As a bookseller, you have to field a lot of questions from the general public:
- Is this title available in The Netherlands?
- Do I pay the actual price that’s on the book?
- Is that dead wasp part of your window display?
- Where do I catch the number 75 bus?
But every so often, somebody will come in and ask:
Where do you find all this stuff?
Whether this person is genuinely impressed by our range of books, or just plain bemused, it’s hard to say.
My standard answer to this question tends to be along the lines of:
It’s nothing to do with me. Magic Book Pixies bring all the books in the dead of night.
Well, customers do have a tendency to gloss over if you tell them anything bordering on the truth.
I thought it would be fun however on this blogpost (well fun for me anyway) to try and answer the question in earnest.
How do I go about choosing new books for my shop?
Where exactly do I go?
What methods do I use, and which of these are the most successful?
So a Top Ten of:
Hey Publishers. This is what’s working!
Now, some of the entries will be included due to a good hit rate (ie a high percentage of books I encounter this way will make it into the shop) while others on the list may just account for a large number of books ordered, but with maybe a lower hit-rate.
So naturally, to take all this into account, I’ve devised a highly complicated mathematical formula (cough, cough, ahem) and here, cue drum roll, are the results, with number one being the most popular method used to “find all this stuff.”
1: Catalogues (yes, paper ones!!)
I know what you’re thinking:
“Catalogues? What century do these booksellers live in?
Do they still wear bonnets, travel on horseback and engage in regular use of quill and parchment?”
Well granted, this may seem a bit old fashioned, but hear me out: this is the most surefire way to get a book into my shop.
What do booksellers spend a lot of their spare time doing?
No, apart from snacking.
That’s right. We read objects made from paper. It’s kind of what we’re all about.
So if you’re a publisher, you can’t really go wrong by sending me another object made from paper, this one featuring all your upcoming titles.
Although we all live in the Electronic Age, with most of us incapable of performing even the mildest nosepick without first consulting an app, wholesalers Bertrams and Gardners thankfully still see fit to issue hard copy catalogues of their new titles (Buyer’s Notes) to booksellers, as do many publishers, and this suits me fine.
In quiet moments at the shop (that stretch before lunchtime and then that other stretch after lunchtime), I like nothing better than to sit down, get the fig rolls out and read a book catalogue from cover to cover.
Of course, if I’m reading an actual book on the shop floor, I tend to look a bit uninterruptible, which is not terribly good for business.
If I’m enjoying the book, I may not want to be interrupted, which is even worse.
And if I’m reading an online publisher’s catalogue as I sometimes do, well the problem is this: I’m very easily distracted.
For instance, I often find, when reading a serious online World Affairs story, that I suddenly seem to be clicking through fifty pages of Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunction photos as if my life depended on it, but with no idea how or when this change came about.
So no, this kind of thing doesn’t happen with paper catalogues.
If you’re reading a particular page, there’s no sneaky sidebar or bookmark toolbar tempting you off it again.
I recently received the Spring edition of a magazine called Pinboard from Pan Macmillan Publishers.
I immediately took a shine to it because of the three words at the top of the front page:
- For Independent Booksellers
These are three of my favourite words, right up there with:
- Café Still Open
- Biscuits On Offer and
- Starring Ben Whishaw
So yes. Music to my ears.
This is quite literally the magazine for me, and I’m not lending it to any of you Chainies or Stoners, so there.
The magazine itself contains an array of interesting and attractively-arranged book previews for 2018, each one accompanied by Extracts, Q&As, offers of Point of Sale or Proof Copies and (this was the clincher) Dear Bookseller columns from the authors.
OK, so being addressed directly by authors probably appeals to my vanity, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if one or two of the authors had thought the following:
What? It’s not enough that we have to rely on these idiot gatekeepers to sell our beloved literary offspring. Now we have to write bloody letters to them too. I bet this didn’t happen to Nabakov.
However I certainly enjoyed hearing from all these writers in detail about the contents of their books and why they wrote them.
Some of the authors were new or unfamiliar to me, and others well-known.
Adam Kay’s magazine entry (10 Things I Learned From Book Tours) made for hilarious reading and no, I can’t link to it, sorry.
It’s only in the magazine.
You’ll have to order a copy, or fish that unread one out of your recycling, fool!!
