Friday, May 17, 2013

Think Like a Bookseller, part 1 - On Turns, and Returns

Before I was an agent, I was a buyer and event coordinator for a great independent bookstore for many years. I'm still a bookseller in fact (though now just very part time) -- I LOVE bookstores, have worked in them all over the country, and my experience as a bookseller has had a huge impact on my perception of the publishing industry.

The Ways of the Bookseller might be a bit mysterious if you haven't been one yourself, but I think they are important for authors to understand. For the record: I'm only talking about MY EXPERIENCE over the past couple-dozen years in half-a-dozen great independent bookstores. Large chain bookstores may be different, specialty bookstores may be different, online bookstores are certainly different, and self-pubbing/indie-pubbing is obviously different.

So. I asked Twitter what questions authors had for booksellers, and first up was:

How do bookstores decide what to carry... and what to return?

Brick and mortar bookstores choose the books they carry based on a combination of factors. In no particular order: How well that author's past books or similar comp titles have done; How well that genre or category has traditionally sold in their store; "Buzz" from review sources; Local interest hook (the book is set nearby or the author lives nearby); A publicity hook (like: celeb author, or recent scandal, etc); A sales/marketing hook (like: the publisher is offering a special discount if the store buys a whole display worth of specially marked Summer Reading)... and finally, the buyers own particular taste/sensibility/random love of the jacket art, etc.

Obviously no store is going to buy everything in a catalogue -- even if there were room on the shelves, it would just be a hodge-podge. So a good buyer curates the selection. They also very often have the help of an excellent publisher sales rep to help guide their purchases. A good rep is a god-send and will have a great sense of the store, its strengths and clientele and what will appeal to them, and can make recommendations accordingly. In my experience, buys usually happen with a marked-up online catalogue open in one window (or paper catalogue on the desk), and the store's inventory open in another, and the rep and buyer together go through the list either in person or by phone and talk about each book - what to buy, what quantity, and what to skip. The process can take anywhere from an hour to half a day for each publisher. (And sometimes involves a lunch - yum yum!)

Buys happen many months ahead of time. So, though we are still firmly in Spring, bookstores are now buying for the Fall. And the Summer books, which were bought in Winter, are now arriving in earnest. And there has to be room for them on the shelves....

              \mbox{Inventory  Turn} = \frac{\text{Number  of  Units  Sold  (Over  a  given  period)}}{\text{Average  Number of  Units  (For  the  period)}}

"Turn" is how often inventory sells and must be replaced. It is extremely important to turn books relatively briskly. This isn't a museum where books are simply on display! Sitting inventory is not making money, turning inventory keeps the lights on. Turn is generally calculated on a per-section basis, so ideal turn will vary by section and store, but let's do a for-example.

If they've decided that the ideal turn for YA is 5, and right now the average turn in the section is actually 12, that means they may need to order more books and beef up the section, as there are likely holes and important books missing. (This is also an indication that the actual shelf-space allotted to the section might need to expand a bit.) If the turn is closer to 2, they definitely have too many books in the section and some will have to be pulled. (And probably the section, and buying for it, will need to contract a bit.)

Many kids books become hits by way of Word-of-mouth; Teachers reading to classrooms, kids passing the book around at school, the book getting awards and put on state reading lists, etc. Thus, stores do tend to let extra-special kids books linger longer on the shelves before returning them.

Some individual titles with very low or even zero sales might get saved during a return if a bookseller is feeling sentimental, but if your book is consistently dragging down the average turn, well... you see where this is going.

A very clever buyer (my sister in fact) once explained it to me this way: Your book is paying rent for its space on the shelf. Let's say that the average book in the section needs to sell or "turn" about 4 copies a year; that means "rent" is about .10 cents per day for an $8.99 paperback, .25 cents per day for a $21.99 hardcover. If the book isn't moving fast enough to pay that, it will eventually get returned to the publisher.

While to an author, returns day might be depressing, to a bookseller there is something immensely satisfying about packing up books that are gathering dust, and replacing them with shiny new specimens. To everything there is a season, etc etc, and bookstores can't afford to keep books around indefinitely if they aren't selling. Changing old for new also means an opportunity to "fluff" the section and make it look extra bright and inviting, which usually means increased sales for ALL the books in the section.

Will the system of returns change between publishers and bookstores? Likely at some point. Should it? Yeah, I think there are probably more efficient ways to handle inventory rather than shipping insanely heavy boxes of books back and forth all over creation. But I think it'll be a sad day if returns go away altogether.

Bookstores are already treading on a very thin profit margin and have to be careful about what they bring in. When they are able to take chances on quirky books and unknown authors, it's precisely because they are able to return them to the publisher if they don't sell. If they didn't have the opportunity to return items, they'd have to be much more conservative with their buys. And while that wouldn't be a big problem for the bestsellers, it would have a terrible effect on newbies and small fry.


  1. Best analysis I've seen of this question anywhere. Thanks!

  2. Excellent! Now I am finally ready to go open my bookstore/cafe/currency exchange.

  3. Anonymous5:52 AM

    That is a post that you rarely see in other blogs. I had to go a few times over the formula of Inventory turn to get it. I like the explanation of your sister about the book on the shelf having to pay rent for being there. Chantilla

  4. I've been in publishing for 33 years and this is the BEST explanation of bookstore buying I've ever read. There is risk in publishing -- you commit to putting out a book without knowing if you will see a payback on the investment. There is a whole lotta risk in opening a bookstore. Returns are a method of sharing the risk, though I agree that any method which might reduce returns, without limiting their willingness to take a chance on unproven authors, would be smart for both parties. Other retailers, who cannot return merchandise, mark it down. I know some bookstores do that to a degree, but may not be able to price low enough to avoid losing money. Do any publishers have a remaindering-in-place program?

  5. Love the targeted way of explaining Turns. That helps me understand the painful truth of Returns better. "Renting" the bookshelf space...genius analogy. :)

  6. This is a wonderfully informative post! The rent analogy makes it easy to understand the bookseller's POV. So much of what is available to us these days is homogenized. I'm glad that, at least at present, the system does allow bookstores to take chances on quirky books and unknown authors.

  7. Anonymous2:45 PM

    Ok, so bookstore follow trends. Does that mean that you do also when picking up new talent from the slush pile. Eg would automatically turn down a paranormal romance just because it is paranormal romance as you think the market is saturated or would you still consider it being that the time between signing and publication will be 18 months or so and that it may actually be making a comeback by then? Or is it out for a long time?

  8. Great post, Jennifer. Thank you.


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