sell new, used, or a combination, the same title, sometimes the same ISBN, will be represented on the same shelf as frontlist, remainder, trade paperback, mass market paperback, hardcover, hurt, overstock, and reprint. The category sections might contain large numbers of all of the above. Tables may contain stacks of bargain books along with stacks of the best selling frontlist titles and overstocks of used books. Windows and endcaps will be face-out displays of anything that looks good and sells well, whatever the source. This approach seems natural with art, cooking, gardening, and other coffee table categories, but less intuitive for categories like poetry, fiction, biography, or history. From what I've seen in practice, it works for all categories and in combination with all other approaches.

2. Tables

For booksellers who want to segregate bargain from the rest of their inventory, tables are a good way to display. The best incorporate shelves all around the underside with one set of shelves on rollers which slide out to reveal storage underneath. A good table can be a department in itself. Stacks on top and short quantities and singles on the shelves below can display a lot of titles in a tight space. Two or three tables in one area of the bookstore can produce a lot of sales and are easy for one buyer to merchandise and keep an eye on.

3. A room or, in larger bookstores, a floor or area

This is not my favorite because it tells your customers you value this area differently than other areas and makes it easy to avoid. Impulse buys happen less frequently among customers who don't like the "bargain basement" vibe, and having less or no bargain mixed in with the rest of your stock means never knowing if you are missing some sales where the customers are going to buy bargain and not the other editions. However, this works amazingly well for some of my most successful customers, so who am I to argue? It works best if it is worked right. A bargain department must be managed and merchandised with the same attention to detail, customer service, and display as the other sections of your bookstore.

4. Carts

If you have very limited space and want to segregate your bargain, try carts. They can be shelved, as are library carts, or flat tops. Face-outs will be limited, but they work great for singles, 2s and 3s. The nice thing about carts is that you can move them around the store or out of the way for events, and they do double duty outside during sidewalk sales or at offsite sales. Signage is important everywhere, but be particularly obvious in your cart signage as carts tend to look more like work tools and less like displays.

5. All of the Above

Mix your bargain books into your front and backlist sections, stack it on a couple of tables near the front of your bookstore, put it on carts in open areas and wheel those outside during good weather or toward the back during events, and create a bargain book room or section. Your customers will love it.


Upcoming trade shows for bargain book buyers:

Monday, June 9, 2014

Categorically Crazy

If you are one of my subscribers, you will have noticed that the lists I send you are sorted by category, then author, then title. Those subject categories are supplied by Gale (my wife) and I before I send you the lists. 

We are obsessed with categories. Maybe I could be a better salesman if only I would be a little less obsessed with categories. Of course I don't believe that. I believe that if I have a list as close to perfection as possible it will sell itself. Yes, we are category nuts. 

Subject categories are not as important to the book buying public as they used to be. Before anything could be looked up online by simply entering an ISBN or title in a search field, lists and catalogs were often, if not always, sorted by and presented in categories. Subcategories multiplied and all was easy to find, on paper, on the shelves, or in a sales kit.

For those of us still peddling books the old fashioned way (you know... on web sites, in spreadsheets dropped in file sharing sites, or emailed), categories are still important. We (Gale and I) probably spend over a quarter of our time categorizing lists. The wholesalers that categorize them often make so many mistakes (as we see it) or use nearly useless (we think) categories, such as nonfiction (a non-subject), or a format as category, such as "mass market" or "coffeetable." 

I should not say useless. Lists that indicate "coffeetable" or mass market or nonfiction as subject categories when they are actually formats or otherwise non-subjects, are from wholesalers who have major customers in the big box arena, such as T.J. Maxx, Burlington Coat Factory, Costco, or Walmart. For those customers, subject categories are much less important than the look and feel of a book. Those customers probably never see lists at all and the designations are for the benefit of the sales force who need to select samples to present. 

There are some real gems among the errors. One of my favorites is a list that consistently places sex books in the humor category. And I don't want to forget the history of Serbia in crafts & hobbies, where one could also find a book of recipes for mixed drinks and a test-prep manual for passing an EMS exam. While employing a defibrillator to save is apparently a hobby in some circles, it doesn't pay to try to figure out which categories are right or wrong, so we delete them all and categorize everything ourselves. Besides, we just like ours better, including our own errors. 

