Two Bookstore Operators Tell What They Need from Publishers

Susan Little, owner and operator of Jabberwocky, Newburyport, MA, since 1972.

The pressure is not so much big box bookstores as non-bookstore retail. They can sell the cream-of-the-crop big sellers for less than I can buy them, selling in K-Mart, Wal-Mart

I actually can buy single orders from Amazon and resell them at list price, whereas through a publisher I would have to pay a markup.

Amazon loses money on books, but they make their money in other ways. If you're an indy and work hard, you can beat them. We can get 80% of special orders in a day and a half.

Literate intelligent people know that indy booksellers need to survive.

Andy Laties, operator of the bookstore in the Eric Carle Museum and former owner of two children's book/toy stores in Chicago, Amherst, MA, author of Rebel Bookseller and part-owner of Vox Pop:

I was very surprised to seethe level of awareness about that in Amherst. In Chicago, they told us, we like those new stores.

Susan: Academics were the first to go to Amazon, and they killed the independent stores in the cities.

Andy: I can log on to SCB [a distributor] using my publisher's password and see where they're selling. Amazon is very important because it's an odd book and a lot of bookstores won't pick it up. It shares the characteristics that it's not a great bookstore book. It tells people they should open bookstores. He gave me a piece of his company instead of an advance. As a publisher, Amazon sells six copies a week.

Susan: BookSense websites can get books just as fast as Amazon. I have to turn my inventory 3x a year, minimum. Chelsea Green has these marvelous books on straw bale houses and wind, and for years they struggled along. There might be two people that come to Jabberwocky for that book. I can't have $20 invested in a book and make $10 on it once a year. So I can't carry that book. I wish the book industry were setup differently, I'm a maverick about returns. But if they go to an Internet site, there are 17,000 people looking for straw bale books online. So the more precise your niche, the more you can sell over the Internet.

Andy: This goes back to the decision making process of the small press. You have to look at different market channels, you produce n different price points, different formats for different markets. It may be possible for Chelsea to produce that information in a way that works for trade bookstores, or for giving it away free with consulting. Every publisher is shaped by the marketing channels that they know best.

I used to do children's theater and I kept telling the manager we could turn the material into books. I spoke to many different publishers and the response was we don't know how to sell that kind of book. They are fixated on how do we know how to make money—once you find a formula…

My publisher worked at a Kinko's in Manhattan and he was publishing short-run chapbooks on their equipment. The manager helped him incorporate. When Fortunate Son [critical biography of George W. Bush; see article about its suppression and republication] was recalled, he saw the NYUT article and contacted the agent. He sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but in the meantime he almost went bankrupt. That they had the one big-selling book made an enormous difference, and now he does political books. It may be entirely by accident that you develop expertise. It may be that the format of that Chelsea Green book makes it unsalable. Or maybe they should be working more closely with you to sell that book. It's very tempting to take the lessons and think we're finished learning. It could be that the experiment got stopped too soon.

Bookstores are an accident of personal contacts, what the bookseller was exposed to, what each staff member has read. There's an enormous amount of randomness. I can go into other people's bookstores and see many children's books I have never seen before. But inside my store, I feel incredibly knowledgeable. There's so much ignorance in each of us. As a publisher, you have to deal with our self-assuredness that we think we know. But if we exchanged locations, we'd do well. But I would not know how to assemble the inventory that you've got. There are 1/3 as many of us as there were 10 or 12 years ago. There are many fewer targets, 1700 vs. 5100. When we do take a book and it doesn't sell, we tend to hold on to it for six months

Susan: Or two years. I have a couple of titles where when I show them, and I show them repeatedly, I've not sold any. I've sold one copy, and it's a great book?

How publishers can be helpful:

Susan: The means by which you get information about your product. My mails are this tall [spreads hands over a foot]. I do most of my buying through publisher reps, and they take a lot of my time. They're wonderful, the independent reps who carry a multitude of lines. We work our way through a foot-high stack of catalogs and it takes a few hours. They present SCB, NBN, IPG [different distributors with small press titles]. And those I take the time to see. If you get your book picked up, I'll at least look at that catalog page. But if you mail it, you probably won't hit the buyer. I already work 12 hours a day.

[Andy noted later to this reporter that he doesn't like buying from reps, favors backlist, and stocks based on his own personal love for a book; direct mail can work with him.]

NEBA works, I only go to BEA every 2-3 years. I hit a lot of the university presses, but at NEBA, I don't even look at Random House, I look for the small guys. I once ran that show as a volunteer, in 1980. I ran the whole trade show with a nursing baby. I love the tables with one each of several books.

It's much harder to make my store work and I like that. I have picked up and tried a lot of stuff.

Andy: if you don't have a rep, speak directly to the buyers and create a situation in which the bookseller picks it up because you've already done publicity. You create an umbrella of demand. If you can get into the media, or run some sort of promotional campaign, you take the content and imagine it into events or conversations that are projected into the public sphere, and in that context you contact the bookseller. You create the demand, and the bookseller doesn't have to make any kind of decision. Then the buyer stops being a gatekeeper.

Susan: this author got into the health section with a half-page, and I looked at the article and said, 'yikes, I don't have that book!' I had it instantly, from Ingram and Baker & Taylor [two largest American book wholesalers], and I sold about 40 of them. It has to be a regular 40% discount. I can't do it at 5% + shipping charge. So when you price your book and do your research, you have to be able to sell to them. I also use Koen, Bookazine [other distributors].

