I recently had the opportunity to lead a group of intrepid high school students on an educational tour of Baker Book House, the indie Christian bookstore that I’ve called home for the last decade or so. I had that opportunity because the store was approached by a teacher of one of Grand Rapids Christian High School’s Winterim courses on the publishing industry. The teacher, Kim Childress, is not a full-time teacher as such, but a person who has experience in the publishing industry who was simply teaching a two-week course.
In the the initial email that Kim sent to the store, she asked if we could take the kids around and tell them a bit about the retail side of the publishing industry. Specifically:
- How do we get books from publishers?
- What are the differences between ABA bookstores and CBA bookstores?
- What are the differences between indie bookstores and chains like Barnes & Noble?
- And what is the importance of a bookstore relationship to a writer of books?
They were great questions and between talking about the history of Baker Book House and answering these questions, the tour took about two hours. Perhaps I was a bit long-winded. On the upside, I’m going to answer some of these same questions here and it should take less than two hours for you to read them.
How do we get books from publishers?
Bookstores either buy directly from publishers or we get product from distributors. Publishers create the books in-house and they often have a sales team that calls on larger accounts. Distributors cater to the needs smaller bookstores and are repositories for many publishers, but because they do not create the books themselves, they are not usually able to offer as great a discount as publishers. Sometimes, we get called on by independent sales representatives who sell products from many publishers.
The meeting with sales reps goes something like this. After a polite amount of small talk, the sales rep will open a catalog of products that will be released in the near future (from one month to six months in the future, usually). On each title, a sales rep will have a recommended quantity that they think your bookstore should buy. Discounts are usually offered on graduated system with the greatest discount given for the most products ordered. The recommended quantities are based on a combination of past sales of similar products and wishful thinking. The bookstore’s buyer must be able to realistically gauge their customer’s interest in these titles in order to bring in sufficient (but not excessive) supply at the best discount possible.
The sales rep will enter the order along with the special terms of the purchase (free shipping, 60-day payment terms, etc.). The buyer for the bookstore will take the order and create a purchase order for the products so that it can be received when it is shipped from the publisher. Once the book hits the bookshelves, they will usually stay there for about six months before they get returned to the publisher based on how they sold. In an ideal world, the buyer will not need to return any books because they will have bought the right amount at the beginning, but the world is not perfect in that way.
As an extra bit of information, our bookstore does a thriving trade in bargain (also known as “remainder”) books. These are books that have been on some store’s bookshelf, but did not sell there, so they were returned to the publisher. The publisher cannot sell them as brand new goods, so they mark them on the bottom page edge of the book and sell them at a steep discount to bargain book buyers. That’s why our store may have the same title at full-price on the bookshelf in one part of the store as well as for 60% off in our bargain department and with little noticeable difference between them.
What are the differences between ABA bookstores and CBA bookstores?
First, it would probably help to understand that ABA stands for the American Booksellers Association and CBA stands for the Christian Booksellers Association. As such, there are probably certain philosophical differences between the two types of stores. But for a practical answer, the difference is largely one of selection.
ABA stores offer a wide selection of books from all publishers. CBA stores offer a narrow selection from specifically Christian publishers. This is not exclusive by any means, as some CBA stores (like Baker Book House) offer some mainstream, family friendly products that are available in ABA stores. But the majority of the product that CBA stores carry is going to be religious in nature.
What are the differences between indie bookstores and chains?
At chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Family Christian Stores, buying decisions happen on a corporate level and represent all of the stores within that chain. As such, the selection at one chain bookstore is going to be virtually identical to others within that chain. As in any corporate situation, decisions take time and even more time to filter down into the bookstores themselves.
Indie bookstores can operate without this corporate red tape, thus they are much quicker to respond to the needs of customers. If a buying trend emerges, chains may get a better discount on the product, but indies are more able to get it into their stores first. So it is most a battle between buying power and agility.
And what is the importance of a bookstore relationship to a writer of books?
Many writers, when not holed up in their homes, can be found writing in coffee shops. But the wisest writers write in bookstores. Or, at the very least, are frequent shoppers at bookstores. Aside from the simple inspiration of being surrounded by other published works, writers need to cultivate a relationship with a bookstore for research reasons as well.
You see, in the manuscript proposal step in getting your writing published, publishers want to see a list of your book’s competition. They need to know if what you are writing is needed in the marketplace, that your book fits in with the other books that they publish, and that you are capable of doing some simple marketing homework in order to promote your own book. The book buyer at the local bookstore will have all of this knowledge on hand. In order to sell books, they know the current needs as well as the books that might be a writer’s competition.
And when your book is published, they can help you promote it with events and sales.
Bookstores are also great places to connect with other writers. Perhaps even form writers’ group that will amplify the success and resources of its members.
So that’s pretty much what I told the high school students. And now that I’ve read over this post, I wouldn’t be surprised if it took as long to read as the original tour did.
Sorry about that. But hey, knowledge is power! Right?
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Other resources for those curious about the publishing industry: