How Bookstores Select Titles
After the agents, editors, and the marketing departments at publishing houses have all made their decisions about what will be published, in what quantities, and how the finished product will look, there is one final decision maker who ultimately decides what books will be presented for sale to consumers: The buyer for the bookstores.
The decision maker for the independent bookstores is often the owner, or the owner and several employees. The chains have corporate buyers who specialize in different areas. The buyer looks at the prior sales history of the author, or if it is the author’s first book, the buyer will look at similar titles or topics. Of course the sales rep lets the buyer know of the marketing push the title will receive.
If advanced reading copies are available or galleys – the uncorrected page proofs of a book, these are sent to the chains and major independents three to four months prior to the title’s publication date.
Booksellers usually buy their first order of a new title from the publisher through their sales reps. Subsequent orders can be placed directly with the publisher or through a wholesale distributor, which allows the bookstore to batch their orders to several different publishers and receive one invoice and make only one payment. It also allows the bookstore to return books from different publishers to one place –the wholesaler.
The decisions book buyers make about what titles to stock are a blend of taking into account the sales pitches from publishers’ reps, historical sales data they have collected about an author or a topic, knowledge of their customer base—and to a large extent simply what their gut instinct tells them will be popular.
What are industry standard terms? And why are they important
Booksellers have to make money, if they don’t the store will close. Books that are not offered with industry standard terms often won’t be stocked, because the opportunity to make money decreases.
What are those terms?
Discount The discount off the retail price has to be close to 40%. For example: If a book has a retail price of $20.00, the bookstore has to be able to buy it from the publisher, or the wholesaler, for no more than $12.00. That allows the store to make an $8.00 gross profit.
Payment terms The bookstore has at least 90 days to pay for the books after they’re shipped.
Returnability The bookstore can return unsold books to the publisher or the wholesaler if they don’t sell. These books aren’t necessarily wasted or destroyed but can be sold to a different store.
Competitive pricing Bookstore customers are reluctant to pay more than a certain price for paperback and hardcover books. Those that have a price above that resistant level -- $7 to $8 for mass market paperback, $15 to $20 for trade paperback, and no more than $28 for hardcover – are more difficult for bookstores to sell.
What the booksellers say
We asked Michael Powell, of Powell Books, Portland, Oregon
How does a bookstore strike a balance between carrying the most popular authors, and providing customers with a wide variety of choices and categories? “I can’t answer for bookstores, only for what Powell’s does. We approach it from both ways, breadth and depth. Powell’s has the largest independent bookstore in the country with 70,000 square feet and four floors of books that allow us to carry quite a few titles. We try to give our customers special interest books, and literary titles, as well as the bestsellers. Our smallest store has 16,000 square feet.”
We talk to the sales reps, go through the catalogs, and look at what previously sold. If we already have twelve books on cats stocked, we certainly don’t need a thirteenth.
Getting your self-published, vanity/subsidy, or publish on demand book in bookstores
It’s a challenge there is no doubt. As a rule the chain bookstores don’t stock Publish On Demand or self-published books and neither do many independent stores. The reason is that the terms offered by the Publish On Demand publishers are not industry standard. The discount is less than 40%, the book is nonreturnable and has to be paid for when it’s ordered. The prices for Publish On Demand books are higher as well. Additionally most Publish On Demand publishers will accept just about anything, which means there is a lack of quality control. Book buyers trust that a major publisher will provide a book of at least acceptable quality both in production and writing. There is no such assurance with a Publish On Demand book.
Authors with Publish On Demand books can sometimes convince a bookstore to stock their book by offering it on consignment. The author provides copies of their book and gives it to the bookstore to place on their shelves. The bookstore doesn’t pay the author for the book until it sells. If it doesn’t sell the book is returned to the author. This can work with an author who has a strong local following.