By Richard Curtis
Bookstore buyers are the last link in the chain connecting author to reader. Or perhaps we should say they are last obstacle between them, for as we track the life of a book from the time the author turns it in, we may well be put in mind of the upstream battle of a salmon against rapids, waterfalls, submerged rocks and trees, and a host of predators. Many perish before they reach the quiet headwaters, and most that make it are doomed as well. A book must struggle against all manner of challenges: the hazards of editorial judgment, the treacheries of corporate politics, the uncertainties of the economy, a host of human failings, and a congeries of unlucky or providential events.
The final, and perhaps most brutal, stretch in the obstacle course occurs when the publisher's sales representatives attempt to interest bookstore buyers in their forthcoming lists. These hardy men and women will have attended their publishers' sales conference, where scheduled books are introduced to them by the firms' editorial staffs. As we've seen, editors presenting their books accompany their pitches with pertinent information and sales aids: the author's track record, advertising and promotional plans, news of movie or magazine or foreign deals, anything, in short, that makes the book stand out from its partners on the publisher's list, or from the competition on the lists of other publishers. Then, bearing advance reading copies, catalogues, covers or dust jackets, sales information, press kits, and novelty items such as buttons or bookmarks, the sales people make appointments to visit the buyers in their territories.
Before the advent of bookstore chains, these sales reps (or "travelers," as they were then known) visited individual bookshops and pitched their lists to each store owner or purchasing manager. The dialogue between buyer and sales rep reflected their joint interest in matching consumer reading tastes with the current and past lists of titles offered by each publisher. Although bookstore chains have been around for a long time, until a decade or two ago these were not a significant factor in buying patterns, and the relationship between sales rep and store buyer was a highly personal one emphasizing local values.
The rise of the chains has revolutionized every aspect of book merchandising, not the least of which is that special bond between publisher and bookseller. The impact of this change cannot possibly be understated. The buying power of the chains is so highly concentrated and leveraged that even a modest order per store, multiplied by the number of stores in any given chain, can easily make the difference between success or failure for a given book; a larger order can put a book on the bestseller list or extend its stay on it for a long time. Indeed, some chains have their own bestseller lists on which publishers heavily rely in assessing sales activity of their books. To a disturbingly increasing degree, chain store buyers are being consulted by publishers about whether or not to acquire certain types of books, placing the buyer in effect on the editorial boards of some publishers.
The same power that can exalt a book can cast it down if the chain store buyers withhold their blessing. Thus, publishers are concentrating an ever-increasing portion of their time, energy, human and financial resources to currying favor with the chains at the expense of the independent bookstore. Not unexpectedly, this has resulted in the near-demise of the old-fashioned bookshop. These beloved emporia, with their casual atmosphere and library-like hush, with the visual and tactile delights of wonderful and interesting books everywhere the eye settles, with the varied stock reflecting the eclectic tastes of both owner and clientele - these are yielding one by one to the march of progress represented by clean, tidy, bland, efficient, convenient chain store branches with their homogenized stock, distinctly unbookish sales staffs, and computerized record-keeping and purchasing programs.
Individually owned shops cannot hope to compete with the discounted prices offered on frontlist books by the chains, nor can their low-volume turnover generate the kind of capital necessary to meet the rents in high-traffic urban and suburban shopping centers. A while back, an association of small booksellers in northern California litigated with a big paperback publisher alleging that the publisher offered preferential discounts to book chains, a practice that the small stores maintained was widespread through the publishing industry. The store owners simply did not have the funds to prosecute their suit to the bitter end and were compelled at length to settle, leaving the issue unresolved but guaranteeing that preferential discounting in favor of the chains will continue to drive nails into the coffins of the small bookstores.
Although they differ from one another in buying policies and patterns, discounting practices, and many other respects, fundamentally all chains function in much the same way. Their buying staffs receive sales representatives of publishers or publishing groups and listen to their spiels about forthcoming titles. The buyers then consult their records and sales data, review the information and material furnished by the publisher, and yes, they even read the books. After taking everything into consideration, the buyers put in their orders: some in large quantity, some in small. And sometimes, they don't buy any quantity at all.
How is business transacted in a typical buying office? Well, for one thing, you may safely believe that the publishers' reps talk fast. Given the large size of many publishers' lists, sales people have precious little time to give speeches. It has been estimated that they have between thirty and sixty seconds per title to get their message across. I suppose that if you divided their publisher's list precisely by the number of minutes granted to the rep for this interview, that estimate would be accurate. In fact, it doesn't quite work that way.
