Saturday, December 16, 2006

Confessions of a Former Bookseller, Part II

If you haven’t read part I, please scroll down and read that entry first.

I was not your average bookseller. No, when I was hired I was given the responsibility of being in charge of customer special orders. The Barnes and Noble chain had decided to try and do everything they could to get any book in print into a customer’s hands.

Our store was one of twelve alpha sites for the program. When our doors opened in November 1994, we were one of the first to see how it would work. I helped develop the manual that was used to train all the other superstores when the program went nationwide.

Essentially when a book wasn’t in our store that a customer wanted, a bookseller would order it for them. Our computerized ordering system would connect at the end of each day to a series of book distributors such as: Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Book People and Pacific Pipeline. Included in the day's orders were replacement copies for the store for those books which were “modeled,” specific requests by managers for hot trends and customer orders.

(Side bar about book which were “modeled.” Those books are backlist titles which have a proven sales record. That could be anything from “Huckleberry Finn” and “What Color is Your Parachute?” to “Calvin and Hobbes.” The home office determined how many copies of a specific title a store should have on hand. For example, we had probably about 10 copies of “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron on our shelf. Whenever we sold a copy, the computer automatically ordered a replacement copy so we would maintain a stock of ten copies of that title.

New books are not modeled. So you can have a new celebrity kiss-and-tell book released with great fanfare and three months later it is returned to the publisher and on the bargain table in six months and never makes it as a coveted backlist title.

In the publishing business there’s a phrase known as “gone today, here tomorrow” referring to books being returned from the bookstores. The goal for authors should be not only great initial sales at time of publication, but long-term interest from the book buying public to make your revenue stream come years after you finished writing your masterpiece.)

How the process worked

I would get a list generated each day of titles that failed in the ordering process. That none of the book distributors were able to fulfill our request. My job was to see if those books were available directly from the publisher.

I took that sheet of paper which sometimes had 80 or so books on it and go up to a terminal with Bowker’s Book in Print and find out who was the publisher for each individual book. Then I’d write down their contact information.

Once I had my list then I’d try to see if there were any publishers who had more than one book that I needed to call about. I mean, why call Little, Brown and Co. three times when you could call them once and ask about three titles?

I learned a lot about publishers in this process. I hear people at writers conferences and at meetings complaining that there are only five or six major publishing houses who make all the decisions about what to publish.

Nonsense. There are a lot more publishers than that.

I worked at that job for a little over two years and I had filled two entire rolodexes with cards and contact information of publishers. Some were behemoths with multiple imprints, and others were “mom and pop” operations. There were also many medium sized publishers including university presses who produced wonderful books. One of my favorite smaller publishers is Ten Speed Press.

The one publisher that I developed an intense dislike for was AMS Press. That was because they were just incredibly and intolerably rude to me. I could never figure that out. Here I was calling them because someone wanted to buy one of their books and they were always be snide and rude.

It was an interesting job because many of my preconceived assumptions simply did not hold up. I had expected that any title from the bigger publishers that weren’t available from the distributors and still in print would not be available from the publisher directly. Not so. I ordered books all the time from Random House, Harper Collins, St. Martin’s Press, Warner Books, etc. It surprised me, but what the heck I got our customers the book they wanted.

The Process of going “Out of Print”

I had been told by my manager to expect that mass market paperbacks if they weren’t available from our distributors were most likely out of print. That’s because her thought was that many titles have a short shelf life. If they don’t sell, they become strip returns and then go “out of print.”

I found her perception to be inadequate to describe the process. An unavailable mass market title from a major publisher would go through the following steps:

1. Out of stock. (It might be pending a reprint or not. That information was not known. Although sometimes they would give a date and that generally meant that there was a pending reprint although the order was always subject to cancellation.)

2. Out of stock – no date. Similar to #1 but given a different status.

3. Out of stock indefinitely.

4. Out of print.

It didn’t matter whether or not the status was due to reason 1-4, the end result was that I could not get them their book. I would make my publisher calls up until 2 pm which was 5 pm Eastern time because most of the major publishers were on the east coast. So it was later in the day I would call to give people bad news calls. The only ray of hope I could leave them was by giving the name of other book stores in town who did “out of print” searches. I pimped those bookstores multiple times on a daily basis in the hopes that our customers would find what they needed.

I found that more than mass market novels that the kind of books that had a shelf life nearing that of cottage cheese were computer manuals. Because technology evolves so quickly that computer programs are almost obsolete by the time they reach the market. Making their companion manuals just as time sensitive. We would get calls from customers who had gotten hand-me-down computers from friends or relatives and were looking for computer manuals to go along with their out-of-date programs. Those people were always out of luck. That cottage cheese had turned sour about a year or two earlier and would never come ‘round again.

Hot titles being out of stock

On the other end of the spectrum were “hot titles” that were out of stock nationwide because the publishers had not printed enough books to meet demand. The distributors had none left and the publishers were trying desperately to get another printing into distribution as quickly as possible.

I remember several hot titles where it would be literally over a month before our backorders got filled. So trying to order them directly from the publisher didn’t work either. And unfortunately some customers would get really snitty when we couldn’t get them their books in those cases. I remember a few of them saying that B. Dalton had copies, why didn’t we? They didn’t want to buy it at B. Dalton because they wanted our discount, but we didn’t have a copy so what good did it do to complain to us? Honestly, we weren’t trying to withhold any titles from people due to a political conspiracy.

Eeeeeegads. Sometimes dealing with the public can be a challenge.

Now, with all the online book dealers who are vendors for Barnes and Noble.com I pretty certain they have disbanded the publisher order program. Because it was a lot of work and now people can go online themselves try to find titles themselves and purchase used or out of print books online.

More observations to come.

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