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New-Used Booksellers: An Author's Best Friend

By Cheryl Bolen


Comparing chains to independent books stores is definitely not comparing apples to apples, and it's the savvy romance writer who knows which retailer is the more romance friendly. Ask yourselves if the chains:

∙ Have employees who read an average of 20 romance books a month.
∙ Know their regular customers' likes and dislikes and put aside books for them.
∙ Read Romantic Times and other magazines to stay abreast of the market.
∙ Promote romance authors.
∙ Rarely strip covers.
∙ Carry a complete selection of all romance books issued each month.

All owners of new/used bookstores surveyed for this article favorably answered the preceding questions.

All of the independent booksellers surveyed were reading romance before they were booksellers, and they average reading 20 books a month to this day.

"Since I picked up my first historical romance by Georgina Gentry in 1986, I was hooked," said Donita Lawrence of Bell, Book and Candle in Oklahoma City. "I read everything I could get my hands on at the library. They finally told me to go find a used a book store. I have worked at promoting romance books and authors ever since."

Though Lawrence (RWA Bookseller of the Year, 1995) started her store less than six years ago, she has developed an extremely loyal following, partially due to her successful newsletter which reviews upcoming romance releases.

Even when ill health caused Lawrence to shut her store last year ('98), she continued selling $6,000 in new books each month to her loyal customers.

Because of her popular newsletter that focuses on new books, Lawrence's sales are weighted 85 percent toward new books, unlike other surveyed booksellers where new book sales account for just 25 percent of their overall business.

KNOW THY READER

All of the surveyed booksellers report having a solid base of regular customers. The "real" regulars buy an average of 15 books a month. No more than 20 regulars at each store fall in this category. Still others buy five to seven a month, said Christy Hendricks of Carousel Paperbacks in College Station, Texas.

Houston's Sharon Murphy, owner of Paperback Trader for 14 years and Romantic Times Magazine Bookseller of the Year, said her "faithful" customers never buy their books elsewhere. In addition to stocking a complete line of all new mass market paperbacks each month, Murphy is happy to special order any titles her customers want.

Like the other booksellers surveyed, Murphy reads about 20 romances a month and makes recommendations to her customers.

Charlotte Brewer, owner of The Book Rack in Lodi, Calif., for 20 years, makes customer recommendations based on her reading as well as the blurbs on the back of the books.

There is no consensus among the surveyed booksellers over which is more popular, contemporary or historical. Hendricks said the two are dead even with her readers, while Murphy cites historicals as being the more popular. Brewer points to contemporaries as being favored.

Lawrence admits reader taste is cyclic. "Right now most are into romantic contemporaries although historicals have their faithful readers."

She said contemporary stories with lots of humor are really selling, while Brewer listed romantic suspense as popular in her store.

All of the booksellers said their readers are tired of baby themed books. "My customers are mainly older women who are tired of baby and kid books," Murphy said. "Been there, done that and don't want to read about it." She said category books are not selling as well as other years.

While there may be too many baby books, there are not enough paranormal, according to some readers. "My customers are complaining abut the lack of futuristic and good time travel novels," Brewer said. "They want more." All the booksellers say customers lament the demise of Silhouette's Shadows line.

What authors are selling? Nora Roberts and her P.D. Robb pseudonym. Hendricks has a special section in her store for Roberts' books. Murphy would like to, but she can't keep them on the shelves. All the booksellers surveyed cited Roberts as being one of their most popular authors.

Other authors cited by all booksellers as being popular include:

Historicals - Catherine Anderson, Jill Barnett, Catherine Coulter, Jude Deveraux, Christina Dodd, Julie Garwood, Lorraine Heath, Amanda Quick.

Single title - Linda Howard, Jayne Ann Krentz, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Debbie Macomber, Dinah McCall, Fern Michaels, Karen Robards, Roberts, Sharon Sala.

Series - Suzanne Brockman, Susan Mallery, Peggy Moreland, Christine Rimmer, Roberts, Sala.

Popular authors named -- but not unanimously -- include Susan Andersen, Judith Arnold, Patti Berg, Jo
Beverly, Georgia Bockoven, Barbara Boswell, Sandra Brown, Susan Crosby, Barbara Delinsky, Kathleen Eagle, Suzanne Forester, Georgina Gentry, Leigh Greenwood, Nora Hess, Janis Reams Hudson, Joan Johnston, Brenda Joyce, Stephanie Laurens, Johanna Lindsey, Elizabeth Lowell, Dinah Barbara McMahon, Judith McNaught, Linda Lael Miller, Betty Neels, Diana Palmer, Julia Quinn, Paula Riggs, Meryl Sawyer, Barbara Dawson Smith, LaVeryl Spencer, Penelope Williamson, Ruth Wind and Sherryl Woods.