Oh alright. In the spirit of having something genuinely funny on my blogpost, here’s a sample:
When a bookseller asks what you want to drink at the bar before an event, say ‘a bottle of Asahi’ very carefully. It’s difficult to do a reading when you’re hammered on a bottle of sake, having been too embarrassed to correct the mistake.
(No. I had no idea what Asahi is either, but I see it has a rating of 5% on ratebeer.com. Tough crowd over there!)
There was also an interesting column written by The Secret Barrister.
All very enlightening, though personally, I’m holding out for The Secret Santa and The Secret Secret Agent.
My point is this: I gave a lot of time to this catalogue and have now ordered many if not all the books that I came across.
Even those I haven’t ordered are now firmly lodged in my subconscious mind.
All it will take is one mention elsewhere, and on cue, I will react as follows:
Ooh, yes. I’ve read about that somewhere before. Better get a copy in.
So it’s full marks from me to Pan Macmillan.
Have I ever looked at the Pan Macmillan website?
Case closed. Catalogues are at Number One.
Most of the books in my shop are ordered this way.
(Sorry, not very green I know!)
2: Book Prizes
There are thousands of books published each year.
How do we sort out the wheat from the chaff?
(And is there a gluten-free alternative?)
Well, one very effective way we do this is by letting others do it for us, you know, experts, in the form of Book Prizes, of which are there are very many.
As soon as a shortlist is announced for one of the major book prizes, this will often be followed by an almighty scramble, as wrong-footed bookshops attempt to order stock as quickly as possible.
It doesn’t really matter if half of these titles are completely unreadable or unworthy (and let’s face it, judges seldom get accused of getting it right) because just having a Prize Sticker on the front of a book can be enough.
Imagine you are explaining to a customer why a particular work of fiction is so brilliant, only for that customer to remain unconvinced.
Maybe you told them that:
The main character is a loss adjuster.
The entire book is basically one sentence.
You learn a lot about reconstructive facial surgery.
Hmm. Not going too well.
But, if you can then flip the book back to the cover and say:
this bit of Tarzan Speak can bring the whole train back onto the track, as if by magic.
Ah, the Pritt Stick Good Morning Britain Style Challenge International Women’s Prize. Yes. I’ll take it.
So, when it comes to a major book prize, will my shop take the shortlisted titles?
Do we take the longlisted titles?
More than likely.
What about that super long Carnegie pre-longlist that seems to consist of pretty much every single children’s book that was published in the previous year?
Well no, maybe not all of those.
There’s just too many, and that list always seems a bit unfair on the two authors who aren’t on it, and who now presumably have to endure many weeks of self-imposed Twitter exile in order to preserve any last vestiges of self-esteem.
But generally speaking, being on a prize list is a very good way of ensuring your book hits our shop floor.
Sales won’t necessarily follow, but hey, they might.
It’s got the sticker and it’s in the shops.
That’s half the battle won.
(When I talk about Major Book Prizes, this would include say the William Sports Book of The Year, the Forward Poetry Prize, the (much-missed) Roald Dahl Funny Prize, that sort of thing, but not Silver Medal awards that the author has paid 150 dollars to “win.” Sorry. Self-published authors see here.)
3: Book Blogs
Book Bloggers are the unsung heroes of the book trade.
They inhabit uniquely quiet non-commercial outposts of the internet, offering us personable and informative reviews of books both old and new, and all done out of a genuine love of literature.
Well, you knew that, didn’t you?
In which case, why spend so much time reading (mostly fake) book reviews on sites run by infamous, multinational, soul-destroying, labour-exploitative oppressors?
And yes, that includes Goodreads too.
The publishing industry should cherish Book Bloggers and the impressive body of work many of them have built up over the years.
At a time when book reviews in the National Press are fairly hard to come by, bloggers’ support for new authors is especially crucial.
These days, this support often takes the form of a Blog Tour.
On each day of a Blog Tour, a different blog will provide a review or maybe an interview, certainly some intriguing copy on a newly-released title.
As a consequence, the book in question can find itself featured in an invaluable 25 articles or so, spread over as many days.
Blog Tours are easily the best kind of tour as the author doesn’t actually have to go anywhere.
They can happily do the whole thing while sat in bed eating a Swiss Roll.
They don’t even have to open the curtains.
Meanwhile, industrious book bloggers will be giving them that valuable first foothold in the world of publicity.
Lest we forget, it was book bloggers who championed Sarah Perry right from Book One.
There was none of this talk of “70.53% market share” back then.
Cos with bloggers: it’s all about the book.
