Thursday, December 3, 2015

'Tis the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Putting Your Best Square Foot Forward

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Of Sales and Bookselling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Inboxes Of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stack Them and They Will Sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Challenges of Moving Books

My wife and I recently moved from a big old house into a smaller old house a few blocks away. There were the usual 100 or so boxes of books. Putting the books in boxes is a time-consuming affair. Each book must be read and reread, paged through, smelled, hefted several times in each hand, dusted, shown to the spouse who rolls her eyes, inspected for unremembered turns of phrase. Moving is exhausting work.

The first editions and signed first works by well known authors are not what piques the interest. It is such gems as:

New York Yesterday and Today, published in 1977. The yesterday of the title refers to the period from the late 1800s through about 1945. The today photos are from 1975 and 1976. All sorts of memories are triggered by these. Here's the place I used to buy a cup of coffee before getting on the downtown N train. Everything looking ancient; nobody is looking at a hand held device. In the 1970s, people standing on street corners, walking, driving, shopping, had their heads up, looking where they were going. I sell books by emailing Excel spreadsheets to my customers. I sometimes review orders on my phone as I am jay walking through heavy traffic, absent minded, autopilot kicking in as I dodge cars driven by people who are texting. I write a blog. But I am having a Luddite moment.

A very dusty copy of the Conrad Argosy, a collection of Joseph Conrad's work published on pulpy paper, getting brittle and yellowing now. It must be from the 1930s. I know I looked once, but now forgot, being too busy checking to see if there is anything in it I have not yet read. There is. This book was given to me by my father, after he discovered I was a Conrad reader. He bought it in the 1930s. I wish I remember if he bought it used or new. Maybe he never told me.

My son, who was helping to pack, found some things he had not read or read long enough ago to deserve a reread. He proceeded to reread them. 

Back when I painted I was obsessed with the form of the arch as used in Medieval, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance Architecture (that should be a title. I look it up. No... somebody needs to write it), so I collected books with images of these and more. They all got a good looking at before being boxed.

As I unpack them the process is repeated.

Some of the fiction I pull out and shelve in the new old house was given to me or recommended by buyers shopping the warehouse. One recent example, which I am reading now, is  Rules For Old Men Waiting, by Peter Pouncey. It is a beautifully written novel and I would not have known anything about it if my friend had not seen it at the warehouse and handed me a copy, telling me I had to read it.

Much of this blog is about trying to sell buyers and bookstore owners on the idea of buying remainders and bargain books, and much is about the quality of physical books as opposed to ebooks. I've written here about how even the presence of books triggers memory and emotional response in ways the digital versions can't touch. I think these are basic human needs and characteristics that will not go away. Petroleum replaced whale oil and cars replaced horses in a veritable flash, but no matter how much big money likes digital media, there are always going to be physical books and a significant percentage of readers remaining loyal to them.

If you are an author, and I see that an oddly high number of my readers are authors of ebooks, please consider publishing your digital books as real books when you can. In a few thousand years they might still be here, affecting how people feel and remember their lives. Well, at least I'll have a chance to read them as I pack and unpack next time I move.
Links to articles about how real books help our minds and lives and how bookstores are doing just fine:

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Picking Roses in the Minefield

I had two customers shop the warehouse within the last couple of weeks that remind me of each other. Their personalities and life circumstances are very different, they live on opposite ends of the same continent, one owns his bookstore while the other is the remainder buyer for a large business, but they are like each other in that they both work without a computer, an increasingly rare characteristic among remainder buyers. There is so much data to work with when you are buying books, and it expands exponentially when you buy remainders and hurts because you now have different data to track for the same ISBNs, and new titles to track as there are so many more titles to consider when you buy frontlist, backlist, and bargain books.

Buyers who work without computers, and at the moment I can think of only two more, tend to be getting on in years, which is to say, slightly younger than myself. They tend to have amazing memories, at least for books and all they have ever known about books, and a deep abiding courage of their convictions. They tend to work fast. They know what they need, and how many copies, before they see the book, and zip through large warehouses in one or two days where most buyers will take 4 days to look at half as much. They are also much more willing to try books they don't know or don't even think will sell. They have a willingness to try things out on their customers before judging a book's saleability.