Though all of the booksellers say many of their customers read Romantic Times, the booksellers say the readers are not influenced by the ratings. "They don't seem to care what rating is given for their favorite authors, they still buy it," Brewer said. "I don't think RT has much influence. They (customers) just like to see what all is available."

Lawrence agrees. "Readers go through it (RT) just to see what's coming out. Readers do not go by the rating. Most say they don't agree with the ratings. They go by what the story is about."
All of the surveyed store owners sell RT and also keep a customer copy that is frequently consulted.

PROMOTE THY AUTHOR

The surveyed booksellers receive and display author promotional materials, host booksignings and abhor stripping covers--thereby depriving authors of royalties for those shipped books.
Because of the wide variety of promotional materials these booksellers receive combined with their average of 10 years in business, the booksellers have some pretty good ideas about what works and what doesn't.

∙ Advanced review copies (ARCs) - While half of the booksellers rated ARCs as only moderately helpful, Lawrence and Brewer each rated them as extremely helpful. Lawrence and her newsletter reviewers use them for reviews, and Brewer's reader group uses them for its monthly recommendations. "The ARCs only work if the store has a newsletter or someone working in the store that can sell romance," Lawrence said. "If not, you're in trouble." Hendricks said ARCs help the bookseller get a feel for the book to help them, in turn, find a buyer.

∙ Bookmarks - All booksellers, except Brewer, rated author's bookmarks very high in promotional value. Because of their size, they are easy to display, Hendricks said. Bookmarks with colored pictures of the hero are especially popular. The booksellers add that a listing of the author's backlist on the bookmark is also helpful, and series should be listed in order.

∙ Booksignings - All the surveyed store owners hold booksignings promoting romance authors. For these, the booksellers generally spend money for advertisements and for snacks to serve at the event. Is it cost effective? Store owners say overall book sales on the day of a signing are above average. "Advertising the signing always brings in new customers," said Murphy, who holds a half dozen romance signings a year. Hendricks said, "I pretty much break even from autographings. Some are better attended than others. A reason to spend advertising dollars for the special events is that it draws attention to the store."

∙ Flyers - These were rated so-so by the store owners. Because of space constraints, booksellers encourage authors to share flyers with other authors whose books are coming out at the same time.

∙ Postcards - Also rated so-so, postcards are desireable if there is space to write on the back so customers can use them. Hendricks said their size contributes to their success at being a good promotion tool because booksellers have room to display them.

∙ Posters - There was no consensus on the effectiveness of these. Lawrence rated them as extremely helpful, as did Murphy, who said depiction of the hero could skyrocket the value of posters as a promotional vehicle. A disadvantage to these, Hendricks said, is that they have a lot of competition for wall space.

∙ Reviews in RT - All of the booksellers value inclusion of a book in RT. Hendricks said good reviews are especially helpful.

∙ Shelf talkers - "Shelf talkers are the biggest waste of money," Lawrence said. "They tear real easy and last only one day with people mauling the books." Murphy agrees.

∙ Signing and stickering stock - While most authors are told that a book signed and stamped by the author is virtually a sold book, Brewer does not agree. Other surveyed booksellers, however, feel autographing books is very helpful in promoting sales. "Signed stock makes great gifts and helps sales for collectors," Hendricks said.

What other words of advice come from these savvy booksellers? Murphy said, "A reader loves to say 'I met the author. She/he's really nice. Where can I find her/his books?'"

Lawrence believes authors need to get the word out about their books early. "Don't wait until the month the book's due out. The book normally comes in the month before anyway."

These romance-friendly independents also help the authors by waiting several months before stripping covers. In fact, Lawrence said, "I can't bring myself to strip books, or even cut the corners off of an old book to put on the sale table."

Murphy's philosophy is to never strip covers of authors she knows. (And being a long-time RWA member and store owner, this bookseller knows lots of authors!)

Lawrence, like the others, is careful in what and how many copies she orders so she does not end up with a lot of unsold stock.

All of the surveyed booksellers give a book up to six months to sell. "I can understand some stores stripping books if they over ordered," Lawrence said, "but to just strip books before they even have a chance to sell is wrong."

Competition: Chains and Book Clubs

Because we are not comparing apples to apples, the book store owners don't seem to be greatly affected by the large book store chains. "Chain stores haven't changed my business since I specialize in romance," Lawrence said. "If you go in a chain, the romance is back behind something else or at the back of the store. I know where my money is, and it's on romance, and I will always proudly display covers or posters."

