Friday, August 08, 2008

Getting stocked in book stores - updated edition

Following some comments made on the various writing sites that I post on, and one year on from my book being accepted by Gardners as a stocked title, I have decided to write an updated version of my original two posts from November last year on how to get stocked in book stores, thus bringing things up to date. Here then goes:

While smaller independent book stores may be happy to order direct from the author, increasingly they obtain their stock via wholesalers. In order to get stocked in book stores in the UK, you first then need to have an account with one of the wholesalers or distributors that stores obtain their titles from. It is also preferable that the books are actually stocked by one of these wholesalers, Gardners and Bertrams being the biggest players in the UK.

There are two ways that book stores obtain books from such wholesalers – the first as a special order, where copies are obtained direct from the publisher as and when they are needed. The publisher sends them to the wholesaler, who in turn sends them to the shop concerned. The second way is where the books are stocked by the wholesaler in their own warehouse and they fulfil all the orders direct. Wholesalers are quite choosy as which titles they take on board and expect all titles stocked by them to be available on terms of at least 55 percent discount (15 percent for them, 40 percent for the book stores) sale or return. This may not be a problem for traditionally self published authors, but print on demand titles are rarely available on such terms. Book stores then are often reluctant to stock such titles, unless they are local interest.

The guidelines from Gardner’s website state that Waterstones buy all their stock through them, but this is not entirely true. In order to sell to Waterstones it is necessary to have a trading account. To set this up, contact Independent Author Advisor Peter North by email and ask for a Waterstones Trading Application Form.

The print on demand author will not need to fill in these forms, since their provider will have already done this. All you need do is contact Peter, who will verify that your book(s) is/are acceptable, and he will then email you a spreadsheet of contact details for all stores. Then it is up to you to get ringing.

When a book sells through Waterstones, it will come up on a report the following day. It is then the buyer’s decision whether to reorder it. If the book has been on the shelves for less than 3 months, in 90% of cases it will be reordered. If it has been there for between 3 and 6 months, then the buyer will decide whether it is worth ordering more. Generally speaking, a book needs to sell at least 3-4 times a year to remain in stock.

If your book sells in sufficient numbers then it may be taken on as model stock, where it is automatically re-ordered by certain stores. Waterstones also operate a core stock system, with 12 grades ranging from A-M, and 6 grades in Irish and Scottish stores. Books accepted as core stock have to by default be stocked in a certain number of branches; A for example means that all branches must stock your book, B ninety percent and so on. Any book that sells more than around 50 copies for 3 consecutive months is likely to get noticed anyway, but it is always worth persuading a particular branch that your book does well in to champion your work, and recommend it to the core stock team, recommending that it be stocked by more branches.

With Waterstones you contact the stores first and once you have sufficient sales, the book tends to get taken on as core stock, with Borders however it is very much the other way around. Official policy states that authors are free to contact stores direct, but in practise most staff do not seem to realise this, and refer you back to Head Office. It is a catch 22 situation, whereby stores only stock titles supplied via Head Office, yet Head Office only take on titles that have a proven sales history. They rarely if ever take on board print on demand books. While you may be able to persuade your local store to let you do a talk or book signing, you would in my experience be very lucky to get stocked in other branches.

To have your book considered as core stock, send a copy together with the usual information (information sheet, reviews, sales figures if appropriate, press coverage, press releases etc) and a detailed marketing plan - this part is very important as they do not take on titles that are unlikely to sell and it is your job to show them that you are going to work hard at finding and/or creating that market. Send the information to their New Press Department, Stillerman House, 120 Charing Cross Road, London WC2 HOJR. Please note that all business with authors and publishers is conducted by mail, and telephone messages and emails are not responded to. Unlike Waterstones, Borders do not supply you with a list of contact details, so you have to get all the details from their website, a time consuming process. They only have about 80 stores anyway compared to over 300 Waterstones, so this is a doddle in comparison.

The other way to get listed with them is to get booked to do a talk or book signing at one of their stores as I did. Be careful though that they do not list the book as local interest as it is likely to end up on the wrong shelf, and other stores further afield may be reluctant to order because of this.