One big difference between my two buyers is that the one who owns his bookstore is the only buyer for that bookstore. He does not have other buyers he needs to worry about. There is no turf. I do know some owner-buyers who do have the turf problem, but it is never quite the minefield the professional remainder buyers must negotiate their way through. The frontlist buyer might comment on the lower prices effecting their sales in a general way or specific titles nuking the sales for the front- or backlist sales of those titles. Sometimes those frontlist buyers will complain about the remainder buyer's buys to the management, or to publisher's sales reps. This constant undercurrent of negativity can sap a buyer's productivity, though for most it is something that comes with the territory and can be a source of entertainment. A thick skin is a good prerequisite for the job.

This turf issue only exists where the idea of bargain books has not been communicated and shared with everybody in the organization. When all sales are analyzed by all buyers and booksellers, and it becomes apparent that remainder and bargain do not cannibalize frontlist or backlist sales, but are additional sales, that the lower costs work with the lower price to increase profits, that new and different customers are shopping bargain, that impulse bargain sales add significantly to the bottom line, and authors are introduced to customers through bargain, everyone will be on board. The most successful bookstores in the world have robust bargain components. Clear the mines and let your profits and customer base grow.

Why aren’t remainders remainder marked? Hurts (returns) are marked. Check out my bargain book buyer’s glossary: 

Not in My Bookstore: Remainders and Author Events:

What’s so great about bargain books? I asked booksellers:

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Book Expo, Feeling the Love

Maybe it was my unquenchable ray-of-sunshine personality (those who know me are now laughing), but Book Expo, held last week at the Javitz Center in NYC, felt distinctly up. I showed at a pre-show nearby for a couple of days before the official show began, which was great, and then the show itself was endlessly busy. Last year, in the same place and time, Friday was a slow day, almost slow enough to allow catching up with non-show sales and show follow-ups, but this year I didn't get a break.

Part of the story is that independent bookstores are back in a big way, and those who always bought bargain books are buying more, while new bookstores are trying it out and older bookstores that never bought bargain before are starting to work it into their business plans. I also felt that there were more international customers at the show, at least shopping with and talking with me. There were quite a few years where I did not see as many as before travel to the USA became such a challenge for many of them, so maybe there is something going on there that makes it easier, or maybe they are just dealing with it, but they were shopping for bargain books this year.

One observation that I had in previous years was also magnified this year, which is that customers who shopped the pre-show were very different from those who did not. The international customers, with a few notable exceptions, do not shop pre-shows and often only shop at Book Expo and other international fairs such as London and Frankfurt. Local booksellers tend to shop the pre-shows more than the official shows. Then there are the exceptions, those buyers who shop the pre-show and Book Expo, spending time and money with the same suppliers at both. 

Beating my drum once again, if you are not buying bargain books to sell to your bookstore's customers, here is one more bit to think about. The most successful booksellers in the world (seriously) shop the same bargain wholesalers twice within a few days, spending big money on airfare and hotel bills to do so. Maybe you need to rethink your buying strategies. 

More thoughts about trade shows:

Thursday, May 21, 2015

New Books... Again

There are so many ways bargain books differentiate your bookstore from your competition. Being the beautiful physical packages that they were at full price, now at great new prices, changes what they are and how your customers perceive them. They are, in effect, new books again, creating new fans in a new space in a new market. Books which you might not have seriously considered when new now sell by the stack. You can fill more niches more customers are looking for.

When I see them at the warehouse in all their multitudes, millions of them, in their rows of pallets, arranged in aisles, stretching off into the distance, all surprises waiting to be opened, they are different than what they were when new, better in many ways. I find an intriguing cover, read about the author, or the place where the events in the novel occur, or where the chef has her restaurant, or the scientist first discovered his amazing discovery, and I think of the bookstores in those places. When I connect the book to the bookstore it is a different experience for the buyer than when the book was new. Buyers have another mind set as they consider who their customers are for this book.