Like Lawrence, Brewer thinks she can offer something the chains cannot. "I believe the service and personal treatment we give customers keeps the people coming back."
Brewer and Murphy both discount new books to stay competitive with the chains as well as the big discount department stores like Wal-Mart. Brewer discounts new books 10 percent, Murphy, 20 percent.
Hendricks said her business continued to increase this past year despite the opening of a Barnes & Noble nearby.

"Book clubs hurt my business more than chains," Murphy said. Indeed, mention book clubs to these businesswomen and you're likely to get a dirty look.

"The playing field is not level for the retail store," Murphy said. "If used hurts sales of new, then don't have early releases through book sales. Don't blame the problem on used dealers. It's the publisher releasing the book early. I would love to sell new at the same time book club members receive their books."

While some authors complain about used book stores selling their books as used before the store has new copies or along with new copies, the surveyed booksellers are not guilty of this practice. Since they all sell new books (which usually are more profitable), they do not allow the used book to compete with the new one they are trying to sell.

"Because I carry and sell the Harlequin series, they (used) don't go on the shelf till after the stock has a chance to sell," Hendricks said. "However, if I don't carry that particular line, it can be available used."
Neither Brewer nor Lawrence put out the used stock until the new has had a chance to sell.

To encourage customers to buy their new books from her, Brewer has some novel ideas. She sells the new books for 10 percent off, marks them with a red line across the top of the book and puts the date on one side and the store name on the other side of the line. That book can then be traded at any time. However, if a book was bought elsewhere, it cannot be traded in for three months in order to give her new stock a chance to sell.

If a book purchased from her is traded in while new stock is still on the shelves, she puts it under the counter until the three months are up. (At the end of three or four months, she will strip covers of unsold stock.)

"I have found that this policy works," Brewer said, "as customers have told me that they waited to buy from me rather than pick the book up at the grocery store or chain store."

Can Used Be Author Friendly?

The booksellers do not see their used books sales as hurting an author, even though the author makes no money from sales of her books used.

"I think that the used book helps the customers find new authors, and if they like them, they buy the books new as they come out," Brewer said. "In the long run, most authors gain new readership who will purchase each new novel the author puts out. Often these books are not available new any more, and the reader is thrilled to get them."

If they are available new and Brewer does not have a new copy, she will order it for the reader, thereby generating sales for the author.

The surveyed store owners agreed that when readers find an author they like, they will come in to find everything the author has written. "The sale of used books allows readers to try authors who they might not try at full cover price or books that are out of print," Hendricks said.

Any author who objects to her books being sold used can let Brewer know, and she will remove the books from her shelves. "However," she added, "since my policy is to always take back any book purchased in my store (unless damaged), I cannot sell their books new either."

Lawrence said she will pull an author's used books when the author comes to her store for a signing so that readers will not ask to author to sign a book for which she is not receiving a royalty.

"I have never had an author be rude or hostile to my face about used books," Lawrence said. Her feeling is that "used books only help in new books sales. If you can get someone to try another author used, you have a new book sale when that author's next book comes out. If readers really like a writer, they won't hesitate to buy it new."

Though there are romance authors who have cursed used book stores, none would go on record for this article. A story is still circulating about a well known romance author (who shall remain nameless) who blasted used book stores in any forum she could, including letters to the editor of Publishers Weekly. The injured used booksellers--who also sold new books--countered by either not carrying her books or by stripping them, which resulted in serious injury to the author's promising single title career.

One author who did not wish to be named said criticizing used book stores is "a volatile issue."

Indeed, none of the authors who commented on used book sales for this article criticized used book stores, while many of them agreed there are problems. (See sidebar to this article.)

Murphy urges the authors to persuade the booksellers who only sell used books to also carry new ones since that puts the bookseller on the same footing with author who seeks to make new sales.

And it's these booksellers who are the authors' best friends. "There isn't anything authors could ask of me that I wouldn't try to do for them," Lawrence said. "I try so hard to make people realize how much time, work and effort goes into this type of art (romance novels). I even send romance to customers in prison. I put a little note and say 'Just try this one time. If you don't like it, fine. If you do, order more."

In her career as a romance as well as mainstream author, Jo-Ann Power has come to realize how valuable these booksellers can be. "New-used book store owners are supremely helpful to authors because the booksellers usually know which authors are selling well and to what degree. These sales people know how many books to buy for their clientele, meaning they strip few books."

Power's caveat is that the new-used booksellers hold used books in reserve until the newest release has had at least eight weeks or more to sell at full price.

"These booksellers can be influential to an author's ability to expand her market," Power said.
 

This article appeared in the Romance Writers Report in 1999.
 

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