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Doing Business with Catalog Companies

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Doing Business with Catalog
Companies

 

by Linda Carlson

 

You’re looking for
alternatives to bookstores? For nonreturnable sales? For significant sales
volume? The answer may be catalog retailers like Scholastic Book Clubs,
Signals, and White Flower Farm.

 

But besides a quality product
that’s priced right, you’ll also need patience, perseverance—and maybe a little
serendipity—to deal with them.

 

Just ask Carolyn Threadgill, the
Seattle-based Parenting Press publisher who sells children’s and child guidance
books through two dozen catalogs. She has licensed paperback book club rights
of The Way I Feel
to Scholastic and sells the board-book edition of the same title to it.
Starting before the hardbound was published in 2000, she contacted everyone she
could think of at Scholastic. It wasn’t until late 2001, when a Scholastic
buyer happened to visit the Parenting Press booth at a conference, that the
cataloger showed any interest in the picture book. Its book club paperback
edition was an immediate success, and Scholastic was among the buyers that
encouraged Parenting Press to issue a toddler edition in late 2004. As of this
spring, Scholastic has purchased 50,000 copies of the board book.

 

Jim Leisy, who runs the William,
James & Company imprint of Franklin, Beedle & Associates in the
Portland, OR, area, has a similar story. For four years he tried to sell <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Common Errors in English
Usage
to World Education Almanac, which serves teachers.
Purchasing managers came and went, and he finally reached someone who liked the
book—but didn’t have catalog space for it. “You’ll have to wait until we drop
something else,” he was told. Finally, on what he’d decided would be his last
pitch to the purchasing department, he made a sale. But despite being what he
considers an ideal market for <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Common Errors
, World Almanac has sold
modest numbers of the title—only hundreds of copies a year.

 

Leisy has a different tale to tell
about Bas Bleu and Signals, now both owned by Ohio-based Universal Direct
Fulfillment Corp.

 

After finding several issues of
the Bas Bleu catalog in his mailbox at home, Leisy contacted the company owner.
She said she looked forward to the sample and was positive when Leisy made a
follow-up call a few weeks later. “I thought, ‘Wow!’” he remembers, and the
initial order was for 600 copies.

 

He received a similarly prompt and
positive response when he contacted Signals, which supports public television.
It took six months for an order to arrive, however: Leisy had begun to wonder
if Common Errors
was in—or out—of the catalog.

 

Today, those two catalogs are
responsible for thousands of sales each year and make a significant
contribution to the total of copies sold, which Leisy hopes will reach 100,000
in 2007. In addition, both sell a <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Common Errors
calendar, and Signals is
taking another William, James title, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Far from the Madding Gerund
.

 

The Nitty-Gritty

 

These two success stories may make
catalog sales sound like a simple, if time-consuming, project. But there’s more
publishers need to know about working with catalog merchants:

 

The
description of your book will be brief
, perhaps as few as 35 words. But it may appear in hundreds of
thousands, or even millions, of catalogs—as well as on catalog companies’ Web
sites. The four annual issues of the Signals catalog have a total circulation
of 26 million. Courage to Change, which sells self-awareness and mental health
titles through what CEO Dede Pitts describes as a small catalog, mails between
500,000 and 900,000 copies five times a year.

 

Your
book may compete for attention
with
hundreds of other items in the same catalog. The 2007 Courage to Change catalog
offers 789 products. Chinaberry, a children’s book catalog, offers more than
500. Travel Essentials presents about 1,500 items online, one-fifth of them
books.

 

Sales
volume varies significantly by title and catalog.
<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> For Parenting Press, for example, annual sales to
each of two dozen catalogs range between $300 and $50,000. Ask catalogers what
constitutes a bestseller, and you’ll hear sharp contrasts: a book that sells
100 copies in a month is considered a bestseller at Courage to Change, while
100 copies in a whole year is considered good at Parenting Resources, which
sells to schools, Head Start, and parenting-education programs. At Travel
Essentials, president Bob Bestor is pleased with guidebooks that sell at least
30 copies a year.

 

You
need to offer deep discounts.

Pitts wants 50 percent, and other catalogers will ask for as much as 60
percent. “Publishers can’t offer us an extremely narrow profit margin,” says
Janet Kelly, Chinaberry’s assistant director for merchandising. “If we’re
quoted a cost of $10 for a book and the publisher retails it for $14.95, we
will not even consider the book.”