While the big discount is the motivating factor in buying bargain books, there is more to the appeal than price. Many of these books were good sellers as new books, many still are. Some have been on backlists for years or decades, never quite selling so few as to be remaindered. Some have been remaindered and are no longer available from the publisher in any format. When they appear in a new space in your bookstore, occupying a corner on a table in a high traffic area, your customers consider them with fresh eyes, most picking them up for the first time. When you shelve a copy or two in your category sections, your customers now find so much more by the authors they were looking for.

Stacks on tables sell more books than shelves, but many backlist titles do not sell enough when stacked to pay for the square foot. This changes when they are bargain books, stacked on tables with other bargain books, as their sales double or triple.

If your bookstore sells both new and bargain, you tend to be biased toward data generated by new book sales. If a book sold great new, you assume it will sell well as a bargain book. You focus on bestsellers and bestselling authors, current and recent (unless you also sell used books, then you might know better). You look at books that did not sell so well when new and you assume it will not sell well in bargain. Frustrating for those of us selling bargain books to booksellers, this effect carries over to buyers who once only bought bargain and now buy new as well, even if those same buyers once poked fun at other buyers for missing this most important point in bargain bookselling. That data is hard to check at the door to the buyer's office.

One of the lists I (and probably a lot of other reps) produce on a regular basis is a "Sellers" list, showing just what has sold at least 10 copies in the last week, or 50 in a month, or some such metric. It is interesting how eclectic and unexpected a lot of these lists are. You never know what's going to sell in bargain until you put a stack in front of your customers and watch it go.

The fact is that books which did not sell well as frontlist or backlist make the best selling bargain books. This does not change just because you can now look at any amount of data showing that a title was a so-so seller as a new book. Part marketing, part packaging, part placement, and part good bookselling, bargain books are a whole new way to make books sell and make your customers happy, even if booksellers have been making profits grow with them for decades.

What do other booksellers have to say about bargain books and how to use them to grow your bottom line and customer base? I asked them:

More thoughts about buying and selling bargain books:

More about picking the best of the best... or not:

Hints, tips, advice, and nagging for bargain booksellers:

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Not in My Bookstore: Remainders and Author Events

Author events are huge opportunities to promote your bookstore. They raise customer awareness and create a sense of community between you, your bookstore, your customers, and authors. You are likely to sell more books, signed or not.

It seems that a rule of thumb among bargain buyers at bookstores, probably at the behest of the event coordinators and trade buyers, is to avoid displaying bargain books by authors who are doing book signings with them at any time in the foreseeable future, near or distant.

I get it. You never know if your author is going to be one of the few with an irrational fear of bargain. They probably are not, but the risk doesn't seem worth it. I would probably feel the same way. If you bring in a stack of their books, even a few months ahead of the event, and they sell out quickly and are forgotten, they show up in the hands of the customers waiting in line to buy the new title, in hopes that they can get this one signed too. Or the bargain book is the only one they want signed. Yikes.

Many, if not most, authors understand the effect bargain books have on their sales, which is to say, they grow them. Readers who had not tried them before buy one of their books off the bargain table on impulse and become fans for life. They buy the author's next book as soon as it comes out. But one of your responsibilities as event coordinator is to make sure your authors are as comfortable as possible coming into your bookstore and even asking them about this might seem a bit too awkward.

Booksellers would rather have the sale than know their customer is buying a "used" copy on the internet for "pennies," even though the bargain book still costs less because there are no shipping charges, and it usually costs less than the e-version as well. Bargain books are another way to ensure that the connection between your bookstore, the author, and your customer remains intact.

If this bargain book avoidance is something you practice, I would recommend that you moderate it a bit and buy the bargain books, just don't display them during the three or four weeks before the author's event. Wait a bit after the event, maybe until the next weekend, then do a display on your bargain tables. Customer interest in this author will be at its peak and you will generate some new readers for their works.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Feeling Good in the Bookselling Neighborhood

When I sell books to a bookstore, I send the buyer a list and the buyer sends it back to me after entering order quantities. Or I visit their bookstore and show them samples and jackets and write up the order there. Sometimes I meet the buyer at a trade show. Occasionally customers call in their orders. I call customers when I have pallet or truckload offers to sell. Since those can only be offered to one customer at a time, it's better to get the no's as quickly as possible so I can move on to the yes. Once I showed a buyer samples in my trunk in a parking lot at Newark International Airport. He was passing through and it was the only way we could make it work. It felt very... New Jersey.