We make plenty (and if you see any please feel free to say so). One area that we redo over and over is young adult. If the proclaimed intended audience is 10 years old, but the book is a novel about an autistic boy and how his autism impacts his family and what they do to overcome their challenges, is it children's or young adult? Or, maybe, parenting? I see some great history titles targeted to children's or young adult, which would clearly sell better in the history category. A few years ago I figured out that some publishers were all children's or all young adult. I was so proud of myself until, about a year later, I figured out that I was wrong. I'm still cleaning up the results of that bit of cleverness.

Does a biography of an historical figure belong in biography or history? As a buyer for your bookstore, pressed for time and bombarded by offerings from all sources, are you more likely to ignore the biography section or the history section on my lists? Please tell me because I really don't know.

It's a long term ongoing project and we are constantly finding old mistakes and making new ones, but we think we're making some good progress. We recently started adding serious subcategories to some of the more difficult categories, which will start showing up on some of the lists I send you over the coming months and years. Fiction, for example, can be a lot of different things, and there is so much fiction in some of our lists that it becomes daunting just to make it from Isabel Allende to Virginia Woolf, even if you just focus on the new arrivals and bestsellers. 

Categories on our lists are different than categories on the major book retail web sites. Those are meant to help their customers drill down to the exact sub-subcategory they are looking for, while ours are meant more to help buyers at bookstores find what they need to fill their sections or tables with books that will sell and keep their customers interested and keep them coming back for more. Your customers might or might not know it, but they buy by category, and you know what those categories are.

I hear from some of you that I have too many columns in my lists already, so adding another one for subcategories might mean having to delete one. The link? Many of you asked for it, but I never hear from you so I don't know if it's helping. The awards column? Some of you asked for it, but it is labor intensive and the results seem small. Let me know. 

Less than 48 hours after publishing this post, I've had more feedback than most of my posts have generated in years. And here I thought this was going to be a dud. Who cares about categories? Lots of you, apparently.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sourcing Your Sources

I wish I could be your only source for bargain books. I send you lists of tens of thousands of titles, indicating which titles you have ordered from me in the past, which are new arrivals received since your last order or within the last month or week, which are hot sellers at the moment, or if you have told me you prefer short, targeted lists, I send you those. If you bought certain authors more than others I will find books by them in the warehouse and send lists of those to you, or tell you about them one at a time. I send you lists based on your strongest categories, or search criteria you send me, or your location, or events you have coming up in the future. I try to make myself your go-to guy for all your bargain book needs. 

I also want you to be the best bookseller with the best bookstore for your customers. Do you know how many sources for bargain books there are out there? I don't. I guess, all told, it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000. It seems that whenever I am out visiting bookstores, there is a carton in one of their receiving areas from some bargain book company that I have never heard of. I ask and am told that, of course, it's so-and-so, she used to own xyz, then she went off and started this company. The tone is such that of course I would also remember xyz, which I don't. 

Different sources have different strengths and weaknesses. Some might have wonderful niche material, some might be all-mint all the time, some might carry the best publishers for literary fiction. Some have terrific customer service while they suffer on selection, but you buy from them anyway because they have really low minimums and make themselves easy to work with. Some have horrible customer service and agonizingly slow ship times, but such amazing inventory that you can't afford to skip them. Some have great web sites, while others seem to hide their best stuff from everybody in the business other than gas stations and shoe stores. Some hold your feet to the fire unless you buy their "best" stuff, which is super-annoying until you realize they were right all along, their "best" stuff is actually the best stuff, and you start listening to them on every recommendation. Some are located in far away places and the orders take months to arrive and you have to convert the currency before paying the bill, but your favorite customer, which happens to be the cooking school down the street, just can't get enough of that one cookbook they always have in stock, so you can't stop ordering from them. It's endless.

You probably don't have time to order from 1000 bargain vendors. You might not have time to order from 20. The point is, you should try to mix it up as much as you can and put the best and greatest variety possible into your bargain selections. As I have repeated many times in this blog, one of bargain's biggest strengths is how it widens your selection and appeal. New arrivals keep your customers interested and coming back for more, and the more varied the sources the better.

