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Resources for Writers

How Booksellers Choose Books

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Article by Lyn Crampton ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

I am the manager of Dubray Books on Grafton Street, which is part of the Dubray chain.  This is a family owned book chain that started as a single shop in Bray and started expanding in 1990 and now has 9 branches nationwide.

I’m often asked what the key elements are that influence buying decisions at bookshop level.  Essentially that is the process that determines the fate of your book once it leaves the safe haven of the publishing house and is launched out into the big bad world!

Here I’m going to discuss the business of selecting books for my shop, from my perspective, so that you can understand why a particular book ends up on a particular shelf in a particular quantity in my shop.

I have been buying books now for about 12 or 13 years – my challenge as a buyer is to buy the right books, in the right quantities at the right time.

There are two key points during in my day when I buy – firstly during subbing or buying sessions with publishers’ representatives during which I purchase new forthcoming titles and secondly, when doing daily re-orders based on shop sales, when  replenish the existing stock that has sold through to the customer.

Buying or subbing sessions are essentially pre-arranged meetings between

a publisher’s representative and a book buyer during which the purchasing of NEW titles occurs.

Books are published on a monthly basis and we buy new titles approximately 3-4 months in advance of publication.

Each meeting takes about one hour; during which the rep has an opportunity to show the buyer an Advance Information sheet (AI) relating to each new title that will be published.

The AI and the role of the sales rep

The Advance Information sheet contains an image of the jacket, and a brief description of the contents of each book. It also details the marketing plans that the publisher has laid down for each new title, including things like the expected media coverage that the publisher intends to generate, and the point of sale material that will be available to bookshops (posters, dump-bins and other materials that are used in store to promote titles.)

During the subbing session the rep will also talk the buyer through any other details that may influence the buyer’s decisions such as whether or not the author is local or may be visiting the area around publication date, or whether the publisher is offering promotional terms on the title which would allow the bookseller to put the book straight into a 3 for 2 promotion or to special price the book.

In general ALL of the buying decisions relating to new titles happen during these meetings, and they are therefore probably the most important thing going on in any bookshop on any given day outside customer service.

Given the role of the rep in these meetings there is no doubt that they are probably the most influential person the buyer will meet when it comes to determining the buying decisions that they will make. It’s therefore a good idea for authors to make a big effort to meet the sales rep who will be selling their book and make friends with him/her! If they love your book, they will be in a better position to champion it. The main function of the rep is to provide a link between the publisher and the bookseller, so it is equally important for buyers to develop a good relationship with representatives.

Sales reps help booksellers in many ways:

  • · Reps can provide information about backlist titles and new and forthcoming books.
  • · They have information about titles which are going out of print or will become unavailable.
  • · Reps will have a thorough knowledge of their companies and be able to supply contact names for any department.
  • · Reps will provide you with up-to-date catalogues and ensure that your shop is on the publishers’ mailing lists.

Deciding what to buy

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The Rep will always arrive prepared for the buying session having attended a sales meeting with his or her publisher beforehand. In this meeting it will have been decided which titles on the list must be focused on, and a target for each shop will have been set.

It is the reps job to achieve his targets and get booksellers to buy in the books in the quantities that he desires.  This is an important thing for buyers to be aware of, because as I mentioned before, the buyers main goal is to buy books that their customers are likely to buy, in the quantities they are likely to buy them in, and to have them in stock when the customers want them. The rep’s targets and the buyer’s objectives can sometimes be conflicting!

It is essential that buyers are well trained in the buying process and that they have a keen knowledge of their own market so that they make good decisions based on a real idea of which books sell in their shop and which books do not.

There are a number of ways that a buyer will prepare for buying sessions in order to ensure that they make good decisions.  Watching the buying habits of their customers and building a strong knowledge of their local market base is probably the most important thing that any buyer can do.  This means being on the shop floor, talking to customers and taking a real interest in what they are purchasing.

How many copies to buy?

Keeping up to date with new title information that is distributed through the Trade Press and the general media is key to knowing how a book will perform in the market. A good buyer will be reading The Bookseller, the Easons Monthly Book News and local and national newspapers.

Buyers will also look back at the previous sales histories of the authors they are currently buying, as this takes a lot of the guesswork out of the buying process.  Generally past sales trends are an excellent indicator of how many copies of a new title you are likely to need to meet demand the next time around.