 

Some
catalogers take additional discounts for prompt payment.
<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Those that pay within 10 days of being invoiced
sometimes take an additional 2 percent discount, Leisy warns. On the other
hand, some catalog merchants pay freight on their orders.

 

Your
book has to offer high profit per square inch.
<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> That’s per square inch of catalog space. As Kelly
explains, catalogers like Chinaberry look at more than unit or dollar sales
volume. “If we have an inexpensive paperback, we either need to use fewer words
in the description—thus taking up less ‘real estate’—or we need to sell more
copies. Generally, we can afford to use longer descriptions for higher-priced
books.”

 

Product
turnover is often high
—perhaps as
much as 25 or 30 percent between issues—for catalogers. At Chinaberry, for
example, every product is ranked by the profit it provided through the most
recent catalog. All the items above the midpoint stay, and all those below are
reviewed on a case-by-case basis. “There are always some items we feel very
strongly about offering even if they aren’t wildly profitable. It’s a matter of
principle,” says Kelly.

 

You’ll
tie up money in inventory.
You
must commit to have a certain number of copies of a featured book available.
“It’s hard to predict sales,” Leisy of William, James points out. “We got our
new print run of Common
Errors
at Thanksgiving, and they were gone three weeks later,
thanks to Signals and Bas Bleu orders.”

 

Your
books need to be high quality.

Courage to Change wants authors to have recognized credentials and books to be
attractive and well-bound. At Chinaberry, Kelly admits, “To a certain extent,
we do judge books by their covers. Because of the volume of books we receive,
we carefully select the books we will consider reading; naturally, we’re going
to first pick up those that visually appeal to us. Some books never get read
because of unappealing illustrations.”

 

Authors
with platforms help you cut a deal.
Common Errors
is written by Paul Brians, a Washington State University professor whose Web
site on grammatical problems has drawn more than 7 million users since 1997.
Type “English” into Google.com, and Brians’s site comes up immediately. Type
the same word into the social bookmarking site <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.del.icio.us
, and Brians’s comes up
first. This small-town English instructor will be published in <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Blueprint,
Martha Stewart’s answer to Real Simple magazine, in the May/June issue (on sale in
April). At Courage to Change, Pitts is less concerned that authors be well
publicized, but she wants to see their books in catalogs similar to hers.

 

Success
with previous books helps you cut deals.
“We’re willing to test a new category with a publisher we already
carry,” says Pitts. Judy Glazebrook of Parenting Resources prefers publishers
from which she can buy several titles, not just one.

 

To Make Your Pitch
Effective

 

What’s the best way to market your
books to catalogers?

 

Research
each catalog’s merchandise and readership carefully.
<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’> According to the National Mail Order Association,
there are 9,000 consumer catalogs in the United States and an additional 5,000
for business-to-business sales. (The association sells a directory of catalogs,
but given the $350 price, you may prefer to find something similar at your
library.) Contact only those you’re sure your book fits in terms of topic,
length, quality, and price point. “We shake our heads when we receive
submissions such as The
History of Plumbing in the Ukraine
,” says Kelly of Chinaberry.
“Read our mission statement and send us books that are a fit.” Glazebrook
seconds that: “Parenting is a narrow focus to begin with, and my audience is an
even narrower segment of that market—the programs that work with at-risk
families.”

 

Follow
submission guidelines.
They’re
often available online or as a recorded telephone message. If the buyers say,
“Don’t call,” then don’t call. When buyers say it’s acceptable to follow up, be
persistent, not a pest. “One of my frustrations is publishers who call over and
over and over again, like twice a week,” Pitts continues. She prefers monthly
e-mails.

 

Submit
a complete proposal.
For some
catalogs, this means including a sample book. Others want your catalog or
full-color photos of covers. A professional-looking proposal with minimum order
quantities, freight costs, and payment terms is a must. “My greatest
frustration is proposals without contact information or discount terms,” says
Pitts, who reports this is among the reasons she seldom works with
self-published authors. At Travel Essentials, which updates its site
frequently, a book can be offered almost immediately if you e-mail a
package—complete with JPG of the cover, sample chapter, table of contents, and
reviews—at the same time you mail a sample book.

 

Make
books available through wholesalers.

Some lower-volume catalog and online merchants will make an initial purchase
directly from a publisher but rely on a wholesaler for occasional follow-up
sales. “It’s easier to work with one or two wholesalers for small orders than
juggle 80 vendors,” notes Glazebrook, who is her company’s only full-time
employee.

 

Linda Carlson
(lindacarlson.com) writes for PMA Independent from Seattle.

 

 

 

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