On rare occasions I am asked to put together an order. The buyer will give me a dollar figure or a number of books or titles and ask that I hit those numbers. Categories might be specified, though not so much. These buyers usually know me and I know their bookstores and what works. One would think this would be the easiest kind of sale, but it is not for me, though they are one of my personal favorites. 

I sweat the details. I look at the sales history, try to determine what are the duds, what are the unexpected gems, the sleepers, the bestsellers. I look at the location, what the customer base might be, if there are schools nearby, what kind of recreation is in the area, what problems the region or town might be facing. All my pontificating about how buyers and their customers make bestsellers happen between them fades away when I'm doing this work. 

I produce an order, then go through it, wondering what the heck I was thinking. I delete 50% and start over. It wasn't this hard when I was a buyer working for a bookstore, or when I had my own bookstore. Then I knew my customers, sometimes so much so that we were friends. I knew the people I was buying for. This is something you can't know if you are hundreds of miles away from your customers' customers.

To be clear, I am not making a point here about buyers who buy for chains. They have a different operating plan, one in which they need to pinpoint the bestsellers that did not quite run the whole course before shuffling off to the backlist. They might find ten or twenty titles on a list and they buy high enough quantities that these few titles can be stacked in hundreds of locations. 

The bargain book buyer at an independent bookstore tends to buy much broader, usually between 100 and 400 titles per order, in very small quantities, all the way down to singles. They might buy 10s and 12s of a few proven bargain table bestsellers, and 5s and 6s of bread and butter basics like early readers, local authors, and classics (another subjective term), but most of the rest of their orders are 2s, 3s, and 4s, from many categories and price points. This is how they keep their customers coming back for more, creating an interesting, fun, enticing mix, changing all the time. And this is the kind of buyer I try to be when a customer asks me to put together an order for their store.

As much as it triggers my OCD, I love this particular job. It is one type of sale where I have to completely know my list, where I get to really submerse myself in the books. I feel like I am helping the bookstore and its customers in ways I don't often get to do.

So my plug for bargain books for this post: 
Bargain Books: Buy Them Because They Make You Feel Good  

Monday, March 30, 2015

Booksellers On What's So Great About Bargain Books

Why do so many booksellers put so much time and resources into making and keeping bargain books a big part of their bookstores? I asked a group of bookstore buyers and owners and the response was consistent and humbling.

A buyer at a bookstore that sells new books, this one with a large bargain department that could be its own bookstore, said: "Bargain books can create positive word-of-mouth in the community.  When people talk with others about a full-price book they talk about the book and not where they bought it. But when it's a bargain, that becomes part of the story they tell -- I just got this great book for $4.98 at such-and-such bookstore."

He continued: "And on a personal note -- booksellers are fellow travelers with many low wage folks. So I always get a thrill ringing up a customer with a stack of bargain books. I'm incredibly happy that they got such a great deal on books they want to read."

An owner / buyer at another bookstore that sells new books said she loves "having a great selection of kids' bargain books.  There are tons of gems out there if you look for them.  Kids go through so many books and new books add up quickly.  Even more important, I see families who probably would never buy their child a $17 book and who wouldn't even go down to our kids room, pick up bargain books outside the store.  We're putting books into kids' hands who might not otherwise get to have their own books." 

[I have always felt that part of my mission is to put more books into the hands of more people, including many who could not otherwise afford them, so it's always good to hear from booksellers who feel the same way.]

From another buyer at another bookstore that sells new books: "Aside from the obvious stuff, remainders are fun, in that the selection for both customers and buyers is unpredictable." 

[I always mean to, and forget to, stress the fun aspect of bargain. Many buyers and booksellers, on both sides of the buying counter, including me, talk about this as being one of the reasons for buying bargain.]

She continued: "It’s not just the latest/hottest stuff, it’s books you always wanted to read but forgot about when their moment passed. It’s books you loved and now can buy for all your friends. It’s art books at prices younger/budget-constrained people can afford—it makes art less elitist. The lower prices allow readers to experiment and indulge curiosities they can’t when new hardcovers are $25-plus and 'paperback' no longer means cheap." 

