Inside Publishing: What Every Writer Should Know About Bookselling

By Caitlin O'Neil | Poets & Writers Magazine, May/June 2006

You've landed the book deal and delivered your manuscript. It's been edited and designed; a marketing and publicity plan has been put into place. Now it's time to saunter into your local bookstore and bask in your accomplishment, right? But once you're inside the store, where exactly should you look for your book? On the front table with the new releases? In the fiction or poetry section? And what if, after you've browsed around, you find that it's not there at all?

Most authors believe once their books hit the shelves the work is over. But as in all things publishing-related, there's a behind-the-scenes process that determines if, where, and how your book is stocked. It's a process every author should know.

All bookstores have a bookbuyer-at the chains, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, there tends to be a corporate buyer who orders inventory for all stores. But the potential still exists for individual booksellers to have an impact. Borders, for example, purchases a core group of books, but they also solicit input from stores. "Booksellers can submit titles they think would be good for their store, a local poet's book that may not have been published by a large publisher or bought initially for that store," says Tom Dwyer, Director of Trade Books for Borders Group.

At independent booksellers, the buyer may be the bookstore owner or manager. Several factors inform their decisions, but basically buyers order books that they think will sell well among their clientele.

With upwards of 200,000 books being published annually, it would be impossible for buyers to be aware of each and every one. It falls to publishers, then, to get the word out about what's forthcoming. They usually do this by sending out seasonal catalogues, which feature books that will be published in the fall, winter/spring, and summer seasons, -and through visits from sales representatives.

Once a book is scheduled for publication, the publisher devises a marketing plan, which they then present to the in-house sales force that will bring it to bookstores across the country. While the marketing plan is crucial for sales reps, buzz for a particular book sometimes happens beforehand. "People talk about word of mouth with consumers, but it really starts with the editors and marketing departments. They read the book and get word of mouth going in-house," says Carl Lennertz, Vice President of Sales, Independent Retailing, HarperCollins.

While big, bankable books are publishing's bread-and-butter, it's often the dark horse that gets sale representatives most excited. "It's like going to the Kentucky Derby. The favorite, the horse with good breeding going at even money, it's good to see that horse win. It's a historic moment," says Ruth Liebmann, Director of Independent Bookselling for Random House. "But it's also good to see the six-to-one horse that didn't come from a fancy background win too...With mid-list books, you want to keep an open mind."

After the catalogues are sent out, sales reps follow-up and meet face-to-face with booksellers to help them order the right mix of books for their shelves. This usually occurs six months before a book's publication date. Publishers want their reps to hit the streets early to give their titles the best advantage. "There is only so much money in a bookstore's budget," says Lennertz. "You don't want to be the fifth publisher in the door with a first novel set in Yugoslavia."

A bookseller can't read all the titles in a publisher's catalog so they often rely on their rep's advice. "All the publishing house and independent reps have been selling to Powell's for years," says Gerry Donaghy, Backlist Inventory Supervisor at Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon. "They know our clientele as well as we do."

"My sales reps have a good sense of the store," says Gayle Shanks, co-owenr and buyer of adult books at Changing Hands Bookstore, an independent seller in Tempe, Arizona. "They know I have a young staff of avid readers. They get galleys into their hands," she says. Last year People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia (McSweeney's Books) became popular with her staff and wound up selling 141 copies.

"No matter how much business is done with e-mail and computers," says Liebmann, "if early copies get out and are read by enthusiastic readers, you can make the magic happen."

Some buyers rely less on reps' advice than others.. "I've fought my reps on things, in particular for international fiction," says Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Robinson Booksellers in New York City. "In the echo-chamber of publishing, you can make decisions based on preconceived notions of what will work, and lose the ability to think differently."

For small presses without the means to hire their own sales force, there are distributors, Small Press Distribution (SPD), Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, and Publishers Group West. SPD, which is the largest and is located in Berkeley, California, works with approximately 500 publishers to distribute 1,000 new books a year. "We're a nonprofit, championing material that is not aimed at a commercial market," says deputy director Laura Moriarty.

SPD promotes its members' books through an extensive catalog and frequent e-mails that are tailored to booksellers' needs.

SPD's model helps independent presses and bookstores streamline the process of buying titles from independent pressses. "A Washington D.C. bookstore isn't going to order from a small press in LA and one in Nebraska," says Moriarty. "SPD allows them to get books from those presses in one transaction."

One important way bookstores decide what to order is by using their computerized inventory control systems, which track how many copies a particular book has sold.

When deciding whether or not purchase a new title, buyers can look up the sales figures of similar books to assess how popular they are. "We look at subject trends too. Is fiction growing more popular? Thrillers?" says Bob Wietrak, Vice President of Merchandising at Barnes & Noble.

