Friday, December 05, 2008

Slicing and Dicing the Orders

I am not very good at doing things in secret. Usually, like right now, I announce my new projects or new ideas (wonderful or awful) on my blog. Twittering, with it's tiny 140-character entries, has also become a nightly habit that soothes my inner bookseller. Let's face it, I'm fairly obnoxious when I'm on to something new.

Last Monday I started canceling books off of our frontlist winter purchase orders. These are the books scheduled to arrive in the frozen months of January, February and March. Sales are already frigid during that time of year, and one can only surmise that 2009 winter sales will approach absolute zero. I feared that I'd get a lot of resistance from my reps and the publishers, so I went about the project quietly.

My goal was to pare these already tight orders down another 10% to 20%. That was a modest number. Every year when I analyze my buys, I notice that we sell zero copies of nearly 25% of the titles we bring in. Cut those books out and ultimately reduce returns was my goal.

I started with my Harper adult order. My Harper rep is, to employ a euphemism, extremely enthusiastic about his books. Surely, there would be dozens of books to lop off that order. I worried that if I called him and told him of my intention he'd be a tad bit irritated. I printed up our order and began to attack it with a highlighter.

The very first book on the order was the paperback of Scott Spencer's Willing. Boy, this was going to be easier then I thought. Willing is hands down the single worst novel that I have managed to finish this decade. Spencer, who made his reputation writing Endless Love, manages to offend everyone with his idiotic plot of a freelance writer going on a high-end traveling sex tour. I drew a quick yellow line through the title despite the fact we sold four copies of the book in hardback.

In all, I axed a dozen paperback fiction titles. The hardback titles were more difficult because my initial buys were quite spare, but I managed to trim four titles off of Harper's list. These were books that I only bought in twos. Two is a tepid buy and those titles weren't getting supported by co-op dollars from the publisher or display plans from us. Our chances of selling those titles in a good economy were marginal, now they are nil.

Besides cutting out these small books, I went through the orders and began reducing quantities on bigger buys. Instead of 25 copies of Alexander McCall Smith's Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, I figured we could survive with 16 from Random House. Did I really need 10 copies of Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand & the World She Made? Perhaps six would make a nice face out.

Slowly, but surely, the cuts began to add up. We got nearly $2,000 at retail out of both the Random House and Harper orders. During the process, I began to get a better feeling for these lists. I looked up several of the books on Amazon, and I discovered what other stores were ordering of these titles by using Above the Treeline (a computer program that allows us to see other independent stores' sales and ordering information).

Unable to do things quietly anymore (it's just not my nature), I mentioned in a twitter post that I was cutting the orders. To my surprise, my Penguin rep called and asked how I was doing the cuts and if I was going to eviscerate his order, could he help. I also spoke to a Random House executive who offered to assist me in reducing our orders to them.

I worked with my Penguin rep and a Random House rep yesterday to cut orders and those calls were much less painful then I expected and much more fruitful. We cut the Penguin hardback order by 16.4% and the Random House order by 13.4%, but I feel much more confident that I made the right decisions now. It was interesting to hear the reps admit that they were overzealous on a few titles when they originally sold me and they also informed me that my passion on a few titles was perhaps a bit overboard. We had remarkably open and honest conversations about the real potential of these titles shorn of the usual pressure from sales conferences and sentimentality of personal favorites.

We even did a little horse trading. My Penguin rep advised me to cut Stuart Brown's Play from eight to five in exchange for increasing our buy from five to eight on Nothing to Fear by Adam Cohen. Suddenly, a book about F.D.R.'s first 100 days seems much more timely and vital then it did when I originally bought the list in September. As for Brown's Play, five is still a huge buy (the fifth biggest out of the more than 200 stores that report to Above the Treeline) and enough to get it noticed.

So far I've cut almost $12,000 at retail off of our winter orders. Hopefully, with the help of a few more reps I can double that number by the end of next week. It's not what I expected to be doing during the holiday season. However, if I can avoid the pain of massive returns and unpayable invoices next year because of ill-timed orders arriving in the dead of winter, then that just might be a present for us, the reps and publishers alike.

This is a secret that's just too good not to share.