What the Chains Want

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December 2014
by Mark Voigt
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barnes-and-noble-booksellersThe process of selling to bookstore chains is much the same no matter which chain is involved. However, during my 13 years as IPG’s salesperson for these chains, I’ve seen that it is important to be aware of some differences.

Preparations

Calling on Barnes & Noble is one of my favorite parts of my job. The people there obviously love books and have built a strong company based on that love. But they also have very strong business acumen (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have built such a strong company). They are very good at what they do.

Selling them takes a lot of preparation, much of which happens long before I go in and meet with buyers. I do a lot of it myself, but I get a lot of help from colleagues at IPG. What’s required is gathering the correct data, transmitting the correct data, auditing it, and making sure things are set up on the B&N system, ready for orders, before I walk through the door.

Of course, B&N wants title information as metadata. In the old days, publishers and distributors provided the information on title cards and floppy disks when they met with buyers. Now we use weekly automated ONIX feeds to send all title data months before meetings. A few buyers still want to see the metadata on paper, but more and more we work with Edelweiss digital onscreen catalogs.

The metadata we send includes information about marketing budgets and the availability of co-op funds for particular titles. Publicity plans and budgets are included too (publicity that has been confirmed in advance is generally part of our ONIX feed to many, many accounts).

Also, the metadata includes an analysis of comparable titles for each book. Barnes & Noble wants those “comparable” titles to be truly relevant, so publishers need to research related titles thoroughly and describe them appropriately.

In general, B&N will not deal with a publisher that can’t use EDI, ASN, and the rest of the ingredients in today’s electronic- ordering alphabet soup. The chain has very specific trading criteria that publishers must meet. This is a matter of efficiency—if Barnes & Noble received a paper invoice for every title that it carries, it would have to deal with literally truckloads of paper.

Once the data has been set on their system with the electronic communication, the buyers and I start our discussions about the books in person. That is often followed with a good deal of back and forth through e-mail and phone calls.

Presentations

I go to Barnes & Noble every month to present titles six months in advance of their publication dates. For a typical visit to B&N headquarters in New York City, I generally set up 10 to 15 appointments, which means I see just about every buyer in the building every time I’m there. A complete sales call takes two full days. Each buyer is an expert in particular subject areas or genres, and because IPG has titles in almost every category, I need to see all the buyers.

When we meet, the buyers access all the metadata that IPG has transmitted to them. The information about our titles that they call up on their screens includes cover images, book specifications, prices, author bios, and analyses of comparable books, along with notes I have written to highlight particular points for special attention.

To get an appointment with a B&N buyer, a publisher needs to have at least five new titles to present. As a result, a smaller publisher working just one category may not qualify and a publisher that does ten high-quality new books a year with two titles in each of five different categories will not qualify either.

This policy can seem unfair to indie publishers. But B&N has to be so tough about it because so many books are being published. On the days when I see eleven different buyers, those buyers are usually seeing eleven different reps. Without a minimum-title requirement, they would simply be buried in book presentations. Of course, an important function of distributors, including IPG, is solving this problem.

Sometimes it’s hard to get B&N buyers to pay attention to the niche titles that are the bread and butter of most indie publishers. For example, an extremely specialized book— something like Stamp Collecting in Outer Uzbekistan, is going to have a limited retail presence and therefore little appeal to these buyers. But many books from independent publishers represented by IPG have identifiable geographic or subject-driven markets, which means that it is possible to identify store locations where they can be placed and will sell through.

Barnes & Noble buyers know which stores are especially good at handling certain subject categories, and of course they realize that regional books will sell best in the regions they focus on. Because they rank their stores’ performance by general sales volume, by traffic, and by sales within a category, a store could be an “A” store for sports books, and a “C” store for political science titles.

Most books get shelf space in some stores, although a book on a topic that is highly specialized or rarefied will usually be stocked only in “A” stores in its category.

After They Buy The Books

Once we get a book sold in at Barnes & Noble, we follow up with information on review attention and publicity hits. The buyers want to hear what is being done to support the titles they have brought in. It is just as important to keep buyers apprised of publicity developments after a book is in stores as it is to keep them apprised of publicity developments when a book is shipping to stores.

The value of publicity cannot be overestimated. If I go to a buyer with a book from a publisher that has a great track record for getting good publicity, the buyer will remember that, and buy the new book accordingly. Because each and every B&N buyer knows that Chicago Review Press’s publicity department delivers great results, their titles get larger initial buys than would otherwise be the case, and of course there are other IPG client publishers who are also known for generating excellent publicity.

As is widely known, the national chains’ returns rate is higher than the return rate for retail bookselling in general— usually about 50 percent higher; i.e., 30 percent versus 20 percent. But every now and then the returns are beyond that benchmark.

For instance, earlier this year B&N changed its formula for determining which titles would stay in stores. The company decided to return titles that had not sold out of a specific store in a year and a half. That change hit a lot of publishers very hard and it hit us as a distributor pretty hard as well. The good news is that this process is finished, and that it freed up space—space in the stores as well as space in the buying budget. So buyers were given a little freer rein to look at new books, which means their product mix is probably better now.

Comparing Chains

Books-a-millionDealing with Books-A-Million is somewhat different. Because this chain doesn’t carry as wide a variety of books as B&N, many titles I can place into B&N stores often won’t be stocked in any Books-A-Million stores. The company is a little more focused than B&N on bestsellers and high profile titles. But its stores do function as general bookstores, and its buyers do not reject titles when I can explain why Books- A-Million customers will come in and buy copies.

In general, the preparation for meetings with Books-A-Million buyers is similar to the preparation required by B&N. Since Books-A-Million doesn’t have quite as many buyers, each buyer is buying more subjects, but we’re still basically trying to sell the same number of titles with the same range of information that we have to deliver electronically.

As for Borders, some publishers have wondered whether its failure was a harbinger of the future for the bricks-and-mortal national chain sort of bookselling. My short answer is no.

Borders had a lot of issues. At one point, that chain was the leader in data management for book retail, and everyone looked at how its system worked and admired it. But over time the company lagged behind the competition.

Here is one example of how they fell behind. If a copy of a book such as Thoreau’s Walden sold on the first day of a quarter, it would not be replaced until after the last day of that quarter. So Borders stores were out of stock on key products too often.

An additional misstep was training customers to wait to buy until they could buy at a discount. If you were on the Borders e-mail list, you could count on getting some percentage off pretty much once a week and, in many cases, twice a week. This hurt Borders’ margin, and then, of course, the company was unable to reinvest in infrastructure to improve ordering.

Borders also made a mistake by spending money in certain areas to the detriment of spending it on IT. Of course, it didn’t help that at one point the company was changing CEOs about every six months.

I think that Borders’ failure was the result of a combination of such factors, plus competition from online booksellers, most notably Amazon. Remember that Borders gave Amazon the online chunk of its business from the beginning, and for five or six years. Basically, it told its main competitor, “Here, why don’t you take this chunk of my business, and then maybe give it back to me later?” Well, we know how that worked out. Borders was never able to regain that business.

In light of all that, I do not think that the Borders’ failure is a harbinger of anything. Both Barnes & Noble and Books- A-Million will remain primarily focused on books, but they are exploring new sideline products to sell and they are refining the supply chains that link them to their vendors. This is the work they need to do to stay relevant in a fast-changing retail environment.


Mark Voigt, known as Sporty to colleagues and friends, has been IPG’s salesperson to the national chain bookstores since 2001. Today, he calls on Books-A-Million and on both the trade and the college division of Barnes & Noble. A couple of years ago he was B&N’s “Rep of the Year.” 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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