"I think it’s really the variety and constant surprises that I like most. That’s why I’d always rather get new stuff in than restock titles I've had before (except at Christmas: have to have those books customers saw back in June…the perfect thing for Uncle Bob!)."

[Other buyers reorder much stock that sells out and develop bargain bestsellers in this manner.]

From a buyer at a bookstore that sells both new and used books: 
"The thrill of the hunt has always been a personal reason why I like bargain. This means searching in the most unlikely places, the relatively small quantities, and being quick with responses, with the better books being limited in supply. Testing your book knowledge against the clock,  and all those other great buyers."

He continued: "Definitely add-on sales. We always have people buying new books, a few bargain books, and a sideline or two. The other thing worth mentioning perhaps is that you can market bargain tables like new tables- staff picks, coordinated displays, etc. I think it’s such an afterthought for most bookstores."

[It's interesting that so many bookstores which have made themselves experts in bargain have done the same with sidelines.]

From an owner / buyer at a used bookstore: 
"Bargain books have changed over the years. I used to use them to fill categories that were not coming in the door fast enough. I bought a lot of history, science, philosophy and other non-fiction. They really allowed me to fill in and keep a well rounded store."

[I recommend that bookstores selling new books use this category-building capacity of bargain as well, especially in sections such as poetry, philosophy, history, and art. With little effort and expense, you can greatly expand the variety and sales in any category.]

He continued: "Bargain books now seem to be more about returns from big box stores. So they allow me to keep mid-list inventory in stock. Thus I am buying more fiction, kids and art books. I can now get good pop-up books that are not broken.

Bargain books are great for window displays. I'd say more than 3/4 of the books in my window are from remainder dealers. They look nice, and when people want them, I can pull from overstock rather than having to redo my window every day."

[Again, this works for all bookstores.]

From an owner / buyer in the college market:
"We often find books that are used as course adoptions- we can price hurts in relation to their retail price at times rather than benchmarking their net price- offering sale books that come from titles in active circulation ( hurts ) gives us a chance to offer sale prices on books that people are still paying full price and that generates the sense of a bargain even greater than a remainder find."

This from an owner/buyer at a bookstore that sells new, used, and bargain:

"We started as a 500 sq ft used bookstore, expanding over the decades to 5,000 and then to 10,000 sq ft with the addition of new books and sidelines. However, the used books have always continued to be a big draw and we soon realized that the demand for used books far exceeded the supply. That's when we discovered remainders. Knowing our customers' interests in new & used books helped us to select remainder titles that turned over very rapidly. Bringing our new-book buyer to trade shows and remainder warehouses offered her the opportunity of filling out whole sections of the store with only a modest investment -- e.g., crafts, art, photography, memoir."

And he wrapped up with the kind of financial details I don't see much of and am very thankful to this bookseller for sharing:

"Last year we grossed $265K in remainders, 6-7% of our total sales. Purchases were $147K for a net of $118K, a 55% gross margin. Sweet."

I also heard from buyers, owners, events coordinators, and other booksellers saying that bargain books help with customer retention, always being interesting and drawing them back in. A customer running short on time, shopping on their lunch break, might come back on a day off to get a longer look at the bargain tables. 

Others say it's like saying "thank you" to their customers. Some of these under-price bargain, cutting their margins on targeted categories to make the prices so low they become a topic of conversation among their customers and help spread the word about their bookstores, reinforcing the first buyer's point.

Everybody seems to value the impulse sales that bargain brings in. The strategically placed bargain table can multiply sales when customers, walking to the areas of the bookstore where they will find the books they came in to buy, can't resist the great titles at great prices they see on the way, or that are stacked near the point of purchase.

Booksellers whose businesses rely heavily on off-site sales, such as college bookstores with buy-back events, children's bookstores running school book fairs, or any bookstore doing kiosks at convention centers during expos, often report using bargain to stock these events between 50% and 100%.

Finally and importantly, customers sometimes tell booksellers that they first started reading real books because they were in the bookstore with their child or friend or significant other and saw something interesting on the bargain table, bought it on impulse, and discovered that the reading experience was so much better than reading on an e-reader.

