Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
The other day I almost flipped past the page of Christian Retailing Magazine with the title “How to Plan Profitable Product Assortments for Your Store.” Then I paused. It occurred to me that by reading the article I might gain insight into how a bookstore buyer makes decisions about what to offer shoppers.
Today, let’s think like a bookstore retailer.
1. Managing inventory is a live or die proposition.
As book buyers and as book writers, we know that the bookstore owner has to make money to carry our books, to keep the doors open. But the article I read was all about how to manage that inventory and stay alive. As a writer, you think that, of course, a bookstore should carry your book, but if you’re a retailer, you would be smart to be cautious.
Bill Nielsen, the article’s writer and “Christian retail veteran,” has worked in executive-level positions with Family Christian Stores, Lifeway Christian Stores and Berean Christian Stores. Nielsen suggests this time-frame for sorting the wheat from the chaff on a bookstore’s shelves: “Any item that has not sold in more than 90 days is suspect. Items that have not sold in more than 150 days need immediate attention.”
What does that mean to an author? To keep your book on a bookstore shelf, you must do everything you can to muster your troops to buy your book within the first 90 days from a bookstore. If the store makes that sale, more copies of your book will be ordered. If the first copy or two (which is the most the buyer is likely to invest in before the book releases) don’t move within 90 days, that title is being shipped back to the publisher–never to be ordered again. (I, by the way, have heard that some stores return product in 4 weeks.)
As an author, you’re hard at work telling readers to buy your book; the retailer is at the other end of the chain, trying to figure out which product to keep on the shelf. Both of you want the retailer to make that sale, but authors don’t often think about how fast that sale has to take place.
3. The best sale a retailer can make is a special order. If a customer requests that the retailer special order a book and have it shipped directly to the customer, the retailer never has to handle the product and the retailer gets paid before he has to pay for his inventory. Nielsen describes this strategy as “the best and easiest way to generate profit-margin dollars…and give cash flow a shot in the arm.”
Thinking like a retailer, I see the benefit for the retailer, but I have to say, as a customer, exactly why do I trek off to a bookstore to have the retailer order it for me when I can, you know, order it from Amazon where my credit card info and address already reside?
I’m thinking neither the author nor the retailer should hold out hope to make a lot of money via bookstore special orders. Although, if you can convince all your relatives and friends to go to a bookstore and to special order your title, the retailer might decide there’s demand for your book and order one or two to put on his shelf–for 90 days.
4. Replenish core items often. A retailer knows he can’t afford to invest in inventory that doesn’t turn quickly. Having slow-turning inventory translates into unproductive shelf space. The Christian Retailing article suggests that with core product, one or two units be stocked but new orders be placed weekly. If a best-selling item is newly-released, then the buyer should obtain a four-month supply. Nielsen defines a core product as one in which at least six units are turned in a year.
Really? Six copies of a book sold per year puts it in the “core product” category? For a writer, that means the bar isn’t all that high to qualify your book for core product status. Concentrating efforts in specific geographic areas (such as where your novel takes place, your hometown, etc.) could mean your book is available for much longer than the initial 90 days.
5. Seasonal items are cleared out long before the “season” is over.Nielsen sees seasonal items as important to bookstores because they help the store to stay “relevant all year long.” But “the key is to order pre-season and stop replenishing four weeks before the season ends. For example, back-to-school items should be ordered to arrive by July 1 and should not be replenished after Aug. 1.”
For the writer that means start your seasonal marketing campaign well in advance of the actual season to stay in step with stores. No sense suggesting last-minute shoppers stop in at the local bookstore on Christmas Eve. Your book probably is on its way back to the publisher by then.
For me, reading this article constituted a vivid reminder of how bookstore retailers live on the razor’s edge. Each decision to stock or to return inventory can mean life or death to the store. And that decision can mean sale or no sale for your book.
What surprised you most as you tried to think like a bookstore retailer? What shifts might you make in how you market your book as a result of seeing the world from behind the cash register?
NOTE: As eager as I am to read your comments, I’ll be traveling when this blog posts. But I’ll check in when I return to the office.
What’s it like to be a bookstore owner? Click to tweet.
Writers: Think like a bookstore owner to market effectively. Click to tweet.