The more information a buyer has about forthcoming books the more confident he or she will be when buying new titles.

Shelf Space

During a buying session a buyer will be thinking about his/her shop and the selling space that needs to be filled. A bookseller will usually decide on the quantity to purchase based on where the book will be displayed in the shop when it arrives.

This means that as the sales rep is going through his list of titles the buyer is considering whether this title a window title, a table title or is it a straightforward stock item that will go straight onto the shelves.

The quantity the buyer purchases will reflect the decision he/she has come to in relation to this.

Window titles will be bought in very large quantities, so too will titles of established bestselling authors.  Quantities will reduce then for titles that will appear on tables and reduce further still for those titles that are going to go straight to the bookshelf either face-out or spine out in the relevant section.

Once the stock arrives into the shop, buyers to monitor the sales of the new stock and pick up on titles whose sales may be being affected in ways that were not anticipated during the initial buying session, such as the effects of word of mouth or unexpected publicity – buyers must then bulk up on the initial orders that were placed.

Stock titles are also purchased on a daily basis in Dubray Books.

This process does not involve the publisher’s representative; rather the bookseller works alone through a list of titles that sold from their shelves the previous day. The bookseller will be looking at the rate of sale for each title and will be making decisions on whether or not to re-order titles and what quantities to order based on how the title has performed in the past.

Deciding whether or not to keep a title in stock and what quantity to hold when re-ordering is a bit more scientific than buying new titles.  The buyer has a wealth of sales information already at their fingertips relating to each of their stock titles that they do not have when they are buying new books.

Market forces and the effect on increasing sales.

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It is important that a buyer doesn’t focus too strongly on past sales of stock titles to the detriment of anticipating future sales for a title that may be influenced by publicity, seasonality, the general state of the economy or some other outside influence that hasn’t previously been in play.

Buyers need to balance their decisions between looking at what has happened in the past but also taking into consideration other factors that may influence sales in the future.  For example coming into spring, when buyers are looking at sales of gardening titles, what has happened over the previous winter months in terms of sales will probably not be the best gauge for what is about to happen going into spring and summer.  So buyers will need to alter their in-hand quantities of gardening titles accordingly and in anticipation of strong spring/summer sales.

Likewise if sales of a particular fiction title have been ticking along nicely at 1 or 2 copies a week but Ryan Tubridy has now chosen it as next month’s Book Club Choice, again this is going to have a considerable affect on sales and booksellers will need to have the stock purchased on time in order to cater for this extra demand.

The biggest challenge for any buyer is trying to anticipate what his/her market is going to do.  It’s clear that to a certain extent market behavior does follow trends and therefore is somewhat predictable if it has been monitored and good records have been kept.

It is absolutely vital that any buyer has a good knowledge of the market he or she is buying for.

Local variations

As I have mentioned, buyers look at sales on a daily basis in their branch, and should therefore be able to spot trends quickly. They also have a strong knowledge of the type of books that sell well in his/her local area and the type of books that do not.

If we look at the Dubray group as an example, which is a chain of 9 bookstores, 7 of which are located in the Dublin area, each of the shops has a slightly different customer base.

Generally the top 20 titles sold in all of the branches will be quite similar; however there will be quite a variation in the quantity that each shop sells.  Obviously, our busier branches are likely to sell the higher quantities of titles but there are also local variations.  Some of our shops have strong popular fiction sales, some sell lots of crime, others have a strong demand for biography and current affairs titles.

These local trends affect the titles purchased and the quantities of those titles purchased in individual branches.

National/global trends

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On a wider scale there will be trends influencing sales around the country and even around the globe.  I hardly need to mention the surge in sales of vampire and gothic fiction which has occurred since the success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.

We witnessed the same trend towards ‘what if’ historical fiction following the publication of ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

These trends tend to be driven by publishers and the media.

When a title does exceptionally well such as Harry Potter, Twilight or The Da Vinci Code, publishers tend to jump on the band wagon and try to publish titles that will cater for the new demand that has surfaced in the market place.

This is generally twinned with the huge media attention that these titles generate.

The public is then influenced by the media and their appetite to read more of a particular genre that they have recently enjoyed, and retailers will find themselves trying to cater for a current trend in the market that may not have been there 6 months ago.