All those nice things I said in the first paragraph of this post, about how I can tailor my lists to fit your needs, are true, I do these things for customers that ask for it. I can keep lists of your search terms, titles, subjects or authors you are always looking for. When they show up on any of my lists, or even if I see them elsewhere, I will let you know. 

Yes, this is yet another shameless plug for my business, but also a plug for every source in the bargain wholesale industry. They can all be a resource if you just know how to work with them and make them work for you. In order for me to stay in business I need you to stay in business, and to be a happy buyer of bargain books, and for that to happen you really should be buying far and wide.*

*(But mostly from me.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Value Beyond Bargain

I recently visited a bookstore that, while not a bargain bookstore, buys bargain very widely and does an amazing job of merchandising it. I noticed that they had one of the best and largest cookbook sections I had seen anywhere, and it looked to me to be mostly remainders and bargain books. The owner told me that it is usually his best selling section. He told me about a couple of customers that drive from their home two hours away, at least twice a year, just to buy cookbooks from him, and that they will spend up to $500 on some of those binges.

In previous posts and in my hints page I have mentioned that a good way to use bargain is to build a section that you either don't have a lot of experience with, or you're not sure how your customers will respond to, or you just want to give it more real estate without committing the front list dollars. The section I usually have in mind is poetry since I have seen this done in more than one bookstore with the result that there are suddenly way more poetry customers shopping those stores, and that the buyers now know to look out for poets in their front and back list buys that they might not have known to look for in the past. My friend with the impressive cookbook section also does something like this with poetry and with music. I talked to one event manager, at another bookstore, who told me that authors often will happily sign remainders, as long as the actual event is based on their new book. His advice had sort of a "don't try this at home" flavor to it, however, as he said "you'd better know your authors pretty well before asking them to do that."

The point, again, is the value that remainders and bargain books bring to your bookstore and your customers goes well beyond low price. A lot has to do with differentiation, setting your bookstore apart from other sources for books.

Buy right and dramatically increase your selection, bringing more categories and authors to your customers. You are telling your customers you care about them enough to offer them something different, something special, out of the ordinary, and at a low price. Remainders and bargain books are one area where you can make your selection unique in ways that new books and even used cannot quite do. 

Your customers may not remember where they got the newest bestseller, as they can buy them anywhere, but they will always remember where they got that interesting book they didn't quite know they wanted until they saw it, and at such a great price. Buying bargain expands your creativity. You can create new bookstores within your bookstore. You can be flexible in how you merchandise the books.

If you don't yet have bargain in your bookstore and you're wondering how to get started, make two lists. On your first list write down the titles, authors, and subject categories you are asked most for that you don't have or don't have enough of. These are the customers that most often go to buy the books elsewhere. The second list, and probably the better one, is a list of your best selling categories and authors. Then start looking at the bargain and remainder wholesalers. Once you find one that carries the most of what fits your lists, place an initial order. Buy 3s of enough titles to fill a couple of tables and see how it goes. 

There will be a learning curve as you discover how some books that did not sell well new become bestsellers at bargain prices, and how some authors sell well new and not in bargain, but if you start off with your proven winners, you will soon have a great bargain section. Your customers will thank you for it.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cherry Picker's Dilemma

Everybody likes to pick the cherries. 

If you have 10 or 20 or 100 titles that you are always looking for and, if you see any of them on one of my lists, you put together an order around them, that's not cherry picking. It's more like cherry farming. But if there is only one cherry you will pick, and you won't pick any of the other fruits and nuts, then you will probably not receive much, if any. Plenty of other customers want the same title, and they buy regularly and widely and therefore are ahead of you in the service department. 

You might get lucky. Business might be slow or the titles you want are in plentiful supply for once. And of course everybody wants to satisfy every customer on every order, 100% of the time. Nobody wants to move an order right to the bottom of the stack. It's not good or bad (well, sort of bad), it's the way things work in this overworked and understaffed world.

The same can be said for too many instructions and "offers." If a wholesaler has enough orders to sell out of the title on your order, and you're specifying a complicated series of shipping requirements and offering 75% of the asking price, your order has definitely found its way to the bottom of the stack. Neither I nor any sales rep has the ability to stop that water from flowing downhill as it always seems to do, so maybe it's time to rethink some of those persnickity habits you learned in the good old days when you and 10 other buyers on the planet were buying bargain.