As you can tell, I love reading Book Blogs, and have ordered many books for my shop having found out about them this way.
Hence their high position on this list.
A few of my favourites are:
There are of course loads more.
If you want to find some yourself (and you really should), googling Book Blog is a bit of a waste of time.
I recommend finding Blog Tour posters on Twitter which will list all the bloggers’ Twitter usernames, and just following these through.
What’s more, many bloggers use their own sites to link to other good blogs.
They are generous in that way.
On a personal note, after running this blog for over a year now, I do begin to appreciate exactly what bloggers have to go through.
It is quite common to have more Malicious Attacks on your site per day than actual readers (well it is for me anyway) and for every genuine user comment, you have to endure another three hundred written in fluent Spamglish.
As an example, here are a few recent “comments” received on this site:
Bedsheets that are made of flannel fabric are the best kind of bedsheets.
(Thanks for the info. Not quite sure what this has to do with Publisher Embargoes.)
Would turning into a freelance paralegal be a good choice for you?
(No, but I appreciate your vote of confidence in my bookselling skills.)
Some salons have high power UV lamps which can shorten the amount of time you need to expose yourself.
(Good to know. Shortening the amount of time I expose myself is a huge daily concern.)
My sister has a dancewear that is full of glitter, it looks cheeky but nice.
(Thanks for informing me about your sister’s dancewear on my blogpost about Philip Pullman. So often, cheeky can venture into horrible territory, so I’m glad your sister has avoided that. )
4: Authors Paying A Visit
It is quite common these days for new authors to get sent on the road to visit bookshops.
Publishers (often housed in the South) will think nothing of asking an author to visit bookshops in say, Scotland, The North, The Midlands and East Anglia in the space of one afternoon.
All the relevant bookshops are forewarned in advance of the visit, in order to avoid potential embarrassment on the day itself:
What was your name again? Ah no. We don’t actually stock your book as such, sorry about that. So, em…………….how’s the tour going so far?
Authors we have met in this way are always charming, or very good at acting.
Maybe publishers don’t send charmless authors out on charm offensives.
The personal connection made between author and shop does ensure that I am very likely to stock books by this author in the future.
Sure enough, as soon as I see the author’s name in a New Titles Catalogue, I’m reminded that:
Wait a minute. She’s that cheerful young lady who came in to see us. Do you remember? For some unknown reason, I came over all maternal and started checking whether her coat was thick enough and whether she wanted to borrow a scarf. I also offered to make her a sandwich and kept offering her lifts to places she wasn’t going to. She was lucky I didn’t start telling her to be careful on social media or make an attempt to breastfeed her. That’s the one, yes. She also brought us alcoholic goodies. Let’s take 15 copies.
(N.B. Bribery is another good way of getting your book into Indie Bookshops.)
5: Newspaper Round-Ups
If, as a bookshop, you attempted to order every book reviewed across the National Press in the course of one week, you would soon find your shop becoming seriously over-stocked.
You might have to order in say, twenty titles, in order to have stock of that one title you are asked for.
It would be nice to accommodate every customer who walks in clutching a newspaper review, but it is highly unrealistic and a lot of regular customers are happy to order.
However, I am putting Newspaper Round-ups at Number Five as these tend to have a better hit rate.
These might include:
- Books of the Year articles.
Last year, sales of Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends reignited after it was chosen by many columnists as their Book of the Year. We’d returned our copies by this point and had to operate a swift about-turn.
- Summer Reads recommended by journalists and authors.
These are always worth having a look at, though some authors have a tendency to pick 700-page hardbacks published by University of Wisconsin Press as their “holiday” read.
Really? Try sticking that in your “day at the beach” bag and let’s see how you get on.
- That article where publishing people pick the books they wish they had published and the ones they think should have done better.
I often take a mental note to order a few of the latter category when they are published in paperback at a later date.
Unfortunately, I have a tendency to forget the name of both the author and the title in the interim period.
This now makes me personally responsible for these books not doing as well as they should in paperback too.
6: Proof Copies
Proof copies are fab.
I like nothing better than sitting in a public space and reading an uncorrected proof copy of a book nobody else has heard of.
That’s right. Proof copy. Yes. You won’t be buying this for months. No. I know you didn’t ask.
Then, when a book is finally published, you can tell everybody that you read it “three months ago” when it was “full of jarring grammatical errors.”
This really is about as good as it gets for the modern day bookseller.
