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We are writers, but we are also book lovers.
Despite the changes with the digital revolution, most of us still haunt physical bookstores and still purchase physical books. I read 95% on the Kindle these days but I still purchase print copies of the books I specifically want to remember and I buy gifts in print.
One of my treats at the end of a writing day is to go and wander around a bookstore – sometimes Hatchards and sometimes my local indie. I bought a gorgeous print edition of Dante's Inferno the other day because of the raised demons on the cover. I'd just read it on Kindle but just wanted the pretty object!
Print will never go away, I truly believe that. So today I'm delighted to have an article from David Perez, author and bookseller at Moby Dickens in Taos, New Mexico. He covers some of the important aspects of being a bookseller that may puzzle authors and may also help you sell to bookstores more effectively.
By way of (brief) introduction, I’m a writer and published author working at Moby Dickens Bookshop, a locally owned, independent bookstore in Taos, New Mexico that’s been in business over twenty-five years. In my six years of “being on the inside,” so to speak, I’ve learned about the complexities, pressures—and joys—of the bookselling business.
At Moby Dickens, every staff member does a little of everything: ordering, receiving, customer service, and so forth. Some of us specialize, such doing out-of-print research, or handling author events. But we all have a working knowledge of the whole she-bang. In this spirit, let me share some of my experiences.
40 percent goes a long way
Like all retail establishments, we operate on its basic principle: Buy at wholesale, or discount, and sell at retail. For bookstores, however, there’s no “recommended retail price.” The price of the book is the price of the book.
As a rule, bookstores purchase inventory at a 40 percent discount, give or take. That 40 percent is what pays for everything: stock, salaries, rent, utilities, and a hundred and one items that one needs to keep a store running. That’s a small margin for profitability. So it’s an on-the-edge-business, which boils down to the central issue: You have to love books, their feel and smell, their ability to be passed down generation to generation. In turn, you have to love writers, love stories. For independents, you also have to embrace community and be able to go the extra mile for customers. Of course, none of this guarantees success. While an independent is not beholden to shareholders, you still have to be business savvy—and lucky too.
What to order and where to put it?
Ah, that’s the crux, isn’t it? Thousands of new titles are published in the United States every week. Add to that the zillions of already existing books and you got quite a chore deciding what to buy.
Every store is different. Some centralize the ordering, others delegate. However, it’s usually the owners who handle the budgetary considerations, which is a whole other question, maybe the question. After all, you can only order what you can afford, or anticipate that you can afford.
At Moby Dickens, we have about thirty “sections,” ranging from fiction to children’s to cookbooks to travel and so on. To keep informed about upcoming titles, we review catalogues, trade publications like Publisher’s Weekly, and various bestseller lists, including The New York Times, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and Amazon. Customers also recommend books. Often we monitor what other bookstores are selling, particularly in our region. Ordering is sometimes done through representatives, who sell on behalf of both publishers and distributors.
But, in addition to what the budget allows, there’s the question of shelf/table space. Where are you going to put all these books? How many copies can you order? How many can reasonably be face out (which is what we all want, right?)? Does ordering a book mean returning another book?
And ordering—not to mention receiving and shelving—has to be done in the middle of operating a store. Hopefully, you’ll be constantly busy tending to customers and business is brisk. Which returns us to square one: how does one find time to keep up-to-date with all these freaking books? The short answer is you can’t, but you do your best. With good planning and teamwork, you make the time and, somehow, it all works out.
‘What section does this book go in?’
At Moby Dickens, we ask each other this question all the time, and it illuminates a dilemma for us writers. In addition to space limitations, there’s the issue of what genre the book is in. Some are multi-genre, either by design or simply because of the topic. For instance, I follow the Metaphysical section and ordered a biography of Nicholas Tesla. One customer said it should really be in Science. I agreed. Another wondered why it wasn’t in Biography because that’s the section she browses through most and “would loved to have come across it.” I agreed with her too. But we often have money for only one book. So where to put Tesla?
And if you were the author, how would you categorize the book? Where would you want it to be mainly shelved? Which raises another interesting double-sided question:
What do customers look for and where do they go looking for it?
Well, everything and anything, I suppose. Some folks are “looking for whatever.” Some browse in specific sections, others for a specific book, or books by a specific author. Because we’re in the Southwest, many people look for books on the area. Because we’re a big art town, people shop for that too. Ditto stuff relating to the outdoors, like nature and gardening. In sports, the biggest sellers are skiing and fishing.
Our biggest selling section overall is Children and Young Adult, and I suspect this is widely the case across the country. If anything shows that books will never die, it is the popularity of this section. Not a day goes by without a child or teen smiling over a book. Many buy several. Yes, they have e-readers and text all the time. Yes, they read on Ipads and smart phones. But they still want the book.
