June 7, 2013

Casual Friday: How Bookstores Work

Some of you may not know this, but in a former life, I worked at a bookstore. I was officially the Events and Marketing Coordinator, but those jobs meant I had my hands in many different aspects of bookstore operations.

Since a lot of us on the writing side of the book industry don’t know a lot about the bookstore side (and it’s good stuff to know!) I thought I might pull back the curtain a little for you all. Ready for some trade secrets?

**Disclaimer: This is all based on my experience working in one medium-sized independent bookstore. Different bookstores might do things a little differently. Plus, my experience was a few years ago, and we all know how fast publishing has changed recently. In short, don’t throw too many things at my head if this doesn't quite line up with what you've experienced. That being said, these are pretty standard bookstore practices.  

(Or: Wow, there are a lot of books.) 

There are a lot of books out there, guys. A LOT. Just from traditional publishers, there are hundreds of thousands of new books out every year. There is no way even the biggest bookstores can carry even a small percentage of  all of them, and smaller stores really have to pick and choose what to devote shelf space to. 

So how do they choose? Well, it’s an inexact science. For instance, in any given season, stores might order a combination of:

-Big Books that most every store is going to carry (Dan Brown’s latest, for example). 
-Books that are buzzy for some reason (celebrity; new series from an established author; tons of marketing at BEA/another conference/direct store mailings and ARCs, etc)
-Store preferences like local interest or local author books or books that particular store tends to sell well
-Publisher incentives. Certain books might have a better discount percentage, more co-op, etc. 
-Sales rep recommendation. Sales reps are magical people who go from bookstore to bookstore every season and help buyers decide what they want. They know their publishers' catalogues and their stores' inventories and personalities inside and out, and can help steer stores towards books that would work for them. For instance, a buyer might know they’re ordering the new James Patterson and the first in a new YA trilogy they saw all over BEA, but a good sales rep can direct them to a quieter contemp deep in the catalogue they might not have noticed, but that the rep knows they’ll love. Seriously, hug your sales rep. 
-Other random things. A buyer's favorite author, a book with an especially catchy cover, something the kids' coordinator thinks sounds fun. 

Once the store has decided what to buy (the new season’s titles are called “Frontlist,” though stores can and do also order Backlist all the time), they generally have to return some books to make room for newer ones. (This is an incredibly simplified explanation of returns. For a much better explanation of this, and more on orders, see fabulous agent Jenn Laughran’s first Think Like a Bookseller post here. http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2013/05/think-like-bookseller-part-1-on-turns.html)

(Or: All those stacks of books on tables at the front of the store—they’re not just the booksellers’ favorites.)

Co-op is short for Cooperative Advertising, which means the publisher and the bookstore are cooperating to get the books in front of their intended audiences. What this means is that publishers pay bookstores (either by giving them actual money or by offering better discounts, etc) for anything from front-of-store placement to what we called “dumps” (not a very pretty name for those lovely standing cardboard displays full of a certain book) to featured placement in a store’s online newsletter, and even to something as simple as face-out placement on a book’s regular shelf. 

(Some featured books are also bookseller favorites, event books, etc. Not all are co-op, but many are!)

(Or: The fact that John Green has never visited your local bookstore doesn’t mean he doesn’t like your town.) 

Bookstore events start long before you meet the author. They start when a season’s books are announced, and publishers release which of their authors are
going on tour. 

For some tours, event locations are decided even before this point, but for many, bookstores can make requests. But the thing is, there are far fewer tour stops than bookstores that request them, so the bookstores have to write up very involved proposals and publicity departments have to consider each request and decide where to send the authors, based on all kinds of factors. What kind of venue is the bookstore proposing? How big an event do they anticipate? Any local connections? How has this bookstore done with similar events in the past (number of people at event, books sold)? 

So really, it’s a huge coups for any store to land a big author tour. If your local store does, make sure to attend, and buy books, because if a tour stop is unsuccessful, it’s harder to get further tours to come through. (This message from your friendly neighborhood former event coordinator!)

So! That’s a very general overview of just a few of the lesser-known aspects of bookstore life. Anybody have any questions? If you do, I’ll try to answer in the comments! 

Image By Stewart Butterfield (flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Dahlia Adler said...

Love this, Mags! This stuff is so important to authors and yet I feel like we have such a strong tendency to leave this stuff to others instead of being proactive ourselves. I love learning this stuff!

Marieke said...

Ooh, so interesting! Love hearing more about this :) Thanks, Mags! :D

Stephsco said...

Very interesting!

I live near Anderson's Bookshop in the Chicago suburbs and they host amazing authors--Judy Blume tomorrow, along with a screening of Tiger Eyes! They clearly have connections. I've seen so many great authors there, and I try to attend some smaller events to support authors who aren't as big a name, but sometimes the turnout for those are surprising. Any YA panel with 3+ authors is usually a good draw.

Maggie Hall said...

@Stephsco--Anderson's is a great bookstore, and those do sound like AMAZING events! And panels are so fun!

@Dahl and Marieke--yay! Thanks!

Sarah Hipple said...

Cool. It sounds pretty similar to working at a library, only, of course, library's don't really interact with the publishers (at least not at my local library).

So, want to tell us about the best event you hosted? And what author were you most excited to land for your bookstore?

Some of those Harry Potter release parties looked pretty cool.

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