Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Anatomy of a Buy

"How do you decide what to buy?" is one of the most frequently asked questions I get from people I meet outside of the book business. Depending on my mood, I tell them that I guess wildly, use assorted sales data to make a professional judgment, or just slavishly order what my reps suggest, while I drink lattes and eat bonbons all day. No matter what I answer, their reaction is always the same. "That just sounds like the greatest job. You must love your work."

The truth is a combination of all of those answers, except I don't drink coffee during my appointments and instead of bonbons, the process brings to mind the fried-meat -- scrapple. I don't drink coffee because long ago, my co-workers forbid me from imbibing caffeine while on the job. They claim it hypes me up too much and I get strange new marketing ideas that have everyone running in circles. I once drove our publicity manager to tears as I barked ideas at her faster than she could write.

Last Friday, my HarperCollins rep sold me the summer list. This is one of the more important buys of the year because Harper usually vies with Penguin as the second biggest publisher in the land behind Random House. Also, the summer is traditionally when Harpers releases its strongest titles. That was certainly the case in 2007. I also feared that the weak Christmas performance of HarperCollins' titles might put some added pressure, or at least a whiff of desperation into the selling of this list.

The buy really began about three days before the appointment when the sales rep called me up to tell me that he had at least five "make" fiction titles on the list. By that, he meant he had either debut novels or novels from relatively unknown authors that Harper was hoping to sell in large quantities. His assertion put me on guard immediately. It seems to me, that debut novels almost never sell well in the summer. It's the season for comfortable beach reads by established favorites. If a summer novel is going to break out, I would sooner expect Hachette (that's Little Brown in English), or Penguin to publish it than Harper. Hachette and Penguin both put a lot of cooperative advertising funds behind specific new fiction titles they believe in. Harper does not. Harper just doesn't offer the same sort of co-op. Their plan basically directs buyers towards more established titles.

I've learned over the years that trusting my intuition can get me in trouble, so I decided to do a little research. I found only 13 mildly successful hardback fiction titles from last summer that I'd classify as "make" fiction. I defined a successful title as one selling five copies or more, hardly a blockbuster. The top title in this group was Hooked by Matt Richtel which sold over 50 copies. Richtel used to live in Boulder and he did a signing for his book attended by family and friends along with some customers. Hooked was published by Twelve, a new imprint of Hachette's, that is dedicated to publishing about one book a month and really giving them a lot of publicity. It seems to be working. Hooked was one of several titles that Twelve has sold well.

The other dozen titles that met with modest success included Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee, another Hachette author. Lee did not have a signing at our store, but Hachette did host a lavish author dinner with area booksellers last winter that created a great deal of excitement behind the title. I wrote up the evening in a January post, Free Food For Booksellers. Penguin had four titles on the list, most notably The Tea House Fire by Ellis Avery. Avery's title was accompanied by lots of co-op funds and spent three months at the front of the store on sale at 25% off. Who knows how successful it was nationwide? My guess is the fire didn't spread too far from the teahouse. Avery's title is already available as a remainder. Even the all-mighty publishing juggernaut Random House only "made" three hardback fiction titles last summer.

Harper's lone entry on the list was The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer, a powerful novel about a Jewish family in peril in newly fundamentalist Iran in 1981. I concluded even before the rep made it to the store, that our sales would have to come from books other than his "make" fiction. You might guess from this analysis that perhaps the Boulder Book Store just can't sell hardback fiction. You would be wrong. According to a website that compiles sales data for independent stores, we are ranked 11th in sales out of about 200 stores in hardback fiction sales. To misquote Sinatra, "If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere."

Fortunately, Harper has a really strong list with several surefire fiction and nonfiction titles that we will sell like crazy. Still, I doubt the list can beat last summer's, when Harper hardback titles (led by works from Michael Chabon, Deepak Chopra and Thich Nhat Hanh) dominated our bestseller charts. All three of those authors signed here to large, adoring crowds. This year, I am particularly excited about The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester, What Now by Ann Patchett, She Was by local author Janis Hallowell and an untitled political book by Ron Suskind.

All four of these authors have had bestsellers in the past. Winchester's The Professor and the Madman is still a book group favorite, even though I must admit I think he took a fascinating story and did his best to make it dry as dust. Patchett's book is geared towards people making transitions in their lives, whether they are graduating from high school, changing careers or becoming a parent. That covers just about everyone in Boulder. Suskind has scooped journalists and authors alike, and gotten a ton of publicity, with his two previous works on the Bush administration The Price of Loyalty and One Percent Doctrine. I loved Hallowell's first novel The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn. It was a quirky, well-written story about faith that took place in Boulder. A signing with her will definitely produce one of the better-selling novels of the year.

Wedged between all of these great books -- and others by Louise Erdrich, Joanne Harris and Edward Dolnick -- were pages and pages of what could kindly be described as filler. It's the gristle and bones between the pork in the sausage. To give the reader an idea of just how much chaff there is in the publishers' wheat, last summer, I bought 264 new titles from Harper and only ten of those books sold 50 or more copies. Those bestsellers accounted for 75% of all of the sales from the list. Sadly, over 30% of the titles (mostly books I brought in in ones and twos) didn't sell a single copy. Thank God, we don't buy Harper nonreturnable. That doesn't even factor in all of the books (probably 25% to 40%) that I don't buy at all.

At one point, I turned to the rep who was trying to convince me to buy one copy of a rather academic-looking history book that Harper had no discernible publicity plans for whatsoever and said, "Why does Harper even bother with a book like this? Why don't they leave it to a smaller publisher that might do it justice, like W.W. Norton or Oxford University Press, and focus on what they do well?" He didn't really have an answer. When Harper publishes a small history book, it's about their 200th priority. If Harvard published the same book, it might be one of their top three books of the season. Publishers often use print runs to tell you how important a book is to them. A print run of 10,000 from Harper is insignificant. The same print run from the University of Chicago is cause to break out the champagne.

Back to those "make" fiction books. I took most of them, although they are probably doomed to failure. A relationship between a publisher and an independent bookstore is a complicated affair. We are desperate to host signings by top-flight authors and they really need independent stores to take chances on their small novels to have any chance for them to work. Last year, Harper got us more great authors then any other publisher. Even though the odds of success are slim on their "make" novels, the least I can do is try to bust out a few of these authors.

The two most promising are Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Outlander by Gil Adamson. Harper is having a bookseller dinner for Stein in January, which will hopefully produce some enthusiasm, while the Adamson novel is set in the mountains of the west and has blurbs from Jim Harrison and Michael Ondaatje. Maybe one will break out and be the Cold Mountain or The Lovely Bones of 2008.

The buying of books here at the store is not a pretty sight and it's not without its give-and-take between the sales reps and the buyers. Perhaps at the next Christmas party when I'm asked how I buy books, I'll just launch into a dissertation on how the old Philadelphia favorite of my youth, scrapple, is made from all the parts of the pig that are still lying around after you've made sausage. It will be graphic and a bit disgusting, but I think it will convey the spirit of the buy.

1 comment:

G.Stein said...

What a great blog entry! (And I'm not just saying that because you mention me in it....) As the writer of one of the potential "make" books of next season, I hope I do you right and sell hundreds of copies at your store. Thanks for all the work you do for those of us who aren't quite famous yet....

Garth Stein
"The Art of Racing in the Rain"