When you are lucky enough to own a proof copy of a book which goes on to achieve great success, you can congratulate yourself on sitting on a potential goldmine.
This is before you remember that you:
- read the book in the bath
- forcibly bent the pages back
- used an old Curly Wurly wrapper as a bookmark and
- deposited a glut of curry-dribble stains throughout.
So yes. Sending out proof copies is a very good way of ensuring a book ends up being stocked by my shop.
Unless I hate it, of course.
But even then, the whole “getting it for free” thing tends to lead to a charitable response:
Having said that, as debut novels written in verse narrated by unborn foetuses go, it’s probably in my Top Five.
7: Bestseller Lists
It is now possible to access bestseller lists put together entirely from data supplied by Indie Bookshops.
These lists tend to elicit the following response:
Oh God. These “Indie” charts are just designed to encourage us all to stock the same books, just another nail in the coffin of……… Hang on: we ought to stock this one……. individuality. We’re all turning into identikit bookshops, just a bunch of carbon…… actually we should probably have this one as well……. copies. Well, not me. I refuse to play this……….and that one, but that’s definitely it……… game. ”
Whereas pretty much every other bestseller chart tends to bring on the following reaction:
Who the hell is selling all those Joe Wicks books? It’s not me.
Bestseller lists are definitely worth a quick look.
Sometimes my shop will have missed out on ordering a very obvious title.
When you find out this is the case, it’s high time for a bit of stomping around in mock anger, accompanied by a volley of half-asked questions:
How come…? Why haven’t we…? How long has that…?
None of this will hide the fact that this ordering oversight is probably your own fault.
I’d be wary of any bestsellers charts provided by individual bookshops however.
When I worked at a large bookshop, we routinely faked our Top Ten Sellers.
Books that we stocked in huge numbers would suddenly pop up in our Top Ten display unit as a Number Two Bestseller without anyone having apparently sold a copy.
Naturally, I wouldn’t be party to a fake Top Ten these days.
So, straight in at number eight, it’s:
8: TV/Film Adaptations
If there’s one rule in my shop that we all have to abide by, it’s this:
It doesn’t matter how good a TV program or film is, how brilliant the direction, how stunning the location or how utterly swoonsome the lead actress or actor may be, we don’t want to see any of that on the book cover, thank you.
I don’t know why, but I have an aversion to film tie-in jackets.
The film is the film. The book is the book.
Saoirse Ronan does not appear in Colm Toibin’s book Brooklyn.
Therefore she does not need to appear on the cover of the book, any more than a photo of Colm Toibin needs to grace the cover of the DVD.
That’s just how it is.
Besides which, it’s quite easy for bookshops to get stuck with unsold film-jacketed editions of books.
Recent sales (in my shop) of The Handmaid’s Tale, Little Women, Call Be My Your Name (with a film jacket, no less), The Chase Quiz Book and various Paddington titles all testify to the ongoing importance of visual media when it comes to book sales.
We all pretend those Animal Hospital books never happened.
I love Twitter. Where else can you stumble across little nuggets of gold such as:
I don’t like to blow my own trumpet, but I’m so in love with my own Instagram feed at the moment.
Twitter is indeed the perfect medium for those of us keen to receive an “update on my lost notebook” from a complete stranger.
Obviously, Twitter is greatly used by the publishing industry.
New authors are
forced by their publishers to post daily minutiae and thank every reader individually embracing the medium with ever-willing gusto.
But do bookshops order books they come across on Twitter?
Well, we do. A bit.
I could probably divide authors into three groups here as to the success of Twitter on this front:
a) Illustrators (very successful)
Twitter is the perfect medium for showcasing the imaginative visual skills of say, Chris Riddell, Laura Ellen Anderson or Elise Gravel. I often order illustrated books and graphic novels after seeing a Twitter pic first.
b) Authors whose books have gorgeous covers (quite successful)
I am a sucker for those beautiful cloth hardbacks, you know the ones, with the gold-edged writing, that are basically hardbacks without the dust jackets, but somehow they just exude luxury and look good enough to eat or possibly sleep with, though you later find out it’s written by a former Greek Finance Minister, so you should maybe stop thinking about pleasuring yourself with it, and sit up and concentrate a bit.
I often order books I see on Twitter based on cover alone.
c) Everyone else (not successful)
Sorry everyone else.
You can be the best novelist in the world but the sublime intricacies of your plotting are probably not going to come across on Twitter, which is full of people like me who just look at the pictures.
