Bookstore Diplomacy

Josie Leavitt - May 16, 2012

We are blessed with a rich and vibrant core of local authors in our town. Some have been published by the big publishers, others have been self-published, and some have been published by very small local publishers. When a customer comes to us with his or her book we do our best to herald the occasion.
I’m discovering that my idea of heralding and an author’s can be two different things. Recently, an author came in and wondered why we still only had one copy of her book and not a stack of them. I explained that we can’t afford to have stacks of anything on hand. She was not satisfied with that answer and suggested that I have at least 20 on hand at all times. I did not laugh at that suggestion. I realize that many books are the culmination of lifelong dreams. We had stacks of it last summer when it was new, but that point held little sway. She wanted to know where to send people for her book. I said we’d be getting five more in. “Well, that’s not enough.” But it is.
Trying to explain how the distribution cycle works for my business is not fascinating stuff, even to folks who own bookstores, so the author really didn’t care to hear my explanation of shipping times and cash flow. All she saw was one lone copy of her book and saw it as a lack of support. But it’s not.
There are only so many books I can carry. I have reordered five copies of her books, which will be in by the end of the week. She also suggested that I move her book from being spine out in the Vermont section to a face-out stack in our staff picks section. I told her that it was face-out in that section for the entire summer last year. But again, she was not happy.
I tried politely to explain that books cycle in and out of shelf spaces. New books often start out in the New and Notable case and then move around depending on many factors, including how well the book sold initially, customer interest, and other considerations. I tried to explain that a bookstore is a lot like a supermarket’s produce section, in that everything has to look fresh, and that means new books often get the lion’s share of face-out space.
But what this author failed to understand is that while a book may not be faced out, we still know it’s there and will still recommend it to customers. If we love a book, we’ll always recommend it, no matter where it is. I know everyone wants their book to be in a stack at the register, but that just can’t happen for all books, all the time.
So, now now Iā€™m struggling with how to balance placating the author, who is a good customer, with our need to shelve books as we see fit. She left somewhat angry and I upped my order of her books to 10.

15 thoughts on “Bookstore Diplomacy

  1. Madigan

    Oh no! As a former bookseller, I know how tricky those negotiations can be. I can’t believe you “rewarded” her behavior by ordering more copies! Has this author done a signing at your bookstore yet? If not, maybe you could arrange one. Is she coming out with another book soon? It’s easier to promote an author when they have something new. There’s a reason why many successful authors strive to publish a book per year.

  2. Carmen Oliver

    What a difficult position to be in but it sounds like you handled it in the most professional way and I applaud you! Many times an author doesn’t understand the other side of the coin and it sounds like you did your best to compromise and explain the perils you face in this book business world.
    Perhaps there is more the author can do on the self-marketing side to create even more buzz for her book? Giveaways and contests about her book. Presentations aimed at target audience. Behind the scenes look at how the book came to be on a blog tour. etc. etc. As authors we have to do what we can do to help sell our books, too. I’m not saying said author isn’t already doing all of this and more. We have to be even more creative these days to market books which takes a lot of additional time when most of us authors just want to write.
    In any case, I hope those 10 books fly off the shelves for the both of you.

  3. Veronica

    We ordered in 50 copies of a book for a signing for a relatively popular local author. His agent showed up during the signing and asked where we would be keeping the 45 copies that didn’t sell. I explained that we would not be keeping all 45 copies because we don’t have the shelf space. She also requested that we move the copies of the book to one of the biggest displays in the store. Unfortunately, we cannot do that either as that display houses brand new hardcover books from popular authors that our customers look for. Our customers know that the display always has the newest books from top selling authors and they like knowing that’s where to find their books. She was not happy and tried to argue that it is in our best interest to keep every copy.
    I don’t think there’s any way to really make a customer happy in that (or your) situation. I agree that we will still recommend the book and we frequently have local author displays to promote locals. However, lately that doesn’t seem like enough. There’s only so much you can do to try and placate authors and agents alike.

  4. Richard Sutton

    As both a reader and a retail merchant, my heart goes out to you. We were nineteen years on Main Street and at the end of that time, when we moved the whole shebang online, I still had the feeling that between customers, fellow merchants and suppliers, we had missed pleasing everyone all the time. It just seems to be one of the ingredients of the pie slice.
    Bookstores, contrary to popular belief, are businesses operated to create a profit. They are not public services for writers to showcase their work. With two novels under my own belt, I can certainly recognize the feelings of that writer, yet the merchant in me realizes the need for the ready smile and encouraging comment when someone isn’t completely satisfied with how their work is presented. I also realize that the stacks need to produce, that floorspace has to pay or it drains your pockets. It’s a ditch that merchants have to straddle every single day and despite the constant exercise, it never gets any easier!