Of course these trends will come and go and it is virtually impossible to predict what the next trend will be, but you can be sure that every publisher is hoping that they will be the one to publish the next big thing, and retailers are also buying with the knowledge that the next big thing may be among the titles they are buying, and they need to adjust their thinking accordingly.

From a writer’s perspective it is important to realise that these types of global trends do have a lifespan and don’t last forever. There is no guarantee that a bookseller will still be buying vampire fiction in large quantities by the time your new blood-sucking bestseller becomes available.

Book buyers will also be very aware of these trends in the market and will be cognisant of whether the trend will still be on the way up by the time the book they are buying comes into print or whether the trend will be on the way out by that stage.

These are quite difficult predictions to make. Ultimately markets are fickle and this is probably due to the fact that any one individual’s buying habits are going to be influenced by a number of factors.

Key factors influencing sales

A customer’s personal circumstances, the culture they are surrounded by and their own social group, are all external factors that influence book purchases. There are also internal factors which include things like personality, lifestyle and attitudes, and their perceptions of certain products and brands. While these can be hard to predict, the book buyer has several key marketing factors that influence their buying decisions. These are:

Product

Price

Availability

Promotion

Service

As a buyer I need to think about the factors that are influencing what my customers are buying.  It’s pretty clear that the internal and external factors that I have mentioned are outside of my control and therefore while I will keep them in mind they are not really going to influence my buying decisions to any great extent.  However when we look at the MARKET factors, of product, price, availability, promotion and service, these are certainly things that I need to be very cognisant of when I am buying for my customers.

The Product.

When I am looking at a new title, the content, the format, the cover and the overall package are all key elements that I assess when I make my decisions about whether or not we are going to stock the book.

The Price

This has become increasingly important in today’s market.  I’m always looking for a package that will represent good value for money to my customers and will compete well with similar products on the shelf.

Availability

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It is essential that we have what the customer wants in stock, when they want it.  This may sound straight forward but you’d be surprised how easy it is to get it wrong!  Often if a title’s sales surge unexpectedly, both the publisher and the bookseller can be caught off guard.

The worst case scenario is that the publisher does not have enough stock to cater for demand and the book goes into reprint which creates delays in the sales chain and can result in lost sales.

Generally sales lost at this time are gone forever, particularly if the sales surge was the result of unexpected publicity as is often the case. Unfortunately customers tend to be quite impulsive when it comes to books that they hear about through the media.  If they cannot get their hands on it immediately they will forget about it.

A good buyer will want assurances from the publisher that the books he/she is buying will be available when the customer wants them, and this generally means that publication will coincide with marketing and publicity campaigns.

The buyer will also want assurances that the publishers will have sufficient stock to meet demand, particularly around times when author events may be scheduled or TV and film releases are due.

The Christmas period is also a key time when availability of stock is crucial, so open and ongoing communication between book buyers and reps is vital at this time of the year.

In short good buyers will do everything in their power to ensure that they have the right stock in the right quantity on their shelves to meet demand.  Equally he/she will always be cautious of over-buying as this too would be very costly for the business.

Promotion

How does the publisher intend to market each title that he is selling in to me?  The possibility of getting books into promotions that will catch the eye of my customers will certainly influence my buying decisions.

I’ll be looking to find out whether the publisher is willing to offer terms that will allow me to price promote the title or add it to an ongoing 3for 2 offer.

I’ll also be interested in the type and level of publicity that the publisher is intending to generate around publication.

I’ll be checking to see whether an author event in my branch may be possible; whether that be a public signing or the official launch of the book. Both of which will help to link my shop with that author in the minds of my customers.

Good publicity has a huge effect on book sales. We have all witnessed the influence of media driven book clubs on book sales.

The Ryan Tubridy Book Club, the Oprah Winfrey Book Club and in the past The Richard and Judy Book Club have all generated fantastic sales in this country and created huge bestsellers.

Ad-shell campaigns and TV and radio advertisement are also big drivers of popular fiction sales and are key in informing the public that their favourite author has just released a new book.

There is absolutely no question that no matter how fantastic a book you may have in front of you, it will not sell if people don’t know it’s out there.  Marketing and publicity are vital.

Service

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In Dubray we try to offer a very personal service whereby we recommend books on an ongoing basis to our customers and we do a lot of ‘hand selling’.  This means that our booksellers are all readers.

Word of mouth is the strongest driver of book sales in this country.  Booksellers and publishers alike are acutely aware of this.  As a result publishers often produce Advance Reading copies of books that they distribute to booksellers in advance of publication.

