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.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Links of Note

Working on a longer post for later, but I wanted to be sure to share the following links of note:

If you've read this blog for any length of time, or know me, you know that the first book I ever sold was FLASH BURNOUT by LK Madigan, which went on to win the Morris Award for best debut novel released in 2009.

I loved that book, and I loved Lisa, and she was taken from us all too soon. But! She wrote a companion book to FLASH before she died. It's called PROJECT: BOY NEXT DOOR, and it's awesome. Her family has had it edited and indie-published it, and I'm so glad the world gets to read more of Lisa's wonderful words. Here's more about the book -- support it, won't you? You can purchase on Amazon or BN. Happy reading.
A great post on What To Expect at BEA, perfect for first-timers. Especially important, I think: Don't be greedy, and for crying out loud WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES! :-)
You've probably seen it already, but if not, this is important: Maureen Johnson and the Coverflip. What happens when books by male authors are given "female" covers, and vice-versa? This would be funny if it weren't so bloody depressing. 
Looking for a funny YA book rec? There's a flowchart for that.
I'm on the list of the "Top 20 Picture Book Agents" in very good company! Though, actually, this list is somewhat flawed because the sales are self-reporting, so some very good agents who simply don't report every sale are not listed. Still. Awesome.
Finally, in non-book related (but VERY IMPORTANT) news: I baked home-made Sriracha Cheez-Its today. They came out delicious. I used gouda, very sharp cheddar and parmesan, and quite a bit of extra hot sauce. But I didn't roll them thin enough so they were more like cheese puffs. STILL.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

On Twitter-Stalking, and New Adult

The other day I saw a blog post that surprised me. Surprised me because... well, because it is ABOUT me, in part. I am the mysterious "Agent #1." I suddenly feel the need to put on a wig and sunglasses. ;-)

I agree with the thrust of the post (that one should research agents, and that twitter is a good tool to learn more about them)... so I'm not knocking the post or the author. That said, I'm not sure that I agree with all the conclusions drawn from the examples used, so I'd just like to clarify, particularly as I've gotten LOTS of questions.

Two weeks ago, an agent (Agent #1) tweeted that she was interested in New Adult books. This is great information to know if you’re querying a New Adult novel (or will be), since it’s not mentioned on her website. 
It isn't mentioned on my website, because it's not a "thing" for me yet. And perhaps it never will be. I'm reading a lot of what-people-are-calling-NA (and books that are not "officially" NA, but maybe should be) -- I'm formulating my philosophy, and how NA books would fit on my list -- in other words, it is definitely something that is on my radar and I'm giving thought to.

In any case, I certainly wouldn't take something on if I didn't love it and think I could sell it. 

Agent #1 replied and explained that she didn’t get the category, either, but she was willing to check it out.

Red Flag #1
From MY point of view, the point of that tweet was that I am interested in NA and have an open mind about it. Which I'd have thought would be a good thing? A white flag, if you will? :-)
Why would you want an agent who doesn’t “get” your genre? How would she be the best advocate for it? That’s like letting a surgeon who doesn’t “get” the function of your pancreas perform surgery on it. You want someone who not only gets your genre, she understands what criteria readers expect to see.
I actually said that I'm not sure I "get it", because I'd contend that NOBODY really knows what this "genre" is. (I'd also argue that it's not a genre at all, but rather a category... but that's another story.)

I simply don't think we can say that anything regarding NA is set in stone. Whereas the fundamentals of pancreas function are not really up for debate.

NA is a category that is very much in flux and still developing. Relatively few NA titles are actually on the market, compared to their YA brethren. It remains to be seen which titles have longevity and whether readers will embrace ALL kinds of NA stories rather than the contemps that have been best sellers so far.

This post here does a fine job of talking about what NA is, at least ideally. For the record, I disagree that NA is "sexed-up YA." But you have to admit, so far, that is a snarky but not wholly inaccurate way to describe some of the books that are doing well. This will change, if the category flourishes. But so far voicey, sexy contemp with college-age protags happen to lead the pack in terms of what is selling. Can we agree there? 

If she offers representation, you can ask her what books she’s read in your genre and what she liked about them. If she has only read two, you’ve got a problem. Also, make sure she does understand the genre. For example, if you queried her for your NA novel and she tells you NA is really YA erotica, then you need to keep looking. This is not the right agent for you. She’s clueless about the genre. 
I invite anyone to whom I offer representation to ask me about books. I read a LOT. Hundreds of books a year, on top of manuscripts. I love talking about books, and I promise you, I'm quite good at it. After all, I do it all day long, for my job.

If you've done any amount of research about me and you still think I might be "clueless"... let me stop you right there. Don't query me. We definitely aren't a good fit for one another. Why would you query somebody whose opinion and experience you don't value?

Agent #2 tweeted back that he hoped Agent #1 enjoyed the porn that would now fill her inbox... I have no idea how Agent #1 felt about the condescending tweet, but it upset the individual who emailed me the conversation. It showed a lack of respect toward a colleague in the industry. 
I'm pretty sure if we asked "Agent #2" he'd be happy to own his words. And while I appreciate the concern, it didn't strike me as condescending at all. I took it in the spirit in which it was intended: as an amusing tweet from a good friend, in the context of a lighthearted conversation. It made me chuckle. Particularly because it was actually correct -- plenty of what comes in unsolicited to the query box could be classified as amateur erotica.

That's not because that's what NA is. That's just the nature of the slush pile. Just as the majority of what comes in when you open your doors to picture books, are rough drafts, or stuff that would be better suited to the inside of a terrible greeting card... not because picture books suck, but because a lot of queriers aren't ready yet and/or simply don't know how to write picture books. The same is true in every category.

The point I'm making is actually very similar to Ms. Lindenblatt's. It's a fine idea to acquaint yourself with agent's twitter feeds if they have them. It's one tool that should be used in addition to the others (looking at their website, reading interviews, reading the books they already represent, etc.) Of course the fact is, every agent-author relationship is different; it does have to do with chemistry in some ways, and you can't always know if you'll be a fit until you at least have the chance to talk to each other. Still, twitter can be fun and informative, and give you a sense of their personality and taste.

If you hate how they come across on twitter -- by all means, don't query them. But it's not an accurate way to gauge what somebody will be like to work with, or how they'll react to your work. And it's certainly not fair to cherry-pick a couple of random tweets out of context and assume that gives you an accurate snapshot of a person's worldview.

Anyway, don't spend TOO much time twitter-stalking. We want you to finish those manuscripts! :-)