That should kindle your interest in bargain!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Own Your Bestseller List

When I was an independent sales rep, before I came back to Book Country in January, I indicated "Sellers" in my lists. In the beginning, my only criteria was that I sold 10 or more copies of a title within a week. After the first couple of years in business, entire lists began to look like best-seller lists, so I raised the bar a bit. Anything that sold 10 copies to one customer on one order became a "Seller." I would also do cumulative totals every few weeks and add anything that sold 25 or more altogether within that period. Later I raised that to 20 and 50. 

Why was this such an exercise in moving targets? I always thought it was because I had such a great variety of customers, almost all of whom were small to mid-size independent retailers, including bookstores, discount variety stores, used bookstores, and internet marketplace sellers. If I saw the results of sales to thousands of customers from a huge, single, and more stable title list, I reasoned, I would see less variety, less change, and more titles that were once actual bestsellers on the national lists. 

Well, here I am with a huge list, and the best sellers are more varied than ever. It is as if every single bookseller in the world has a different idea of what sells on their bargain tables, or bargain page, or book fair... or shoe store... 

Some of the largest buyers of remainders and bargain books buy very broadly, sometimes buying thousands of titles per order, but most of these big customers buy narrowly and deep. This is why I and many other folks selling bargain books to independent bookstores constantly tell their customers that one of the best ways to differentiate themselves from their competition is to buy bargain, broadly and frequently. If you buy what makes sense to you to merchandise in your bookstore, the bookseller a few blocks away will be buying something almost completely different, and the chain store at the mall will not buy a single title you pick. That scenario may not hold 100% of the time, but it's pretty close.

It can be amusing how one buyer will laugh at another's picks. They don't do this at trade shows, and they don't do it knowingly, but there have been so many times I have gone from one account to another, showing jackets or samples, and the second buyer will pass up most of what the first buyer bought, sometimes commenting on how I thought to show them such dreary stuff. Meanwhile, the guy across town is selling those very chestnuts to his customers all day, often the same customers. I'm not saying they're wrong. They can often show me dusty stacks of those titles the other guy is buying. Nothing puts the indie in independent like bargain. 

I think the best illustrations for this dynamic are the internet marketplace sellers. They have various algorithms and software to show them what will work best, basically processing the lists without looking at them. One would assume they would all buy almost exactly the same titles in very much the same quantities, but they don't. They also have their own customers, skewing their numbers whether their presence is detected or not. 

Of course there is popcorn at the movie theater. Some books you could not stop from selling to everybody if you submerged them in water for 3 months. Okay, that might slow them down a bit, but you know what they are. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman or Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs come to mind. Or any children's book with stickers... Or any good mixed drink recipe book... (I guarantee that over half of the buyers reading this post are thinking "What's he talking about? Why would anybody buy any of that?")

Another bestseller list I once produced was my "Daily Bestseller List." This was just whatever sold best that day. If I had a slow day, it might be something that sold 10 copies. The interesting thing about that list was how almost nothing repeated. There were a few titles that came back a few times, but over the course of the years I kept it up, a small handful showed up more than once. It was a popular page here, generating lots of views, but clearly, my customers, if they were looking at it at all, saw it as a curiosity.

Speaking of my customers, you patient, long suffering lot, I am not berating you, only pointing out, in a round-about way, how well you know your stuff, because if you did not, you would not be so incredibly successful for all these decades we have known each other. This post, as all of mine are, one way or another, is aimed at the readers who are thinking of getting into bookselling, and the booksellers who are thinking of getting into bargain. Get in and stay in. Buy wide and shallow, at least to start. Trust your gut, but take chances too. Listen to your customers and your staff. Create your bargain bestsellers. And have fun. 

For more of thoughts about bargain best-sellers (bestsellers, best sellers... more iterations mean more page views!), see these posts:

On the concept of building your list:

About focusing too narrowly on your bestsellers:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Distant Relations

In our warehouse in McKeesport, here in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, about an hour's drive from Pittsburgh International Airport, Book Country Clearing House stocks between 10 and 12 million books in a 300,000+ square foot warehouse. 