First of all, there are some kinds of books that require little or no salesmanship: certain backlist books, for example. When the stock of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care or The Random House Dictionary falls below a certain number, it is usually reordered automatically. The latest novel in a long-running series may not call for extensive discussion. Some other types of books, such as most first novels, will seldom fetch large orders even if the sales rep talks himself blue in the face, unless it's something on the order of The Hunt for Red October, the great first novel that set Tom Clancy on the road to bestsellerdom. That is because the buying policies of the chain, or the parameters of the computer's purchasing program (more about this presently) simply prohibit a large order for first novels, and the experienced sales rep has learned to save his breath for pitching books for which there is more latitude (and potential for commissions). "Don't waste my time in the 'gimmes,' " one buyer is fond of saying. "Just tell me about your featured books." He is referring to such "product" as celebrity biographies, new books by bestselling authors, timely or controversial nonfiction books, and other books that the publisher believes will have "legs." On these the sales rep may soliloquize to his heart's content: he will invariably find an attentive listener.
What are the things that chain store buyers look and listen for when sales reps go into their routines? Bear in mind that salesmen are salesmen the world over, and whatever they are hawking there is usually a percentage of blarney mingled with the truth. Astute buyers have learned to detect it, and because they are powerful and have at their disposal the best information-gathering capability this side of FBI headquarters, wise sales reps seldom bluff, bullshit, or soft-pedal the truth. "Don't tell me my market," another buyer told me he frequently says to sales reps.
The thing buyers most want to hear is, how much is the publisher getting behind the big books on its next list? A sales rep will boast of enormous "in-house" enthusiasm for a book, may show the buyer a fancy bound proof specially printed to impress the book trade, may inundate the buyer with tie-in gimmicks of all sorts, may tender to the buyer an invitation to publication party in a swank restaurant. Few of these inducements turn the buyer's head as much as a commitment by a publisher to advertising, publicity, and promotion. In particular, as one buyer reported to me, bookstore people are most impressed by plans for co-op advertising. As opposed to advertising that carries only the name of a book's publisher, co-op ads show the book's cover along with the name of the store: "Available at all XYZ Bookstores," such an ad might read. The cost of the ad is borne by both publisher and bookstore, and the publisher's commitment in hard dollars guarantees that the company will be getting strongly behind its product.
One of the most unsettling aspects of chain store buying practices is the use of computers to make decisions. As in so many other applications, the computer is both an invaluable tool and a frightening menace. Programs like Nielsen's BookScan provide the book-buying office with highly detailed information about sales patterns on a book-by-book, author-by-author, store-by-store, region-by-region, publisher-by-publisher, basis, and the data are available instantly. Track records of previous books by any given author may be summoned by the touch of a finger or two on a computer keyboard, providing the buyer with all the input he needs to make his decision.
Some chains depend more heavily on computer data than others, and in many instances purchase orders are rigidly programmed: "If we bought 10,000 copies of that author's last book, we cannot buy more than 10 percent more copies of his next one, so put us down for 11,000." It is here that the greatest danger to literature may lie, for obviously this slavish devotion to ordering programs simply does not take into account such critical factors as a buyer's common sense, his instincts, and his personal enthusiasms. Most of all, it does not take into account the quality of the book in question, for even if an author's book is a quantum leap in quality over its predecessor, the buyer who has not read it - or even one who has - may be compelled by his own computer program to order the same number he would if the book were no better than the last.
It was comforting for me to learn, as I prepared this chapter, that there are still buyers, even in chain store offices, who care about books and authors and maintain a personal rapport both with publishers and consumers. The best buyers recognize the computer for the tool it is, but understand that a time comes when you have to walk away from the computer screen and go out among the customers.
Spencer Gale, an executive with National Book Network, a leading distributor, told me he believes that the vital information harvested by computers must be balanced by a humanistic approach to book ordering. "Computers don't read books and computers don't buy them," he told me. Also, good buyers look beyond their own predilections: "You are not buying for your taste alone," Gale expressed it. And a buyer for another store told me she conducts informal but highly accurate market surveys by showing new women's novels to her mother and highly touted young adult books to her teenage daughter.
Nevertheless, one gets the uneasy feeling that the noose around the throats of all who love literature is tightening with each step toward the consolidation and computerization of the publishing industry. The intimacy between the publishing and bookstore businesses is now all but visible and palpable. It may legitimately be wondered what use sales reps will be in the future if there is no longer any distance for the "traveler" to travel. A phone call, a lunch date, a stroll across town, and the fate of a book could be sealed even before its acquisition by a publisher.
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.