Recently, we’ve added Kobo e-readers to our inventory, and have expanded our online business. Sales have been modest, which isn’t surprising since people come into our stores because they want physical books. That’s who we are; that’s what makes people say, “I’m so glad you’re still around.” They also love the fact that our Point of Sales system operates on DOS (!) and that we use a matrix printer (!!). That’s going to change soon, but it’s amazing how long we’ve lasted on such basic technology.
Returning to the issue of how book buyers shop, this segues to something of central importance to writers, which is:
Can you judge a book by its cover?
Absolutely. Do people always buy a book because of its cover? No. Many factors determine whether a book is bought, including blurbs, publisher recognition, the synopsis, and of course the price.
But a good cover can be decisive. We often get customers reacting, “This looks cheap, this looks like a self-published book.” Of course, it doesn’t have to be self-published to look cheap, for a cover to be less than appealing. And many self-published have gorgeous covers and equally gorgeous content. But a note to authors: Yes, spend time and money designing a great cover. Not just the images, but where the title goes, whether the cover is glossy or matte, etc.
Another FYI: Work overtime on your title. This is extremely important since the vast majority of books are shelved showing only the spine.
Consignments and book signings
Regarding consignment policies, which differ from store to store, I’ve grown to appreciate the dilemma for the owners who have to pay the bills. Each self-published author, each small publisher, becomes a vendor, meaning they’re the ones we order from and pay. Even though we’re a modest-sized store, we now have hundreds of vendors; this on top of the regular stack of bills to pay, like rent and payroll. I use to bristle when I heard of stores with strict consignment policies, or who charge the self-published author to stock their book. Now, I understand the bookstores’ difficulties, and its relationship to other challenges like shelf space.
But here’s the thing: we love when writers have published a book, especially when they’re local. We have author events all the time, and try to accommodate everyone. At times we can’t because of scheduling conflicts or other factors. Occasionally I’ve had an author wanting not just a signing, but also for me to read their book (you should see my reading list!) And I totally get it, being an author myself. Sometimes I can, many times I can’t.
What’s been interesting about all this for me is that, privately, I often suggest to fellow authors to focus their readings more on things like house salons or other non-traditional settings. Unless you’re a well-known author, or you have a large following in a certain city, bookstore events are a crapshoot at best. It can be very disheartening to get a small turnout, and it’s not beyond the pale to have no one attend. Of course, since I live in Taos and I work at the bookstore, I did my book launch there and all went well. But I’ve only done three other bookstores since WOW! came out in early 2011.
Like ordering, returns are a bookstore’s lifeblood. I’m the one who follows this area, so I’ve grown to appreciate its importance. In our bookstore, the bulk of our ordering is through three major distributors: Ingram, Baker& Taylor, and Partners West. Every return is credited to our account based on its discounted price. So, of course, we want to get as much credit as we can, which creates a certain “pressure” to return books. The balancing is delicate. How much time do we give a title to sell? Should it be placed on sale instead? What about new books we need room for? How much time does it eat up to actually do the returns, the packing, the shipping?
In ending, let me state that much of what I’ve painted has been with a broad stroke. There are exceptions to every rule, and the rules themselves can vary widely. There’s plenty I didn’t cover, like the question of used books, how we handle Advance Reading Copies, and more. Hopefully, you’ve received nice food for thought.
At Moby Dickens, we’ve benefited from being in Taos, a small town with substantial tourism and a reputation for being maverick, resistant to anything smacking of big chains. People love our store, even as we often struggle to stay afloat. But Taos is a part of a growing trend. For years, I’ve heard the question posed: Can independents save the bookstore business? An article in the Christian Science Monitor (March 18, 2013) called “Resurgence in the Shelves” gives a possible yes to the question.
In the feature article, writer Yvonne Zipp cites various pieces of hopeful news. According to a survey by the American Booksellers Association, sales at independent bookstores rose 8 percent in 2012 over 2011. Part of the reason is the closing of Borders. Another factor is the growing buy-local movement, which like farmers’ markets, bring customers not just for products, but also for atmosphere, a sense of community. Also, social media has allowed owners to expand marketing and outreach while keeping advertising costs down. Of course, stores still struggle and close, but more are taking the plunge. In another hopeful sign, John Mutter, editor in chief of Shelf Awareness, sees more young owners than he did five years ago.
So perhaps the future is bright for us little guys. Maybe it’s also about peaceful co-existence with the big guys. Whatever the case, writers will always find innovative ways to share their stories wherever and however.
Do you have any questions for David about independent bookstores? Or feel free to share your love for your local indie bookstore in the comments below.
David Pérez is the author of WOW!, a South Bronx “memoirito” about boyhood and Catholic school, and one of the winners in the Comedy Category of the 2012 Latino Books Into Movies Awards. WOW! was also a Finalist in Multicultural Non-Fiction for the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. David was selected “One of the Top Ten Latino Authors to Watch and Read in 2012” by latinostories.com. For more information and to order WOW! visit the author’s website at davidperezwow.com
Follow Moby Dickens Bookshop at www.mobydickens.com