Thursday, July 31, 2008

Going to Market!

...But I know I'll be a book some day
at least I hope and pray that I will...

All this week, we've talked about how a story becomes a book. And now that we've got the book made, we need to sell it... and that's where Jennifer Laughran comes in.

Jenn... you wear three different hats in the book world (Jenn is also an associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency), but today we want to know about your role as a "gatekeeper". You're a buyer and events person for Books Inc., one of the bigggest and best indies in the country. And that means you help decide what the store will carry, and what it won't. I guess what we all really want to know is how you decide what to buy? We know the publishing houses send sales guys (and gals) out to the stores, but how do you pick your books when there's so much to choose from?

Larger publishers send the buyers a lovely sales kit, full of catalogues, marketing materials, ARCs, etc. The buyers paw through them. The sales rep comes to visit. We go through the catalogue page by page with the sales rep, looking up info about each title as we go. For example, what numbers past titles by the same author or on the same topic or in the same series have done. We then use those numbers, combined with the spiel the rep gives us, to decide how many of each title to get, and what to skip. The reps know us and our stores needs very well, and are a tremendous help. They are not just trying to be "boosters" -- the best reps are very very honest about what they think will do well for us, and we trust them.Smaller pubs, we just go through the catalogues on our own, in the same way.

Are there certain kinds of books you absolutely won't carry?

There is no genre or type of book that we categorically "will not carry" -- we cater toward our neighborhood clientele however. So since most people in my neighborhood shun shiny Disney character books and love thinky hardback literature type books -- I tend to go heavy on the latter and very light on the former. At a different store, this equation would certainly be different. We do have 10 stores, and I think that each location has a different looking inventory because they are really customized for the neighborhoods.

And once they're in the store, how long do you keep them around? If you really love a book, will you keep it on the shelves forever?

Every buyer has their own formula. For me, adult hardcover fiction has about 8 weeks to sell before I start culling down (from 5 copies to 2, for example), and I will return all copies if it hasn't sold in 12 weeks. Simple reasoning - adult hardcover relies greatly on publicity to sell. If the publicity hasn't hit and done its job in that time, it isn't going to, and there are more books vying for attention and shelf space every week. Paperbacks and books about specialized topics have more time. And so do children's books in all categories. Children's books rely very much on word-of-mouth, and on being embraced by teachers & librarians, etc., to start picking up steam. Some of our bestselling kids books are ones that have been out for years now, while new ones might languish for a while before they start going. Still, do we keep them forever? No. It has to sell some copies. If I or one of the other booksellers loves-loves-loves a book that is maybe getting overlooked, we'll write a "shelftalker" -- that is the little card with a recommendation that goes underneath the book -- and that will usually give a favorite title a good boost. Then it doesn't get returned! Yay!

Do you order many books you don't like, but that you know will sell? Do you ever direct someone away from a book you don't like?

I don't like lots of things. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I don't like MOST things. So, I order things that I think my customers will like. I don't tell people my personal feelings about a book unless they ask me directly, and even then I'll hedge and be diplomatic. "You know, that isn't MY favorite, but it got terrific reviews and it is selling really well, so..."

Are there any secrets to handselling? What are you pushing right now?

It is just like selling anything, I suppose. You try and figure out what the customer wants and how you can quickly customize your pitch to them. A librarian is looking for books for a different reason than a grandma or a six-year-old. They might all end up with the same book! But how I sell it will be different for each person. There are other secrets, of course, but I can't tell them, or I'll be kicked out of the guild. And what I decide to push varies from day-to-day. Come shop in my store, and I'll sell you something nice.

Is there any way an author can effectively suck up to you so that you'll handsell their book?
Besides writing a great book?


How much does the book's cover matter, in terms of what you order, and also in terms of what seems to sell?

A lot.

Do blurbs matter a lot?

Not for kids. Maybe for adults who are clueless and just grasping for any sort of information about the book and need a reason to pick one book over another. If there are two gigantic middle-grade dragon books with blue covers and glitter, you might pick the one that has a blurb by Neil Gaiman over the one with the blurb by Joe Schmo, cause Neil Gaiman is an expert, right? But then again, if you don't like Neil Gaiman, your preference will go the other way.

In addition to being a buyer and an agent, you run the wickedly successful Not Your Mother's Book Club. How'd that come about? Why do you think it's been such a hit? What's different about it?

I wanted to bring awesome YA authors to the kids in my neighborhood, and do fun events rather than boring typical "author visits" or some book club where it is like homework. I try and make our events more like a party, and I give away lots of free stuff and have food, etc. And the kids respond really well.

Do you think in-store events like that affect sales much, or are they more about the community of the bookstore?

Both. The sales may not be huge on the night of the event - but in the long-term, they are definitely up for that book and the authors other books. And the YA section as a whole has probably tripled in size and sales.

What's been your best event so far?

Mmm... there have been a lot of great ones. I liked "GOTH PROM" with Holly Black and Cassie Clare, that was fun. We did a HUGE event for Stephenie Meyer when the last book came out -- about 500 people -- but we also hosted a private lunch for just 12 kids and Stephenie. That was amazing! And we did a party at a cafe with Sarah Dessen that was absolutely phenomenal -- it was a couple of years ago, and the kids that went to it will remember it forever.

And what's on your nightstand?

My "nightstand" is actually a wooden chair with -- hang on, let me count -- um, about 45 books on it. But the ones at the top are the ARCs for Forest of Hands and Teeth from Delacorte, and Eon from Viking.

Last question-- you juggle a lot, as an agent, buyer, event planner. What's the hardest part of your job?

Finding time to read

Thanks Jennifer! Our book is almost there! It's been bought and now it is heading for the shelves...


Lisa Schroeder said...

Excellent post - so informative! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions, Jenn!!

Anonymous said...

Very fun interview- I loved reading it! :)

Anonymous said...

I am always impressed by your accomplishments, Jen. Kudos to you for everything you do for lit and with readers and authors.