Reaching Buyers Beyond Bookstores with Special Sales

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September 2014
by Michael Riley

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Because many of the Independent Publishers Group’s (IPG’s) client publishers serve specialized market niches, we have pursued a lot of accounts outside the traditional book trade. To help those publishers be successful, we sell to gift stores, to museum stores, and to other stores not primarily devoted to books. (We also sell to schools but that is a topic for another day.) If you serve a niche, what we have learned about selling to these markets should help you too.

By definition, our “special sales” transactions don’t involve bookstores, book chains, or book websites, but they can involve any sort of company that sells books along with other products. To reach prospects, we use multiple sales forces. Our in-house special sales team—six sales professionals—sells to large and small retailers, mail order catalogs, wholesalers, and the educational market. About eight years ago we made a strong commitment to the gift market by hiring independent commission field reps across the country to sell exclusively to specialty stores. This year, we added reps to work the teacher stores.

Most specialty accounts require higher discounts than are usual for the book trade—50 percent at least. They insist on the higher discount because they need books to be competitive in terms of margin with the other products that they carry, and they often require free freight as well. On the other hand, most specialty accounts buy on non-returnable terms, which is very much a positive for a publisher.

Reps’ commissions also tend to be higher. While 10 percent of the billing is what commissioned book reps receive, a commission of 15 percent of the amount billed is standard for gift reps. Today, IPG has about 100 gift reps who work for regional gift rep groups from coast to coast.

Gift Market Guidance

The gift market has almost as much variety as the publishing industry, but we’ve learned that a few types of books tend to be more successful there. For example, hardcover books are much more successful than paperback books in the gift market, especially hardcover children’s books. The traditional hardcover jacketed storybook is in high demand and paperback storybooks have almost no sales.

Also, smaller formats tend to work better in gift stores because these retailers don’t put one or two copies of a title spine out on a shelf; they put a stack face-up on a table. So, a large format book might take up a couple of slots while a small book would take up only one.

Price ranges are different in the gift-store market too. Generally, list prices should be at or under $20, but probably not less than $10.

As you may have heard, you can have a big success with a book in the gift market, sell in once or twice, and then never get orders for that book again. These stores are trend-driven. They constantly turn over their assortments because they always need to show their customers new products in order to be successful.

On the plus side, though, these stores are not concerned about whether a book is frontlist or backlist. It only has to be new to them. And that means that gift stores can provide a wonderful way to keep backlist titles alive. A title that’s ten years old can fit beautifully into an assortment of seasonal cookbooks or books related to a holiday, or a host of other assortments.

A gift book catalog is essential for success with gift stores, which want to see only what’s appropriate for them and which may carry no more than six, a dozen, or, at the most, two dozen titles out of the whole world of what’s published each year. As IPG began hiring a dedicated gift rep sales force, we also began publishing a very selective gift catalog twice a year, including only books that really have a chance in that market.

Approximately 30 percent of our gift orders are generated directly at gift shows. Unlike BookExpo America, these are order-writing shows, and there are lots of them, most held twice a year, so there’s almost always a gift show going on somewhere.

What Museums Want

Museum stores used to be second-rate gift shops. Now they have become slick and forward-thinking retailers trying to accomplish two different missions simultaneously. One mission is supporting the museum by carrying books and products that relate to its collections. The other is generating revenue for the museum, and that one has caused these stores to grow in size and sophistication.

There are huge numbers of museum stores in this country, many of them now important customers for books. Less trend-driven than the gift stores, they want titles that relate to their collections. If you have such titles, you have a good chance to establish them as solid, long-term backlist in museum stores. We have titles that sell for years in particular museums.

Inside Other Outlets

Chain stores, including apparel chains, are probably the biggest and most markedly developing part of the special markets landscape right now. For example, Urban Outfitters has dedicated book space in its stores and routinely stocks 24 to 36 titles throughout the year, all of them titles that speak to this retailer’s hip college market.

Similarly, children’s apparel stores, toy stores, and children’s gift stores now stock kids’ books, while in general children’s books remain the top-selling titles in the gift market. Kid’s books make wonderful gifts—thoughtful gifts that express the giver’s knowledge of an individual child’s interests and capabilities, and indie publishers are very good at producing the slightly offbeat titles that can express special relationships.

Our gift reps handle sales to children’s stores, most of which are independent toy stores looking for something that is different from what Toys R Us and other chains are carrying. Here again, independent publishers’ titles are often a good fit because they are “not so mass market.”

IPG has sustained double-digit growth in special sales for many years and that pattern continues. Books are now sold in almost every kind of store, and increasingly so. When I’m out in the field working the gift shows, non-bookstore retailers often come up to me and tell me that books are their fastest growing category, and that they want to add more. Which seems like good news for all of us.


Michael Riley is sales director for special markets at Independent Publishers Group, which was the first independent press distributor and is now the second largest. This article is derived, with permission, from an interview with him conducted by Curt Matthews, IPG’s CEO, and posted on his blog.

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