Inventory control systems also help buyers determine the number of copies to buy. "We get daily sales figures," says Wietrak. "If a book is selling well, we'll reorder. If it's only been purchased for a small group of stores, we'll expand distribution."

Although inventory measurement looms large in buying decisions, so do personal taste and local ties. "My inventory system will tell me how well the last book did. I can see that the last time Bill Bryson had a travel log, I sold ten copies the week it came out, so I'll figure on that again," says Shanks. On the other hand, for a first book like Alice Steinbach's Without Reservations (Random House), her initial buy was two copies. "But once I'd read it and loved it, I ordered ten more, because I knew I could sell it. After I'd built a market for it, I ordered ten of [Steinbach's] second book right off."

As a poet herself, Jan Weissmiller, the poetry buyer at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, generally knows what she wants to order. "Every year we have 60 poets in town [at the nearby Iowa Writer's Workshop] wanting to read as much as they can." But Weissmiller has also noticed a new poetry audience emerging, a broader, more populist strain of fan. "NPR has fostered this larger audience by broadcasting Garrison Keillor's The Writers' Almanac and interviewing poet laureates like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser. Seven or eight years ago I sold far fewer books by poets like Collins, Kooser, and Mary Oliver than I do today."

Once a bookseller has decided which books to stock, reps then place the order with the sales rep or through a distributor (like SPD) or directly through a wholesaler. Wholesalers, like Ingram Book Group, stock a large variety of titles from all kinds of publishers, making the purchase process one-stop shopping for bookstores and libraries. "We buy from everyone and sell to everyone," says George Tattersfield, Director of Merchandise at Ingram. "ÉSome authors think if they can get a book into Ingram, they are golden. But it's not true. We don't sell the book. We don't consult with publishers or advise them - except in a friendly way - about reprints or marketing." >Once a book is available in bookstores, it enters the homestretch, steps away from being sold. In-store placement on a new arrivals table and an end-cap or a face-out shelf display can boost its visibility to potential buyers. At Barnes & Noble these decisions are made at a monthly managers meeting. "We put all the books on the table and discuss which promotions would be the most exciting, which books coming in that month have the most sales potential, and make the decision about what will be featured that month," says Wietrak.

There's a common industry complaint about the front tables at chain stores are being bought through co-op advertising agreements with publishers, which allow stores to keep a percentage of the publishers net sales and put it toward marketing and promoting books. But McNally says the front table of her store is bought too. She sells placement to publishers too, but only for those books that she believes in. "In deciding what to carry, there are obvious choices. You take the Philip Roth paperback whether you love or hate him." But she makes sure there are surprises too. "Easter eggs hidden throughout the stacks, but always next to titles that are familiar to people. If you put out nothing but international fiction, or first-time novelistsÉ people will come in, have one look at the front table, and leave. It's not accessible."

To encourage readers to take a chance on new writers, Barnes and Noble established the Discover Great New Writers program, which features up-and-coming writers with fewer than three published works. A group of 20 people within the company -- Jill Lamar, director of the Discover Great New Writers program, and a constantly reshuffled mix of buyers and store managers -- reads the candidates and decides on a mix of titles. Selection means display on a featured shelf at stores across the country and eligibility for the annual Discover Awards in fiction or non-fiction -- both of which can lead to breakout sales. Borders runs a similar program called Original Voices.

On a smaller scale, the Changing Hands Bookstore has stocked an Emerging Writers bookcase for the past five years. "It's not the best-selling case," says Shanks, "but we've gone from selling zero copies to five to ten copies. Customers in search of something new now seek out the case."

Shanks also mentions Book Sense picks, a program of the American Booksellers Association in which a list of recommendations from independent booksellers are made available to member stores each month, as a great way to get new books into readers hands. "We've trained customers to look at that list. In fact this morning I had a customer ask for the Book Sense list because she is looking for her next good book."

While author track record, genre, acquisition price, and editor expectation all play a role in determining how a book is marketed, the good news for mid-list and first-time authors alike is that simple bookstore word-of-mouth can turn a book into a bestseller. This, in the industry, is called hand-selling.

"One of the best ways to sell a book is recommendations from booksellers," says Barnes and Noble's Wietrak. "Store staff can recommend a book to customer based on what's available in that store and what the customer has purchased in the past."

Powell's Donaghy believes that a knowledgeable staff is what sets independent bookstores apart. "People who work in independent bookstores have a reputation for being snooty. But you can't walk into Costco and say, 'I liked The Da Vinci Code can you recommend another book?' or say, 'I liked Italo Calvino,' and have an employee say, 'Then you'll like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.' Independent booksellers have an added passion. They can explain why a book struck them enough to buy it."

