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 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.


gil said...

Hi, Linda! :)

I'm here in response to your mass mailing ;) regarding your original WIP, and the need to 'establish' a fanbase for prospective publishers.

I do have something written up specifically for that, but will just email you about it later.

What got me interested was your description of life as a bookseller for B&N.

Especially your comment (in Part I) about the 'strip returns.'

I'm not really sure why B&N (or the other major bookstores) have strip returns. I do have to make a comment about your observation that these were "Books that no consumer ever had the opportunity to purchase."

Maybe not the American consumer. :D

A *lot* of those stripped cover books made their way across the ocean to the Philippines - and were bought here, including by yours truly.

A chain called "Bargain Books" (which started off as hole-in-the-wall establishments) featured literally *tons* of such books - dumped together on large tables with no rhyme or reason, and you had to literally crawl through them to find something of interest to you.

As I understood it, the owner would buy these 'stripped' books in the US in bulk (I think it was being sold as scrap), loaded them onto container vans and just shipped the whole kit and kaboodle over here, where they were resold at a fraction of the cover price. (As I recall, it was something like .25 US for a 2.50 paperback)

I have to admit, I was in hog heaven because of those books. Admittedly, my taste in literature (then) tended towards pulp fiction, thrillers and bestsellers (Ludlum, Clancy, etc.) but I still found some gems along the way: the Horatio Hornblower series, poetry anthologies, 'classics' such as Dickens, Austen and Conan-Doyle, as well as books on management, marketing and advertising.

The problem was that the US publishers or bookstores caught on at some point... and 'stopped' the practice of stripping books and selling them as scrap. :( They still sold them as 'scrap' but since the books were in near-mint condition, they could charge a bit more than 'damaged' books.

Still and all... I guess you could say, "Your loss was our gain." ;)

Looking forward to more from you...

Gil Ligad
(aka Romulus Lupin)

Anonymous said...


I got your email about your book and it looks very interesting indeed! I'd definatly read it! The Romeo/Juliet (while I only enjoy that example when I mock it) story never really DOES go out of style, does it? Especially with a creative twist attached. Personally, I love those kinds of novels. Historical romance is great, AND you picked a great time period. I hope to read it soon! :)

Funny that you were talking about the book business...I just started working at a massive book company too as customer service. As a part-time job, it's been great so far. I really enjoy working with the other book-working people; I find them to be very nice. I've never had to deal with publishers, obviously. *grin*

L.C.McCabe said...


:Glomp: Thanks for stopping by.

The rationale regarding strip returns was that publishers felt that mass market paperbacks books were not worth paying the return shipping costs to them, and then later to have them cut down as bargain books. So basically, if a paperback mass market doesn't sell in the bookstore it was sent to, it doesn't go anywhere else.

Trade paperbacks (which are the larger paperback books that have many different dimensions) and hardcover books are sent back to their publisher if not sold in a certain period of time. Then they become bargain books.

We as booksellers could take home stripped books. I think we could take a maximum of 20 a day. It was considered to be a perk of the job, but we didn't pay for them. We just retrieved them prior to them going into the dumpster.

We were also allowed to take home hard cover books to read. There were some caveats though, we had to surrender the dust jacket and sign them out with the manager on duty, we could only one out at a time and for a specified length of time. We also had to return the hard cover in pristine sale-able condition, which meant you couldn't have mustard stains on page 83 or toast crumbs in page 57. It had to look like it was always in the store on the shelf.

However, when we did strip returns we had to not only strip off the covers, but we were to rip the books in at least two parts. This meant you could break the binding and have the first twenty or so pages separated from the rest of the book. (You didn't have to play Freddie the Phone Book Ripper and rip it in half.)

What I felt most terrible about was that all this went into a dumpster which was to be taken to a landfill. We couldn't have it taken someplace to be recycled. In my county recycling is king, and I felt terrible that on a daily basis we were adding basically non-degradable material to the county landfills. (I still shake my head at that. Maybe they've changed on that point, but I doubt it.)

The chain was adamant about this because of exactly what you are describing. I'm not sure where those book vendors of strip returns obtained their books, but I know it wasn't from my store. And I would think that if law enforcement agencies were to trace it back to a particular book store that they would get in trouble if they were trying to make a buck over books they claimed were unsold.

Then again, the source may have been the landfill services who were going through the garbage and pulling out the books from places that weren't as conscientious as my former employer.

One of the best things about working at a book store was having the 30% employee discount. My biggest challenge at times was coming home with a positive balance in my paycheck.


Oh and to Ah Nonny-mouse, I'm glad you liked the hook I sent you about my Work In Progress. I hope that when I finish the manuscript shortly that I am able to find an agent who is just as interested.

And learn as much as you can from working in a bookstore. There are many other topics and observations I have to share with you about my time as a B&N employee.


Devon Ellington said...

I found your blog via JA Konrath's - the posts on the last ten purchases, etc. I was starting to feel like a book whore, because the last ten purchases covered more than 60 books! ;)

At any rate, I want to come back and spend more time looking through your site -- really interesting.

I worked as an assistant in a publishing house for three years a long time ago (while still working full time in theatre) and it was so interesting to learn how they made their decisions.

And I loved the conferences where we got to present the list to the reps twice a year.

I learned a lot from that experience that's helping me now as a writer.

Many thanks for your point of view and sharing your experiences.