  5. Michael Giltz

    It’s very nice of you to be polite and friendly but I think you were wrong to up your order to ten copies and give in to their rudeness. The book has been out for at least a year apparently so having five copies on hand (assuming it’s not on the bestseller list) seems quite adequate. In this day and age, for the author to be so clueless and unappreciative is a shame. You highlighted their book for an entire summer last year in the Staff Picks section and she’s angry that it’s not still there a year later? I wouldn’t punish an author for their idiocy (not if you liked the book) but it’s pretty darn ridiculous of them to be so completely clueless about how a bookstore works. it’s not that complicated.

  6. Kathy

    I once had an author who wanted multiple copies of his book faced out on “this shelf, right here!” Unfortunately that would have put his book on current events in the middle of the gardening section.
    Sometimes it’s worth it to offer to carry copies of the book on consignment. If nothing else it shows the author just how many (or few) books you are actually selling.

  7. Sara Kuhns

    Wow. As a very well unknown author I’ve been grateful when bookstores have carried my novel. And at a time when so many bookstores are shutting their doors… it’s really a privilege to be on a shelf. I’m sorry you felt pressured to buy five more copies than you felt necessary. Perhaps you can offer to carry some books on consignment. I realize this means the author buys and brings in copies of her own books, but when they sell it’s just a win-win (ugh-a cliche!) for all. Of course I can’t do that on a national scale… but for those local shops we want to see stay open–I’ve been very happy to do that.

    1. Mark Thornton

      I think one of the other difficulties authors have is that we have to run an *efficient* operation. Running light on stock, and therefore able to do just-in-time ordering through wholesalers really helps us out (at least here in the UK).
      Leaving books on consignment is a nice offer, but as you get more and more books on consignment the adminstrative effort becomes considerable. Again, this isn’t necesarily a problem, you can systemise things, but in our experience what then happens is you end up having conversations of the ”I thought I brought in 6, not 5′ type, or ‘why have you not sold more of my book’?
      I think bookstores should support local authors, and it can be a USP, but I really feel for this bookseller who (in my opinion) has bent over backwards to support the author, and has had to nevertheless bear the brunt of her frustrations at the reality of life as a small author.
      I always recommend authors develop a relationship with their local bookstore (and that means actually patronising it!) but then using their experiences as testimony when approaching other indies on a larger scale. If you make it work for them, if you direct people to come and buy from them, they will be happy to provide a testimonial about the book.

  8. Theresa M. Moore

    I think part of the difficulty is the desperation to be seen at all at a bookstore, not to mention the fact that the author can’t see that a bookstore is a lot like a cow pasture. Free range cows munch here and there, but you can’t make them go anywhere. Bookstore customers are like that, and pandering to any author’s need for validation by stocking more books is only going to fail. I don’t think you should have ordered more books. You should have been firm and point out that you can’t pick favorites. In the book world there is absolutely NO guarantee of a book’s success.

  9. Carol B. Chittenden

    Ech, what a a rude, insisitive author!
    When someone (author or sales rep) urges me to carry more copies, I often explain that they’re better off if we stay in business, even if that means more small orders over a long period.
    It doesn’t sound like this author has much respect for your (considerable!) business acumen. So let’s sit down with her or send her an e-mail with a little arithmetic. Let us assume your rent is $20 per square foot per year. A stack of her books, face out, would probably occupy about 3/4 of a square foot, plus part-time use of about 6 square feet in front of it. Let’s call it 4 square feet, just to keep the numbers even. So her book needs to produce $80 in income to pay its rent on that square footage. Let’s assume the book sells for $20. After you pay for the book and all the other selling costs except rent, each sale is probably yielding somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.50 toward the rent. That means you need to sell AT LEAST 54 copies per year to break even, or at least one a week. And your total profit, after these expenses, will be — provided you run your store very VERY well — $21.60.

  10. Spellbound

    Funny…just before reading this I was having a conversation with an art gallery owner about the feeling of entitlement some artists and authors have regarding being represented in our businesses. It seems easy for them to overlook the fact that these are privately owned businesses that are curated by the owners, who have a right to sell or not sell what we wish, and that we need to stock items that actually make money…at least until our lotto numbers come up.
    In this case, at least the author in question is actually a good customer. Which makes the situation even stickier for Josie, I realize, but most of the authors I get this attitude from do not even bother to shop at our store–and many even seem completely taken aback when I suggest that they might consider doing so!
    One local author who frequently checks in to see how her book is selling at my store also has a habit of regularly posting on her Facebook page that her book is available (guess where?) on Amazon, and no mention of our store or any other. Gee, I wonder why her local friends and followers aren’t buying more of her books from me.
    It was a tough call Josie made. I agree that poor behavior shouldn’t be rewarded, but on the other hand Josie obviously knows that losing a good customer (and the possible negative word of mouth that could ensue) is also damaging to the bottom line.

  11. catherine james

    Vanity thy name is the over-inflated ego of an author – coming from an aspiring-to-be-published writer. šŸ™‚ IMHO this particular author is being rude and ungrateful; I’m so sorry her lack of graciousness puts you in such an awkward position.

  12. Dianna Winget

    You’re right when you say most books are the culmination of a dream. And yet, your explanation of why you can only carry a few copies makes perfect sense. As a new author I’ll try to keep your words in mind.


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