"To hand-sell, you have to read like crazy," says McNally. "People ask what book I am championing and I say you can't champion just one book. Everyone has different taste. You need to be able to say, 'If you liked that, you'll like this,' which takes time. You need to read enough so that you can make the right recommendation for each person."

It would seem that the chains couldn't compete with this kind of hand-on bookselling, but they do make an effort to serve their communities. "Every bookstore is local," says Barnes and Noble's Wietrak. "ÉIf a bookseller loves a book and it's doing well in that bookstore, we hear that all the booksellers have been reading it and recommending it to customers."Deb Gildea, Poetry, Photography, Architecture buyer for Borders, seconds that assertion. "A committed bookseller who selects titles and maintains great displays can have a huge impact."

Most booksellers agree that poetry is the most difficult genre to sell, but they also acknowledge that it has different rules. "The life of a poetry book is longer that that of a mystery. Reviews take longer to come out," says Border's Gildea. As the official bookseller of the Dodge Poetry Festival, Borders sets up a 10,000 square foot bookstore at the festival that offers children's and adult's books as well as audio formats to the 19,000 committed poetry lovers in attendance. Outside that captive audience, however, poetry can be a harder sell.

"People come in and are daunted by the array," says Changing Hands' Shanks. "If they don't know the poems, they may need to read for a while to see what they will like." Despite these complications, the store has had a few breakout poetry books, including The Theater of the Night (Copper Canyon Press) by Alberto Rios, a professor at nearby Arizona State University.

At Prairie Lights, Weissmiller curates a jammed packed poetry section with no room for face-out display, but she does offer a comfy chair where readers can sample the wares. "Many customers sit and read and see what they like. If they're moved by a poem, they'll buy the book."

"Poetry is famously the section that moves the slowest in a bookstore," says Brent Cunningham, operations director at SPD. "Buyers don't talk about it as much because it doesn't move. But they are also able to take more chances on poetry, buy stranger material, because the pressure to sell isn't there. The owner is not checking turnover in the poetry section."

Making space for old titles can mean there's no room for new books. Booksellers must constantly reevaluate a book's sales potential to determine if they will continue to restock it or return unsold copies to the publisher. Everything from publisher pressure to customer demand to bookseller intuition helps determine a book's shelf life.

When books don't sell, they're returned, which means that booksellers, who tend to buy books at a 40 discount, may return any unsold books to the publisher for a full refund or credit toward new books. When a book is returned, it is shipped back to the publisher, then remaindered and sold at used-book outlets at a steep discount. Books that can't be sold are pulped for a total loss. "Returns are a disappointment," says Shanks. "I leave hardcover fiction on shelves for six months and return paperbacks every nine months. There are always books to be returned, even books I'd order again tomorrow."

At Barnes and Noble stores, a computerized inventory system makes recommendations about reordering and returning. "If enough people come in and ask for the book, that store can order it due to demand. It's a good tool to get people what they want," says Wietrak. By the same token, when a book slows down or levels off, the chain will publish a return recommendation. But the individual store retains the power to return. "If a store in Kansas continues to sell a book, they can keep it. It's just a recommendation."

For independent booksellers, even blockbuster books can be a double-edged sword. "Harry Potter books are an albatrossÉ. We'll sell all the books we get, but we're tying up money to keep the sheer numbers we need in stock," says Powell's Donaghy. "When ordering we try to be as conservative as possible. If a book sits on the shelfÉ money that could be used to buy new books is tied up in inventory that's not selling."

McNally, like many booksellers, feels that she pays publishers for the right to return. "The problem with publishing is that reps are passing on pressures from the publishing house that are driven by large advances. Reps need to get out huge numbers of books to make them profitable." The ability to return helps McNally and other booksellers deal with the marketplace pressures as they tinker with the mix of titles on their shelves.

Technological advances have helped publishers make more precise sales projections and become more responsive to a reading public that is at times unpredictable. If a book takes off, publishers can restart production faster than ever. "Before sales projections [which typically chart a book's sales over 12 weeks] if a book sold ten percent more than predicted the first week, everyone freaked out," says HarperCollins's Lennertz. "Reprints would take four weeks and by the time they arrived, sales were slowing down. Now reprints take three to five days."

In addition print-to-order companies, a favorite of self-published writers and small presses, offer larger houses the chance to extend the life of a book. "It's a late in life strategy, when they can't justify a new print run," says Ingram's Tattersfield. (Imgram's sister company, Lightning Source, offers print-to-order services.) "It keeps the book in print. Sometimes a book gets into the program and there is a huge sales increase. A book group who couldn't get it before is able to buy ten copies."

As long as a book remains in print and on store shelves, there's always a possibility that it could breakout and become a best-seller. Or simply that a new reader will pick I up and buy it, extending its life one copy at a time.