This is a sight to behold and can't be appreciated without coming here and walking every aisle on both floors. And buyers do exactly that. I have harangued my customers and prospects for years about buying bargain books. Many do buy, though I (of course!) think they should buy way more. Some prospects say they are not for them, they're not worth the trouble. 

Really? I had a customer last week who traveled from Nigeria to visit out little warehouse. Buyers come from Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, England, Austria, Canada, Australia, India... I should also mention they come from New York, Seattle, Portland (both), Omaha, and Los Angeles. I'm just rattling off the ones I can think of off the top of my head, there are way more. These buyers are not vacationing. They are not on a bookseller's holiday. This is hard work. They work for hours and days in very cold or very hot conditions, on their feet for hours at a time.

The conversations I have with some of them can be enlightening. One, who owns 3 bookstores somewhere in the USA, said he started buying bargain about twenty years ago, but did not put them in all three stores. He gradually added them and now, in the third store, he sees a 20% sales increase because of bargain.

So if you are a buyer thinking of dabbling in remainders and wonder if it's worth the trouble, all I can say is yes, but don't dabble. Dive in head first. There are so many booksellers spending so much time, resources, and effort to do this, and they are not doing it for fun. They rely on bargain as one of the pillars supporting their business.

The best part is, you don't have to visit our warehouse to buy from us. We have way more customers who buy from our lists every day. I'll walk you through the process if you need help, but it's so easy and your customers and bottom line will thank you.

Sorry to cut this short, but I must go to the airport to pick up a customer.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Dear Author

I'm a remainder guy. Why would I be writing a post directed to authors in my bookseller oriented, remainder focused blog? Stranger still: Why are so many of the folks who read my blog, between publication dates, authors? I get a whole bunch of readers when I first publish a new post, and on that first day it's mostly booksellers, and it seems most of them are reading that new post and then going back to the business of selling books and paying their local taxes. Between post dates, however, which is usually 10 days to two weeks, my readership becomes more authors and fewer booksellers, and more of them read a lot more of the blog than the new post. All of which is to say, I know you're there! Don't get all "who me" now.

Very recently, the day before I wrote this post, I had the pleasure of working with a couple of booksellers in Book Country's massive warehouse. They spent about 7 hours there and managed to scratch a small portion of a small part of the surface and ended up with about 3000 very carefully chosen (and lovingly sold) books. One of them, toward the end of a long day of mostly standing and working hard, including the part where she continued to stand and work while she ate lunch, indicated a book she had just picked. She told me about how she had first read the book as a galley she got from another used bookstore, around the time it was published. It turned out to be excellent and she recommended it to several of her frontlist friends, booksellers who sell new books. Many of them ordered the title for their holiday season and it sold very well, going on to eventually become a best seller. There were lots of print runs and reorders and happy customers and royalties for the author. 

Word of mouth recommendations are possibly the most important sales motivator for books and their authors' future works. Word of mouth among booksellers can sink or launch a new work, a new author, a new publishing venture. Booksellers are your most important friends. This is a dynamic which may have shifted recently due to e-books and other goblins, but it has shifted less than you might think and recently maybe even toward the opposite pole. 

Real books are making a comeback. Even if they were not, even if "only" 50% of all book sales were real books, the marketing potential of having your physical book in the hands and on the shelves of real booksellers, not some virtual soap selling behemoth that has almost never made a profit, whose founders and employees couldn't care less about you, and whose guiding principals seem to revolve around the destruction of bookselling and any local businesses, it would still be extremely important what those real booksellers think of your work and how they feel about you. This can't be overstated. 

I know that many great writers are now being published exclusively in that e-world, and have never known what it's like to have their physical books in actual bookstores or on their readers' shelves. The path of least resistance now for an up and coming author is to go first into electronic self-publishing and market from there, both to readers and to publishers. Editors, who once worked with an author's manuscript, increasingly seem to get their material from that universe, letting the works vet themselves in e-land before being given a chance in print. Lots of wonderful works are being discovered this way, though one then wonders what the editors are doing in the equation. 