The harder you make the wholesaler work to move your orders through their systems, the more likely your orders will gradually move down the to-do list. The next guy in line just wants all his books shipped when ready, via "Best/Cheapest," and will take the books he can get and send in another order next week, and the next.

The best cherries come in bunches. If you want to see everything in sets or pop-ups or about guns or Paris, you have a much better chance of getting what you're looking for than if you will only buy Gibbon sets or Colts or 1920s Paris. The remainder wholesalers and their reps need to feel there's at least a chance of a sale now and then to keep you on their radar.

I've had the occasional customer trying to bid up those cherries. This usually doesn't work. If you are willing to pay extra to get mint copies of The Lord of the Rings, and that's all you want, ever, there are still way too many other loyal customers, who buy broadly and often, who will get that cherry because the wholesalers want to keep them happy. 

There are always exceptions that prove the rule, and one bookseller's cherries are occasionally another bookseller's pits. Maybe you're really serious about it, you work it, you make sure the rep and/or the wholesaler is thinking about you next time they see that title. Maybe you say you'll buy up to 1000 copies and 1000 copies show up. That'll work. 

Generally speaking, however, your best bet to get the books you want is to buy just broadly enough so that when your cherries show up in their inevitably way-too-short quantities, you will get them. Even better, along the way you will discover a lot more cherries.
What’s the difference between a hurt & a remainder? Why is free freight not in the dictionary? Why don't remainders have remainder marks? Check out my bargain book buyer’s glossary: 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Used Magic

Used bookstores have been among the biggest buyers of remainders and bargain books for as long as there have been remainder wholesalers. Used bookstores, overbuying some editions one by one, over the counter, might have started the idea of remainders when they stacked these overstocks on tables and discovered the instant increase in demand this caused.

Used bookstores do not only buy remainders and bargain to fill the niches and gaps in their inventory, which they do aggressively, but also to seed their community of customers with future used inventory. Books which they sell to a customer as a remainder this year might come back as a much more valuable used book in 5 years, or 15, or 30. 

Some used bookstores treat remainders and bargain as sidelines, however not so much as do trade bookstores. For used bookstores, if they carry them at all, new books are sidelines, just without the profit margins. For most used bookstores that buy bargain, it is an integral and significant part of their bottom line.

I have mentioned here in past posts the disconnect between the media driven public perception of the decline in bookstores and the interactions I have with almost every bookstore I deal with telling me their sales are either up or so extremely up that they don't want to say by how much for fear of luring competition to town. Used bookstores are typically ahead of this disconnect, having arrived at that level of health earlier and surpassed it by a few factors. Buyers at used bookstores are ahead of the rest of us when it comes to knowing what will sell, what sold, sells, or will lie gathering dust on the bottom shelves.

Yet used bookstores are not impervious to the economics that have tightened the margins of booksellers everywhere. They too have had to go back to school for marketing, branding themselves, and customer service and relations. Some have closed or reduced staff, reduced their space or moved to less desirable bookselling neighborhoods. But most have weathered the storm in very good to fine condition. 

There are used bookstores that get most or all of their stock from donations. They either opened for business with donations as the central feature of their business plan, or they hit hard times a few years ago and decided that this would be the only way to stay alive and have since either survived or thrived. Most of them also sell on the internet and there are some that only sell on the internet, so much so that they are among the largest online booksellers. It might sound simple to the uninitiated, but it is not an easy way to do business. Lots more heavy lifting and the time and space spent sifting and winnowing takes some serious planning. Community relations play a big part. 

Donations have always been a piece of the used book business. Paperback exchanges have a donation component in their business. All used bookstores, at one time or another, have opened in the morning to discover some harried anonymous book hoarder's vast discarded library pyramided against their front door. Sometimes people need to shed the books and can't bear to throw them in the trash, but also can't bear to stand there and hear the buyer's offers. They might take a few dollars for part of their library and walk away from the rest.

These used bookstores can come back strong, and some thrive and grow and begin buying again. If the business plan must be to operate as donation-only to survive, then it's a good thing.