It is easier than you think then to get accepted by these stores. The really hard work begins after acceptance, as you have to get out there and tell the stores about your book, persuading them to order. Nevertheless, this is something that the serious self published author has to grit their teeth and get on with. The key is to know your market, understand how the supply chain works and be professional and courteous at all times.

No one likes cold calling, but this is something that the serious self published author has to grit their teeth and get on with. The key is to know your market, understand how the supply chain works and be professional and courteous at all times. After my book was accepted by Gardners as a stocked title last August (2007) I rang each Waterstones store in turn. I aimed to ring at least 10 stores a day, and managed to get stocked in almost one third of their stores and many independents.

Despite the rise in the Internet, the fact is that over 90 percent of books are still bought from stores, this is probably then the most important piece of marketing you can do. After all, if each store orders just 2 copies, this adds up to several hundred sales over a couple of months.

How should one approach the book stores when do you get round to ringing them and is it really worth the time and effort that this entails? I mean, no one likes to receive unsolicited sales calls at the best of times, do they? In this situation the calls are not exactly unsolicited, as when one works in or manages a book store, talking to authors who want you to stock their books goes with the territory, that is why Waterstones have people like independent author advisor Peter North in the first place - to help and advise independent and self published authors and put them on the right track.

Actually I have found it to be the most worthwhile piece of marketing I have ever undertaken. It does take a certain amount of courage to do this, and you have to know your market and your product, but you have already done that, right? Or you wouldn't have self published in the first place would you? I sincerely hope you did your research anyway, as if not, I fear you will be in for one hell of a shock.

The way that I did it then was to decide firstly on how many calls to make each day. You don't want to rush this and call everyone at once, as for one thing you rapidly tire of doing this, and for another, if you say it enough times it does start to sound rehearsed. You want your pitch to sound as natural as possible if you are to be in with a chance. I aimed to make between 10 and 12 calls a day and no more than that. You will need of course though some means of recording what has been said and who needs to be called next.

The spreadsheet of Waterstones details that Peter sends you is read only so you will need to copy this into a format that can be edited. I don't have Excel on my machine so I use Works instead, which is a somewhat simpler to use. I added several columns entitled contact name, date and what was said, and then follow up columns with dates as well. Sometimes you may need to contact a store several times before you get a result.

In my case I started with the local stores within say an hour of home, and then started to work down the list country wide from A to Z. I was at a somewhat advantage here, since living where I do on the crossroads to three counties meant that there were/are a relatively high number of stores that could be considered to be local.

The whole process of ringing countrywide took around 4-5 months to complete, and has in all honesty been ongoing, since I continually have to make follow up calls and send emails to build up a relationship with my stockists.

Who you need to speak to will depend on the size of the store you are calling, and unfortunately it is difficult for you to know this until they pick up the phone and tell you! The best approach is simply to explain who are and ask who the right person to speak to is. I said something like this “Good morning/afternoon, my name is June Austin and I am the author of a mind, body and spirit book entitled Genesis of Man, I was wondering who the right person would be to speak to about getting it stocked in your branch.” Note that it is important to use the word branch, as otherwise they will assume you mean the company as a whole and give you a spiel about how you need to go through Head Office first.

The book seller will then do one of several things - put you through to the right person, tell you they are not in or ask you send them some information. Sometimes they will also try and tell you that you have to go through Head Office. If they do this, then politely explain to them that you have already spoken to their independent author advisor (mention the name as well as this always impresses upon them that you know what you doing), who said that you are free to contact any store that you choose direct.

When you do get to speak to someone, make sure first of all that you get their name and their position within the store (manager, book seller whatever). Also make sure that you know exactly what you need to say (have it written down as a rough script if necessary) and that you have the ISBN close at hand, as they are bound to want to know this so that they can look it up.

If you are very lucky and say the right things, then they may agree to order copies then and there, but they are more likely to request further information. Whether you choose to send this by fax, email or letter is up to you, but email is of course by far the quickest and cheapest method. If you do send emails, then make sure they are not overloaded with attachments as they will not get through the system. I sent them a standard email with a copy of my information sheet and a link to the book trade page on my own website which contained(s) reviews, sample chapter etc should they wish for further information.