In spite of some noble efforts by authors to re-invent the short story on Twitter, you may just have to contend yourself with the following:
- taking photos of your own book, which you have “stumbled upon” in a shop.
- professing “shock” at finding yourself on a bestseller chart, though here is the chart so you can all be shocked too, and do feel free to spread the shock further.
- firing ripostes back at Donald Trump, because let’s face it: none of us can know what the US president is going on about without the help of a midlist author.
Or of course you could just rely on your books getting into shops other ways, which they clearly do in my case, as I’m only putting Twitter at Number Nine.
10: Spying On Other Shops
Be under no illusion.
None of the following things happen:
I would never go into another bookshop and, in a highly clandestine fashion, jot down titles of books for my own bookshop to order.
Nor would I download that photograph of your shop you posted online, and then zoom in on it with the sole purpose of working out what that intriguing book might be, just over your right-hand shoulder.
That would never take place.
And when “genuinely honoured” authors post photos of their own books in close proximity to other better-known books (“in such stellar company”), it would never occur to me to check that we have those other better-known books in stock.
Over my dead body would this sort of stuff go on.
You heard nothing.
You read nothing.
This blogpost will self-explode in…..
(BUBBLING UNDER THE TOP TEN:)
11: Celebrity Endorsement
As we all know, celebrities are a bit like us but much better.
For the publishing industry, celebrity endorsement is the jackpot of free publicity.
A positive book club review from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon or Zoella can catapult a title into the public consciousness.
Reese Witherspoon optioned Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine before many UK bookshops had even heard of it.
If you’re really lucky, Emma Watson might secretly (ie very publicly) leave copies of your feminist tract on the London Underground.
All these endorsements by celebs are obviously a huge boon for the book in question but also very good for the profile of books in general.
They reinforce the idea that the printed book is a desirable item.
Mind you, last time I went on the Underground, all I found was a half-eaten Happy Meal and a scrunched up copy of the Daily Mail.
Yeah. Thanks a bundle, Watson.
12: Radio Coverage
This is quite a typical conversation in bookshops:
Customer: Do you stock the book that was on Book at Bedtime last night?
Bookseller: What was it called?
Customer: I don’t know. I fell asleep.
Yes. Radio is the perfect forum for promoting books no-one hears the title of.
We stock the occasional book featured on the radio, but our tendency would be to order them in as customer orders.
Someone might hear about a backlist Margaret Drabble or Muriel Spark title on A Good Read.
They would then come to us to order it, and a mere three weeks later, the publisher would supply us with a non-returnable print on demand paperback edition with wavy pages and a bent corner, priced at 14.99.
13: Customer asks for the book
There is a bit of crossover with this category, as of course, a customer may have come across a book via any of the sources listed above.
However, it is certainly the case that some of the books in my shop were first asked for by customers, and subsequently stocked.
So it’s worth including here I think.
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls would be one such example, much as it pains to me to admit I might have missed picking it out as a stock item pre-publication.
Well, it happens. A lot. Certainly to me anyway.
In order not to miss out on these “asked for” items, I once kept a Lost Sales Book behind our counter, in which staff had to jot down books that we were asked for but didn’t have in stock.
(Unfortunately, we’ve now lost The Book of Lost Sales as well. D’oh.)
I do remember that one of our staff once wrote in it:
I’m not quite sure whether the customer wanted books on Marijuana or Mary Warnock but I said no because we don’t seem to stock either.
Of course, we don’t rush out and order everything we get asked for.
I once had a chap ask for books on Frottage.
I thought this might be some kind of decoupage-style craft technique.
Among other things, it turned out to be:
the practice of touching or rubbing against the clothed body of another person in a crowd as a means of obtaining sexual gratification.
In retrospect, I think this must have been what our chap was after.
He had a funny look in his eye and didn’t seem overly impressed by our craft section.
Naturally I didn’t immediately run out and order lots of books on the subject.
There aren’t any.
I checked, so you don’t have to.
So customer requests are sometimes a good guide to books we should stock, and sometimes very much not so.
And there we have it.
I promised you a Top 10 and gave you a Top 13.
That’s Indie Booksellers for you.
We always go just that little bit further!
Or perhaps we just don’t know when to shut up.
Probably the latter.
Oh, by the way, if you don’t like this blog, or find the posts too long, don’t blame me.
Most of it is written by Magic Book Pixies anyway.