These advance reading copies are invaluable to booksellers as it gives the buyer total knowledge of the product in advance of stocking it.  Having read the book, the bookseller is in a position to hand-sell and recommend the book on publication, and he/she can therefore make a very confident buying decision.

Having booksellers read your book prior to publication date is a sure fire way to get your book into the hands of the customers, because if booksellers like your book, you can be sure they are recommending it to their customers.

In Dubray we have a culture of avid readers who are trained as book buyers and who buy books at branch level.

Buying for big chains

Some book chains have moved away from the methods of buying we use in Dubray Books, and books are now being purchased centrally.

This means that all of the buying decisions are taken out of the hands of the book sellers on the shop floor and are made instead at Head Office level.

In this situation publishers representatives will visit with one or two selected buyers from a particular company and these buyers will buy for all of the branches.  New titles will then arrive into each branch on a monthly basis which have not previously been viewed by the booksellers in that branch.

This shift to centralised buying has occurred for a number of reasons, some of them being a belief that stock can be managed better centrally to ensure a wide assortment and range of titles available across all branches

Also there is a belief that promotions can be organised better from a central Head Office base.  There is also the belief that taking the job of buying out of the hands of booksellers, frees them up to focus more on selling and becoming engaged in front line creative selling.

As authors you need to be aware that central buying does take place across many book chains in this country and the type of buying that takes place, whether it be at branch level or centrally, will have an influence on the shop floor when titles arrive into the branches.

Children’s Books

Finally, a note about buying children’s books.  New title buying of children’s books is in fact quite different to new title buying of adult titles.  The main differences are:

  • The initial sales of new children’s titles are very much lower than their adult counterparts
  • Children’s books tend to have a much longer shelf life than adult books
  • The children’s book market is a very price sensitive paperback market.

Publishers spend a lot of money promoting and marketing adult titles but it is usually word of mouth and staff recommendations that drive children’s book sales.  Needless to say there are a few exceptions to this e.g. Harry Potter, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman etc. but these are definitely exceptions rather than the rule.

Slow and steady is probably the best way to describe how children’s books sell and this needs to be reflected in the bookseller’s buying.  In general children’s books will be bought in significantly lower quantities than adult titles. Being acutely aware of what is currently In Vogue with your young customers is absolutely key and this will involve reading teen and pre-teen magazines and talking to the children you meet in your shop, engaging with them about what they like to read and what their friends are reading.

Young girls in particular will read what their friends are reading and they will often buy from a series such as Point Horror or Sweet Valley High.

Like adult books seasonality will affect sales and children’s books and buyers need to buy titles in preparation for these seasonal trends. For example the summer months will see an uplift in children’s fiction sales.  Quiz and activity books will sell well at this time of year as parents are buying books that will occupy their children on long journeys.

Children’s buyers will also be following the lead set by movie companies during the summer months as film companies know their market extremely well.  Knowing what all the big summer film releases will be and most importantly knowing the release dates is key for children’s buyers as they can then plan around these and in advance to ensure that they capitalise on sales.

At Back to School time children’s buyers will be upping their stocks of dictionaries and fiction titles that are on the school curriculum.  As April and May are Holy Communion and Confirmation months, this is the time of the year that children’s buyers will be promoting more expensive gift books and titles with a religious theme.

Children’s hard backs are usually beautiful books but unfortunately they tend to be very hard to sell.  For this reason they are generally purchased in modest quantities and the bookseller will have to actively work to build sales by showing these titles to customers whenever the opportunity arises.  There are of course some shops in locations where the market is not so price sensitive and in these cases booksellers can buy these titles with a little more confidence.

Staying Objective

It is it is very important as a buyer of both adult and children’s fiction that the buyer remains objective in their buying.  A good buyer will purchase titles that he or she has a valid reason to believe will sell in his or her branch.  This decision will be based on a thorough knowledge of the market that he or she is buying for.  And it will be backed up by sales figures of previous titles.  Finally the buyer will listen carefully to the information being passed on by the sales rep and allow this to inform rather than influence his final decision.

I hope that this article is useful and relevant to you in your endeavors as writers.  I wish you all the very best of luck in your writing careers and I look forward to buying and selling your books in the future.


© Lyn Crampton, Manager Dubray Books, Grafton Street, Dublin  May 2011