Make a note of whom you spoke to and sent the information to, and call them in a week’s time to make sure if was received and see what their interest is. I used my Works spreadsheet in conjunction with Works calendar to record this information. It is a useful tool since if it happens for example to be the persons day off when you call, then you simply make a note to call them on the next available day, which you will see when you open the calendar on that day.

One tip I will also pass on is that if you speak to a manager or book seller and they say that they will mention the book to the section manager of your genre (children's or whatever), see if you can get that persons name as well. Then when you call to follow up, do not ask for the store manager but the section manager direct. Store Managers are busy people and nine times out of ten when they tell you they are going to do something they don't, because they forget or get distracted. Talk then to the section manager direct, who makes the final decision to buy and save yourself a lot of time.

When I do get orders I also always send out a confirmation email thanking the store for their custom and providing a link to my website should they wish to use reviews etc for promotional purposes. Like I said earlier, these stores do get busy, and sometimes they may tell you they are going to order copies and then forget, so sending these emails serves to remind them.

It takes time and persistence to do this right, but it is worth the time and effort involved, as the only way to get noticed is to have sales through the tills - sales made direct to the public via your own website, talks, book fairs etc do not count towards your sales records, as despite your best record keeping, according to the industry, these cannot be proved.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Fat cats spray on Borders territory!

Reading The Bookseller online, and the various other bulletins that I receive from around the publishing world, plus of course reading between the lines, Borders Books seem to be experiencing a lot of problems of late.

It started back at the end of June with the closure of their Croydon store. This was rapidly followed by the closure of Lakeside. Since these were both stores which had agreed to stock my book, I would ordinarily have been quite upset, but in both cases, the books have long since been returned. Borders, unlike some of their competitors, seem to return books which have failed to sell after exactly three months, which does not in my opinion, give them a fair chance, but then that is the company all over, and given my experiences, which I have detailed on here on many an occasion, I cannot say that I am altogether surprised at their difficulties.

These closures appear to be the least of their problems, since there are also changes afoot within the Buying Team, in fact the whole way in which they buy their stock is being re-structured. Three positions are being cut within the eight strong Buying Team, with all existing Buyers being asked to re-apply for their jobs. These changes, from what I can tell, have been brought about by the imminent closure of the company's supply base in Truro, and the decision to instead obtain stock direct from wholesalers, thus reducing book miles. At the moment almost all stock is obtained centrally, via Head Office, with the Buyers acting as the gatekeeppers.

On the surface this re-structuring would appear to be good news, since my book is of course stocked by Gardners, and as I discovered when telephoning most of the Borders and Books Etc stores, hell would have to freeze over before the company would ever consider supplying a print on demand book centrally. While Managers do have the ability to buy direct from local authors through wholesalers and the like, their idea of local is not the same as everyone else's, which seems to be living in the same, or the next town to where the store is based. Even though there a number of their stores within a hour or so's drive of where I live, most of them refused to order copies, and I was disappointed to find that those who did agree to, in most cases either failed to do so, or if they did, just put the books on the shelf and promptly sent them back again!

Trying to get through to the Buying Department on the telephone to see exactly what their policies were proved to be a total waste of time, as most of the time all I got was an answerphone that never called you back. When I finally did manage to talk to a human being, I was given information that contradicted what the stores had already told me, making it clear that the left hand did not know what the right was doing, and that those in store were for the most part clueless as to their own company's policies, and had basically lied through their back teeth, telling me what I wanted to hear just to get rid of me. It is safe then to say that my opinion of this company is not very high.

When I posted some watered down comments to this effect on The Bookseller website, some of the Buying Team read them and took offence, saying that I should show more compassion for them at this difficult time, and that calls from authors were really the last thing that they needed.

While I have every sympathy for those who may be about to lose their jobs (how can I not have when I am in the same position myself), I also feel that they are being rather short sighted. I work in retail myself (and let's not forget that book selling is just that - selling), dealing with difficult customers and awkward situations every day, that frankly I could also do without. But the point is, it is only because of these customers and their problems, that I have a job at all, it is why I am there.

As an author who wishes to have her book stocked in their stores, I am also a customer, and the reason that they are there. Their jobs only exist because of people like me who write books. They should therefore make the time to talk to people like me, and take a leaf from Waterstones book (no pun), who in total contrast, are always willing to talk, if not by phone, then by email, and whose buying policies are easy to understand, and more to the point, easy to obtain. If Borders clearly laid out on their website what their policies and submission procedures were then they would not have to deal with endless calls from the likes of me in the first place!

