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Ask a Waldenbooks Expert

By Cheryl Bolen

For those of us who are multi-published authors, going to the national RWA convention has become a very expensive vehicle for socializing with other pubs. Let's face it, we don't get a lot out of those workshops on craft. But this year's PAN program in Dallas "Ask a Waldenbooks Expert" brimmed with information for those of us mid-list authors who are laboring to build a readership.

Rita-winning author Lorraine Heath, Waldenbooks romance expert and former RWA Bookseller of the Year Kathy Baker, and Sue Grimshaw, who buys for the entire Borders Group, conducted a panel which was largely question and answer.

Imagine having the opportunity to pick the best bookselling brains in the biz. Do they really read ARCs? What are the worst months to publish in? What kind of promotion works? What's a good sell-through?

All of these questions and more were graciously answered by Grimshaw and Baker.

Grimshaw actually buys for 670 stores which include Borders, Waldenbooks, and Brentanos. In addition to having eight readers in her Michigan office who read ARCs, Grimshaw herself reads five books a week and confesses to loving romance.

ARCs can be sent 4-6 weeks before publication to her at:

Borders Group Inc.
Sue Grimshaw
100 Phoenix Dr. 
Ann Arbor, MI 48108

She receives e-mail at sgrimsha@bordersgroupinc.com and is very accessible to authors. "The goal is for both of us to sell books," Grimshaw said.

Baker, who runs the Waldenbooks at the Northeast Mall in Hurst, Texas, reads a book a night and is one of three lead romance experts for the chain. The other two are Janet Banks, Waldenbooks #1888, Honey Creek Mall PE E-12, 3401 US Highway 41, Terre Haute, IN 47802-000; and Kelly at Waldenbooks #1825, Briarwood Mall, 636 Briarwood Circle, Ann Arbor, MI 48108-000.

In addition, there are 21 other romance experts at Waldenbooks and Brentanos who welcome ARCs. "In order to recommend a book, we need to read it before it hits the shelves," they say. A printable list of these experts who eagerly await your ARCs is available on Heath's website, www.lorraineheath.com, or by requesting an Excel file from Grimshaw.

The Borders Group, which includes Brentanos and Waldenbooks mall stores, strives for 70 percent sell-throughs, but Grimshaw admits they're usually in the 60-65 percent range.

So what--in addition to sending ARCs--can an author do to increase that all-important sell-through number?

The Walden experts agree that signing stock is important. Books that are autographed by the author outsell unsigned books two-to-one, Grimshaw and Baker said.

Baker suggests taking the bookseller a small gift when approaching her to sign stock. Some authors, such as Stephanie Bond, send packages to booksellers with ARCs and small gifts, Baker said.

In the smaller stores--not the Borders--shelf talkers are successful, but the big stores don't use them. Baker said the most effective shelf talkers keep the information short, limited to a quote or brief description of the book. (These printed pieces of cardstock are tucked beneath the author's books to call attention to them.)

The experts say they welcome bookmarks but discard post cards because they don't fit in the bookmark holders.

An author has really succeeded if (s)he is listed as a top pick in the chain's The Romance Reader, to which 200,000 subscribe. Top picks are based on buys.

To reinforce how important it is for the author to get promotional work done before publication, Grimshaw said 50 percent of sales occur the first week the book is released and drop dramatically thereafter.

Sad to say, stock of traditional Regencies and multi-cultural romances are not replenished. The experts said that is because the target audience is so small.

Grimshaw said orders of debut authors typically run from 1,500 to 2,500 nationwide.

What about novellas? Baker and Grimshaw agreed that Christmas novellas sell great, followed by Mother's Day anthologies. Valentines novellas sell "so-so," they say.

And what are the worst months for book sells? Baker said November and December are flat.

Since Borders Group accounts for 20 percent of all books sold, these romance experts can prove invaluable in building an author's career.

 This article first appeared in PASIC Basics in Fall 2004.

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