But most of the used bookstores I do business with have been buying from me since the beginning of my wholesale career, as they have from everybody in my line of work. They tend to have very knowledgeable buyers, who look carefully at every title. They are completely comfortable buying books that cannot be returned to publishers because this is the only way of doing business they've ever known.

An acquisition editor I know goes frequently to a large used bookstore, watching how people choose what they buy, listening to what they ask for. He once said that if his job no longer required or allowed him to do this, he would have to resign and find one that did.

Used books, like remainders and bargain books, are counterpoints to the homogenization of retail in general. New books are the wonderful, glossy skin of the book world, a few months old, all about now. Used books go centuries deep. There is something about a used bookstore that draws us in: the last surviving ancient magical cave of wonder.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Great Barrier Beef of Bargain Books

I paint a rosy picture of bargain book buying throughout this blog, but there are some barriers to getting in, much as I hate to say it. 

Here are the barriers I hear about, some more than others: 

Barrier 1. The stock is finite in a way that new books are not. 

Barrier 1.1. The best titles sell out maddeningly fast, and even if the book is listed in good quantity, it seems to pop up at one wholesaler, sells out before you can order it, then pops up at another wholesaler, and so forth and so on. (Yes, they sell to each other -- a lot.)

Fickle stock is just something you have to weather. After you get into the rhythm of order, merchandise, sell, order, merchandise, sell for a few cycles, you realize you get a big portion of what you order and eventually get everything, just not necessarily on every order. The stock also becomes more reliable as you show yourself to be reliable. One more little thing: If you make offers you are less likely to get what you want. Sorry, that's the nature of the beast. You can negotiate until you're blue in the face, if another buyer orders at full asking price before your order is packed, you're not getting it. And never try that on short quantities if you want to be shipped, at least when you are new to the game.

Barrier 2. Quality concerns. 

Remainder wholesalers almost never quibble over damage claims, at least until you prove yourself to be a grifter (you know who you are), but this is an area that scares off potential buyers. I receive so few damage claims that this issue seems inconsequential to me, until I hear from a prospect that never answers my mailings and this is the reason. If, on the other hand, you really will only accept truly mint stock, there are a very few sources you should buy from and no others. 

Barrier 3 and 3.1. Credit, credit cards, and pit bulls.

The credit you have with publishers does not mean much to remainder wholesalers. The publishers have credit departments trained to never, ever, under any and all circumstances, answer phone calls, return phone calls, or answer emails or faxes, if there is even a hint of asking for a reference. If you don't have references among their fellow credit managers working in the remainder trade, they don't mean much. And freight or other references are considered a sign that you don't have credit, so don't use those. Regarding those remainder wholesaler credit managers, I don't know why I put pit bulls in my subject line. Pit bulls are actually very sweet dogs if not trained otherwise.

To get past this barrier you need to use a credit card, and this is yet another barrier for some folks. This transaction isn't ever going to be warm and fuzzy, but if you're careful in communications and supply the right info, you will be fine. The card is not charged until shipping so that all charges are known when invoicing occurs, and you won't be charged for things that didn't ship and need to be credited back later. 

Exception: There are occasionally sales where your card is "hit" when the order is received. This may be because you supplied partial data, or got the name on your card slightly wrong, or your first order is super sized. Another possible flag is if you seem to be exporting: your order looks to be placed by a retail store in the USA, but your ship-to location is a dockside fulfillment center. The remainder wholesaler, in such cases, might want to make sure you're good for it and freeze funds on your card to make sure, similar to what some hotels do when you book a long stay. I have seen this happen maybe 3 times in 3 years, but figured I'd better say so.

Barrier 4. The great barrier beef of bargain books: Freight costs.

Everybody has a beef with the freight costs of bargain books. There's no way around the math: The same book at $5.00 costs a higher percentage in freight than it did when it was a $35.00 book. Among experienced buyers, this barrier no longer exists. They work the cost into prices in their store, and/or they get the best deal they can with one or two carriers or freight brokers and ship only with them. The good news is that remainder wholesalers have some of the best freight rates on the planet and, usually, if you allow them to ship with their carriers, you will get the lowest rates possible. This is not to say that percentage of cost ever looks delightful. Figure on between 10% and 25% of invoice, depending on size of order (larger orders have a smaller percentage of freight cost) and distance shipped. 

