So before I go into the individual categories of book buying, I want to talk about the overall process. There is a lot of information out there about the writing side of things and the editing process, but not so much about the process of book buying.
Deal or Sale Announcements
The sale listing is the first time I can hear about incoming titles. Sometimes sales are announced several months before release (Like E. Lockhart’s newest Genuine Fraud [affiliate link]. Announced sale January 2017, publishing September the same year) or even a few years in advance–I’ve been seeing a lot of 2019 and starting to see 2020 on the roster–not counting anything that may be postponed. The general lead time is between 18 months to 2 years from a sale being announced to the book being released.
Not all buyers watch the sales, but I do so, hey, it gets included. Why do I watch sales when all I get are a few names and a one sentence copy blurb about the book?
- If a blurb snags me, that is my first exposure to the book. I can recall this data in a year from now when I see the title in a catalogue.
- It gives me a heads up if there is an ARC I want to request.
- It tells me that the focus is of the large publishing houses and gives me an advance feel for the theme of coming seasons–and potential displays or promotions I could make.
New Release Catalogues
Next up is the dreaded catalogue. I will go into more detail about catalogues later but this is essentially the time that I drown in paper (or, worse, e-catalogues) showcasing book titles coming in a certain season.
I go through all the trade catalogues I get–rare creature, here–and try to get through all the academic catalogues I get. Why not all the academic catalogues even though I work in a university bookstore? Those are aimed at getting people to adopt the texts for their courses. The prices are usually prohibitive for casual customer spending. I try not to bring in paperbacks over $50.00 into the store. Hardbacks can push the limits even higher, but generally I’m only bringing in art and photography books if the price point is above $80.00.
Every season, I end up with a stack about two-three feet high of catalogues that I have gone through and need to recycle. Fall season is the exception: that one is usually four feet tall. These piles don’t even represent the e-catalogues I go through.
Publishing companies hire or contract sales representatives to spread the word about their titles to buyers, librarians, booksellers, and more. Given I am in charge of a sizable store, I tend to have more sit-down meetings with reps than smaller stores. When there is a Rep Fair, I have no time to sit aside and glance over an ARC or two. I generally see 5 reps each day, and cram so much knowledge into my brain, I can only write key words on the catalogues to spur my memory later.
Reps will go over the catalogues with me and tell me things that may not be easily communicated by the copy in the catalogue. After all, a lot of the books in the catalogues tend to be missing finalized covers, titles, and copy. I also get to ask more questions and use their knowledge base to tell me what I need to know (i.e. “Is this book more memoir or self-help?” I can only put the book in one section and I want to put it in the section where people looking are more likely to buy it).
My meetings with reps have lasted anywhere between half an hour (We’re done? Yay!) to eight hours in person AND a 3-hour phone call to cover some e-catalogues (Cue me slipping money to my assistants to get me another coffee).
Some buyers give reps their orders on the spot. I, however, go through all the catalogues again to finalize what books I want added after I have met with the rep. Sometimes I consider sales ranks of titles before I order them, but the most reliable data I have is what I have sold in the store before.
I go through all the titles and authors on my own, checking out sales from that author in the past. Unlike most algorithmic programs, I take in account the format of the book and which series the next book is coming out in. I don’t want to just wrong series against each other, just to have a glut of hardcovers in the wrong series or multiple customers special ordering in a book (or walking away).
News and Buzz
Between my catalogue sessions and when the books come out, I have my eyes on pre-pub buzz. Reps help with this, forwarding information on titles that are getting a lot of traction in the media and have reviews lined up. If authors have promotional interviews, I end up knowing about it. Reps do a really good job covering this aspect for their publishers.
If a book drums up a lot of news coverage, I will order more copies. There are even times when I have a title I originally passed on that is getting so much press, I reconsider and submit orders ASAP to get the title into the store by release date.
When the book arrives, we check the release date; it’s not always clear from how the distributor sends it. If the book has a strict-on-sale (SOS) date, the books tend to arrive with gigantic fluorescent stickers on them saying not to open them until a certain date.
Some titles are heavily anticipated and I have to sign affidavits for them, saying I will not stock them until the release date. There are your Harry Potters, Oprah Book Club Picks, and a few well-performing authors each quarter or so.
Reordering and Displays
Book buying is not a perfect science. If it were, I would be out of a job because a computer could do my job. You never know which books will take off, in which places, at what times. Some books sleep on your shelves for a while and scream with media just as you want to return them.
I watch sales of my sections, paying attention to the time of year, local events, and big releases. If I am running low quickly of a title, I order more ASAP. If I am seeing a big event coming up (like Canada’s 150th birthday or a movie release I can relate a bunch of titles to), I hedge my orders and get ready to stock displays.
At the end of a book’s life cycle in my store, I return unsold quantities that are still in pristine condition to distributors. Generally, the return deadline for most distributors is 12 months from invoice date. That means books get a shelf life of around 10 months in stores if there isn’t sales or demand for reorders.
A lot of bookstores survive not on frontlist titles that are heavily discounted by rival big-box or online stores, but on sales books. Publishers generally offer older titles or previous formats of books at heavily discounted prices for bookstore to purchase. These books are then brought in to stores to be sale stock.
While bookstores do get the best margins from books that are frontlist, sale books are generally purchased in large quantities and become profitable ventures for bookstores, especially smaller independents that don’t sell too many frontlist titles.