In my previous posts I talk a little about how, if real book sales flattened out or declined slightly in the worst of the onslaught, and e-books are selling at such huge numbers, if you do the math it means that real book sales are incredibly resilient and that a very large portion of those e-book sales are to new readers, people who were not already reading, let alone buying, real books. This has to mean that lots of those customers will start buying real books when they discover them, and this seems to be starting to happen. I think the same curve might apply to authors who only publish in an e-format. There are a lot of them, thousands and thousands, and a lot of them are very good. I know booksellers who snort at this kind of talk, but it is clearly true. Many have large followings and broad readerships. If the publishers are letting the market find authors this way, it could be one of the best up-sides of the whole industry. New readers are becoming new book buyers and new e-authors are becoming the next generation to fill bookstores and libraries with great literature.

My mother was a published author. My son has written a few novels and is trying to get them published. I tried, with absolutely no hint of success, to write a novel. I know how hard this is. I've been present, both as a child and a parent, when rejection slips or emails arrive (hence my dim view of the material residing between editors' ears). I also know how great a role booksellers play in the first steps of a book's life.

So, to the big name author who might stumble upon this blog: Booksellers have supported you for so many generations. They worked very hard to get you recognized, to bring your work to new readers, to place your books in the hands of people who will bring you more readers. This is something that cannot be communicated other than by authors and booksellers who know what I'm talking about. This goes beyond handselling or smart use of co-op advertising. These are the people who can create success for authors, and they can do it in their sleep. So, if you are standing in a beautiful bookstore, where you've been courted and wined and dined and now you are about to do your talk and sign, try to keep in mind that booksellers are pretty good at the whole social media thing, they see what you post right when you post it. Yes, I mean the bookseller standing right there... no, there, 10 feet away. The one that paid your limo fare from the airport out of his own pocket because the publisher would not pick it up. See how he is looking at his smart phone? Please wait at least until you get back to your hotel room before tweeting "or buy the e-book for $0.99 at tonight!" Just a thought. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Told Ya So: The Sequel

I hate to say I told you so, but... well, I love to say it in this case. Back two and a half years ago, on July 25, 2012, I posted this at

"Another spate of ominous statistics have been in the press lately. Again, I am struck by their repetitive and somewhat contradictory nature.

If hardbacks have been eclipsed by e-books, why are their numbers flat or slightly down year over year? Not much of an eclipse. If this is the case, then adding the number of readers necessary to say that they are being outsold by e-books means an awesome number of people are now reading books who were not previously doing so. Some among them will inevitably discover that actual books are better for them and they will become actual book buyers.

There are also statistics in the press (now I am thinking of Campus Marketplace, a NACS publication) which show a clear and strong preference for actual books among college age people. This is striking on so many obvious levels I won't get into it here. Suffice it to say that this group is as important to all of us booksellers as any, and they don't like e-books anywhere near as much as they like real books.

In July of 2010 Amazon said something like paper would be eclipsed by e-books by the end of 2011. Now an oddly similarly worded phrase shows up at Huffington Post. Still trying to eclipse, they're not quite convincing everybody.

Let's just keep reading our real books. The market will sort itself out."

And a year earlier, more of the same with a darker slant since the rosy picture had not quite yet come into focus, and with more about the paper-mind connection:

"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 by 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."

Now, back to 2015, it appears the trade press and others are realizing books, real books, are here to stay. E-book sales are dropping, real book sales are rising, the hundreds of thousands and millions of additional book readers that e-books have created (thank you so very much, e-books!) have been picking up real books and saying "Wow! These are amazing!" and going to their local bookstores and buying them and local libraries and checking them out.

When I started making this point about real books and reading almost four years ago, I thought I could express it once and be done with it, but kept coming back to it as I would see the negative press regarding real books. I felt like I had to say something on their behalf. Now I am hoping this will be it. Apologies for the rehash, but I want the positive vibe to carry forward and if my small voice can help that happen, so much the better.

The turmoil in our industry is not over and will never be over, but if your bottom line is not where it should be, if you're hanging on to your bookstore by your finger nails, please try to hang in there a bit longer. If you have had a phenomenal couple of years, but still wonder if this is some strange last hurrah, maybe instead you should wonder if it is time to expand. 

Just make sure when you do to put in a lot more space for bargain!