Exception: There are odd zones where shipments from point A seem too high only when shipped to point B. I have one wholesaler client who always ships smaller orders via UPS since they have worked out an amazing rate based on overall volume. There is one area, however, that always seems too high to ship to. I have three customers in those zip codes, and they have all complained, at one time or another, about the UPS charges from this one wholesaler. I've never received a complaint from anybody else about that wholesaler, and some of those are thousands of miles away, while these three customers are less than 200 miles away. I'm working on this, but for now don't have an answer. 

One more word about freight costs: Always feel free to ask. I'd rather hear from you than ship once and never again. If freight cost, or anything else, is a problem, there is almost always a solution.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cooperative Adventures in Bookselling

According to Wikipedia, "A cooperative ("coop") or co-operative ("co-op") is an autonomous association of persons who voluntarily cooperate for their mutual, social, economic, and cultural benefit." From the American Heritage Dictionary: "Of, relating to, or formed as an enterprise or organization jointly owned or managed by those who use its facilities or services..."

There are co-ops among all sorts of businesses. Some agricultural, banking, food wholesale and retail co-ops are among the biggest businesses in the world. There are co-ops that we don't think of as co-ops: Land O'Lakes, Associated Press, Ocean Spray, Ace Hardware, Blue Diamond and others are co-ops that seem at first glance to be corporations like any other, but they are owned by their member-producers and exist to support their goals. Their boards of directors are made up of a cross section of the membership, varying according to the by-laws, but typically representing smaller businesses more heavily than larger ones. The farmer with 40 acres has the same power as the one with 40,000 acres, which is to say, one vote. Their CEOs and other leaders and administrators do not make the huge, unbalanced salaries their counterparts in publicly traded corporations do. Benefits are distributed evenly among the membership.

At various times in my career I've read up on business models booksellers have used, and during more than one of these projects, I found myself researching and drawn to the idea of cooperative businesses. Co-ops are old school. They've been around, in their current form, for over 150 years. They were strongest in the USA in the Upper Midwest for many of the early years. When Independent Booksellers Consortium was formed, David Schwartz, its strongest advocate, was the owner of Harry W. Schwartz Booksellers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of the old centers of cooperative business ventures.

The remainder business, at one time, looked very much like a cooperative venture, even without the structure. Of course, without being a co-op, a group of businesses cannot be truly cooperative without walking a very fine legal line, but as groups of suppliers and customers working together for the common good, remainder wholesalers and their customers came close.

If a remainder wholesaler received a supply of a known hot title in a quantity that was respectable but not enough to satisfy the projected demand, they would list the title at a modest quantity, so that, for the first run, many customers could order "all" and get it. Before bidding many would call a large group of customers and ask how many they would take if the title were available. Some customers might front some of the money necessary, knowing or hoping that enough customers, all competing bookstores, would take enough of the title to make it a winner.

There was an old practice at trade shows and in other areas where wholesalers are close to each other, where customers are introduced to the competition. This is a reciprocal relationship, and has become less common as the largest wholesalers and customers have become more exclusive unto themselves, but it still happens all the time. Buyers, competing for the finite stocks of desired titles, working in close proximity to each other at trade shows, in showrooms and warehouses, will often work out between them who gets what and how many. This happens between buyers for different sized businesses, often without them knowing each other.

This behavior is not unique to the book business. To the contrary, it is much more prevalent, established, accepted, and successful outside the book industry. An independent bookstore of any stripe may be too complex and low margin to allow the owner to focus enough on the cooperative business model. IBC is still going strong, as is the much older Independent College Bookstore Association, but others have long since faded from view or disappeared. To be clear, there are plenty of co-op bookstores, whose employee-owners and customer-members benefit from the co-op business structure every day, but these are individual businesses, not groups of businesses.

Co-ops can be local, state-wide, regional, national, or international. The benefits are large, the downside is small. Why do independent booksellers not have a more robust cooperative culture? Are they actually too independent? Are margins too low? 

It's an old idea whose time has perhaps come again. Many of the new bookstores opening up over the last couple of years are the start-up ventures of younger, more technologically savvy, social media-literate, adventurous booksellers, who, just maybe, will take another look at this very viable model for working together to make a great thing better.