Andy: There are specialty wholesalers like New Leaf, Last Gasp.

Susan: And they (New Leaf) promote for you. If your book fits, they'll do a great job.

Andy: I sell a lot through Microcosm, which goes after people who make zines.

Susan: The information revolution is bigger than the printing press, biggert han the industrial revolution. The blogging world will be the next big marketing push. I pick up every new book about blogging. That's where people are going to be seeding and picking up and god help us, controlling information. The changes are happening faster and faster.

Andy: I spend a lot of time writing on other people's blogs, I become part of the conversation.

Susan: I'm dong a lot more events, I do a weekly e-newsletter. We send it Thursday night and the event is on Friday night. We've had 400 people for Howie Carr, not our usual liberal college educated demographic—but they came back the next day, saying 'I've never been in that store,' and they bring their dad. We had 130 for Erica Jong's national launch. It's expensive and time-consuming, and it has to get to that size to work. But I do all of that.

Ikea is retail as theater. My sister owns Eureka, a high-quality toy store. They're next to us, we benefit a lot [from the synergy]. The Tannery (her mall) has become the destination for family fun and I can seat 100 for an event.

I get 2-3 self-publishers a week approaching me, and it's heartbreaking. I get $200 from Random House to do an event, and an event costs me $400-$500. I can't do events from self-publishers or subsidy publishers that will draw five people.

Andy: I would bring local authors to a school bookfair, because nobody would come to the bookstore.

Susan: But we have done some events for self-publishers' family and friends, on a Sunday afternoon.

Andy: We've run festivals of local authors, we do this at the Eric Carle, I'd have 10 local authors all together. In Western Massachusetts, we have a lot of children's book illustrators, so we had enormous pressure from people who wanted exhibitions. By running a 2-day once-a-year festival, where each could do a demonstration, a panel discussion or a story hour, and then they'd move back to their station in the store—the last two times, we've done very well/. You have to have*one* star. We had Jane Yolen and ten of her illustrators.

Susan: At Christmas we had a big party—but this year, we had a blizzard.

Andy: ALA [American Library Association] and AAP [Association of American Publishers] have set something up for local libraries. Publishers list authors willing to tour, and librarians can log in, and libraries can fill out a form of what they want (link from AAP.org, brand new).

I've never taken books on consignment. A publisher told me about several examples of successful. City Lights and St Marks [large literary bookstores in San Francisco and New York, respectively] have big consignment sections.

Susan: I'll take things on consignment. I want to be able to return it if it doesn't sell. I figure the publisher believes in the bookkeeping. But I say, I want you to do the bookkeeping. They bring it in and they don't even have an invoice! I'll often do 80/20 (publisher/bookstore). But then the publisher never comes back. So I have my "lost books" section.

Andy: If someone walks in with a book I like, I'll pay them cash, right out of the register. And if it doesn't sell, I'll get rid of it for a dollar and take the loss. It's not very much money. I believe that having a sale section to get rid of stuff is not a problem. I have damaged books I sell at 75% off. The amount of time you spend managing consignment—but I don't take just any book. I don't want to carry any book I don't like. I'll say, 'I can't carry this book because...' but the reality is, if I like the book, I'd pick it up. I really do like a large number of books and I tend to know what I like.

And if I buy it, I'll push it, I'll make it sell. If I'm going to devote my life to this activity, it's my activity and my life. You either force me with publicity and demand, or you give me an opportunity to benefit the community by running events, but I'm not going to abrogate my personal taste. And that's why people come to my store, because there's a perspective. I carry all sorts of things you can't find anywhere, and I love to point them out to people. You can't get The Inner-City Mother Goose at B&N. The core of the store is my strong opinions about books.

So the best thing is to make a book that I like. And there are others who disagree strongly with my tastes. If you can find a single individual who loves your work, you may be able to sell hundreds of copies through that one bookstore.

[The following section refers to American Booksellers Association programs: BookSense Picks, where booksellers nominate their favorite books, and the White Box, which distributes advance copies, fliers, and other promotions to participating booksellers.]

Susan: If BookSense gets 2 or 3 recommendations, it goes on the list. We share information; if a bookseller in Wyoming loves a novel... If a book makes BookSense, I pretty much stock it because somebody else loved it. And they send shelf-talkers. So sometimes a book that might have fallen through the cracks, Kite Runner, gets picked up that way. But they're very quirky. And you can order anything on my website through BookSense, anything in Books In Print, and pick it up at Jabberwocky. If your book was picked up—and only booksellers can send a recommendation—if you get on the list, you will have national representation. The major publishers watch BookSense very carefully.

When the ABA white boxes come in, my staff is all over them, getting the good stuff.

We're buried in advance copies. I used to give them to a prison but they don't want anymore.

If you send a piece of paper in a white box, I'll probably ignore it, but ARCs [Advance Reader Copies] and full books [will get noticed]. If that free book sells within a reasonable time, I reorder instantly. Publishers have to commit to 1000 or 1200 books and need to have good distribution at standard bookstore terms. And that means you have to be stocked in the warehouses at Ingram or B&T The special small press terms don't work for us. If I see 5% discount, $3 surcharge, I'm not ordering. Little publishers don't know that it might be going out at short discount.


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