From what I can tell, a lot of their problems stem from the fact that the majority of their stores are on these out of town sites. People do not go to these sites to buy books, but to get the larger items such as electrical equipment, DIY and furniture. You have to make a special trip to get there and know what you want. Book selling though is about browsing and does not work in the same way. Because they are away from the High Street, they do not attract the passing trade and the lunch time shoppers, who like to browse, since the only people who work on these large sites are themselves shop workers, many of whom are on minimum wage, and simply cannot afford to buy books. Many of them are also part time, and do not get breaks in which to browse in the first place.

All the warning signs appear to be there, and given its problems and the curent economic climate, I would not be a bit surprised to hear of further closures over the next few years, and the eventual demise of this chain, within the UK at least anyway. I hope for the staff's sake that I am wrong. If I am right, as Graeme Neil predicted back in March, Borders loss will be Waterstones gain. Pity then they turned down my own application to work for them. Their loss in turn though will be someone else's gain.

In the meantime, Borders UK CEO Philip Downer has stated in a lettter to The Bookseller, that it is very much business as usual, and that despite the current economic climate and the company's re-structuring, sales remain healthy and strong. The number of events has increased and Borders have achieved their “best ever score on customer service quality”. “Our market share is robust and our ability to drive share of high-profile promoted titles, series and themes continues to be strong,” he said. In other words, they continue to demand high discounts from publishers, refusing to sell anything that does not earn for them at least twice what the author and publisher earn when put together. This may sound cynical, but I have been around this industry long enough to see through the hype and understand the language used. I also know that when you stick your head in the sand, all you see is an arse!

As one publisher commented, the letter did nothing to reassure with regard to the company's future, leaving them with no idea as to what is going on. I suspect if my own company are anything to go by, that the staff at Borders know even less. One publisher commented that “Nobody will be able to finalise Christmas or get next year underway until this is resolved.” This underlies the point that in today's climate no one can think that far ahead, as we do not know from one week to the next where we will be. This is the beauty of print on demand, that it allows you to respond so much quicker; the average commercially published book takes a year or more to go through the different production phases, but a POD book can be out in less than two months. I feel that the industry will have to start responding an awful lot quicker in response to this change, and that in time, print on demand will become the norm. That will certainly change the dyanamics between author, publisher and supplier.

In the meantime, I was astonished to read the other day exactly what Waterstones MD Gerry Johnson earns. It is a lot more than I get, that's for sure! It is nice to know then where the profit from my book sales is going - talk about fat cats!

According to The Bookseller, which seems to be my main source of information of late, Gerry was the third highest paid Director at parent HMV Group last year. Following his promotion to the main board, he earned a basic salary of £234,000, with an annual bonus of £360,000, taking his combined earnings to £595,000 in the year ended 26th April.

HMV Group Chief Executive Simon Fox, received £992,000 in the same year, inclduing a bonus of £498,000; and group Finance Director Neil Bright, earned £717,000, including a £360,000 annual bonus.

Johnsons salary although large by anyone's standards, dwarfs that of some within publishing, no doubt to the irk of book selllers anad authors combined. Reed Elsevier Chief Executive Crispin Davis was paid more than £2 million in 2007; Pearson Chief Executive Marjorie Scardino, took home a total of £2.3 million; John Makinson, head of Penguin, received £1.4 million; as did Kate Swann, head of WH Smith, and Bloomsbury Chief Executive Nigel Newton earned a total of £740,000.
The HMV accounts reveal that Waterstone's sold 75 million books in the year ending 26th April, with books accounting for 29 percent of HMV's total group sales, about £450 million. Over the period Waterstone's improved its sales by 5 percent to £564 million, with profit flat after incurring £1.2 million of start-up costs of the book hub distribution centre.

HMV reported that part of Johnson's bonus, £99,375, related to the integration of the Ottakar's business, of which a payment of £33,125 has been deferred for 12 months. It added that one-third of the directors' annual bonuses earned in the year was deferred for three years and would be payable in shares. Good job he doesn't work for Borders then, as in years to come they wouldn't be worth much!