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Getting Picked Up by the Chains

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I recently spoke with representatives from Barnes & Noble/B. Dalton and Borders/Waldenbooks about the steps and procedures PMA members should follow to have their books considered for purchase. I thought this information might make a good PMA Newsletter article and I had most of the research at finger-tip and ready to go.As I started to write the article, the thought crept into my head that perhaps these simple, step-by-step procedures for “Getting Picked Up by the Chains” were not quite as simple as I was being lead to believe. So I decided to get some “real feedback” by talking with PMA members about their experience in selling books to the major chains in the US.

Facts about Chain Stores

There are three major chain store operations in the US: Barnes & Noble (Superstores) and its subsidiary B. Dalton (mall stores), Borders (Superstores) and its subsidiary Waldenbooks (mall stores), and Books-A-Million. As most of us know, these chains now control more than 65% of the book sales in America. And with the recent declarations of Chapter 11 by Crown and Lauriat’s, this percentage may rise another 8 to 10 points over the next several months. This means that a very few number of buyers at three locations (New York, Ann Arbor, and Birmingham) will control your access to the majority of retail bookstore sales in the US. So unless you are represented by a distributor (and sometimes even if you are) who has a highly competent national account staff to hand-hold the ever-changing buyers at the chains, the odds are slim and doubtful that your small press or self-published title will ever see the light of a chain-store day!Well, this not entirely true, but the majority of self-published authors and small presses will confirm how difficult it is to get serious consideration for their books from the chain buyers, unless their title happens to achieve one of those magic moments that raises it to stellar stardom or unless they adopt “The Small Press/Self-Published Author’s Creed” (which is): Always plan for a sizeable special sales outlet for your book. Understand that you must always be the first, loudest, and strongest promoter for your book(s). Be prepared to become an endless self-promoter, using every scrap of creativity, energy, and street-savvy. And you must be prepared to do this even after your book becomes a success.

A Flood of Feedback

Well, back to my story of what it takes to get picked up. What I decided to do was validate what the chains were telling me by visiting and interviewing two close friends who are both small press authors and self-published authors. I asked them about “What it takes to get picked up by the Big Guys.” I was not prepared for the response! It was as if an entire pent-up dam of feelings had broken and now the flood was spilling all over my head! (Oh, how naive we larger publishers become and how quickly we forget just how difficult a struggle it is for a small publisher or self-published author to make it in this dinosaur industry we all play in!)

The Evolution of Picture Perfect Press

For the purposes of this article, my PMA friends have requested anonymity. The names have been changed to protect these dedicated, hard-working entrepreneurs. But I assure you that this husband and wife team is very real and the stories they told me about working with the big guys are right-on.Mary and Don are great photographers. They love photography professionally about as much as I love it as a hobby. They gave me tons of advice a couple of years ago when I upgraded my equipment and turned myself from a “point and shooter” to a proficient amateur (thank God for autofocus and expensive lenses!). But Mary and Don are outstanding professional photographers and earn a good living doing their thing.In fact, they are so good that several years ago many of their friends said that they should write a book or two about some of the original techniques they developed to photograph children, nature, and sports. And so they did! And they happily set off writing and photographing, plus designing and doing cover layouts. Ultimately I helped them find a publisher for their book. They had some previous experience with several large companies as contributors, but this was their first book; this was their baby.One of the good things that Mary and Don recognized about book publishing is that they knew that making big money on their investment of time and effort would never pay off as handsomely as if they devoted that same time to professional photography. But the book was a labor of love and a tangible representation of the accomplishments they had achieved. They believe (to this day) in sharing their knowledge and in helping others to understand some of the tough lessons they’d learned along the film trail.Mary and Don were particularly lucky with their first book. Perhaps it was because Mary paid close attention to some of the PMA Newsletter articles about how an author has to become a never-ending publicist for a book. Perhaps it was because they “fell in” with a distributor who didn’t screw up incoming orders too badly, was able to fulfill on a semi-timely basis, and after a lot of letters, threats, and promises of future promotions, actually revised and reprinted their first book. This lead to a second title and the two books combined have enjoyed more than 30,000 copies each in sales, with a good portion going through the chains.But the experience of dealing with this distributor soured Mary and Don, and after publishing two titles with “the dimwit” as Mary refers to him, they decided that their third labor of love would be managed by their own publishing imprint, Picture Perfect Press. PPP published the third title about four months ago. They were able to cut a good deal with a fulfillment warehouse-one that doesn’t charge an arm and a leg to ship cartons to chains and wholesalers or single copies to individuals. The fulfillment house has a direct pickup relationship with Baker & Taylor and with Barnes & Noble which saves Picture Perfect Press a ton of money in shipping costs.

Getting Picked Up by Barnes & Noble

One of the first things PPP started to do was to promote their new title. Mary and Don travel a good deal and are always visiting camera stores and chains. They knew that making good friends at these stores was an important step in the future sales success of this new title. Mary is the publicist and she sets aside a portion of every day to work the phones, faxes, and e-mail to pitch newspaper and magazine editors and make sales contacts with the hundreds of photography stores in her Rolodex.Don worked on trying to get picked up by the big guys. How do you get picked up by Barnes & Noble? he asked himself. The logical answer was to call one of their stores and ask them. And that was exactly what he did. He spoke with a local chain store and was rewarded with a purchase order for five copies (part of their local author purchase program). He was then referred to the Barnes & Noble headquarters in New York City and the real fun began! Many phone calls later Don was instructed to write a letter to Marcella Smith, the small press buyer, and to send her a copy of the book. At this point, a number of mistakes were made in the communications process with B&N.In writing the cover letter to B&N, Don failed to mention the fact that they had published two previous titles which had sold very successfully through B&N and that they had been carried by Baker & Taylor and Ingram. (Don figured that his previous distributor was the one responsible for these sales and that he could not take credit for them, but in reality it was Mary and Don’s unending publicity and self-promotion which had pushed people into the stores for copies of the book.)Don signed the first letter as President of PPP and indicated that this was their first publication. When the letter and sample copy arrived at B&N, it was interpreted as a first book from a first-time author with no experience, no promotion backup, no sales history! Naturally this effort resulted in a form rejection letter. Don would have been much better off to have signed the letter as the National Accounts Manager of his company with no reference to being a first-time, self-published author.Now Mary took command of the situation and responded to B&N asking for reconsideration of their book and enclosing a pile of clippings from her previous work. However Mary also failed to mention that their previous titles had sold extremely well through B&N. She failed to provide the previous titles and ISBN numbers so the sales stats could be reviewed. Result? A second rejection!Finally, a third appeal was made. This time the previous titles, ISBN numbers, and sales history were referenced. This time B&N sent along a list of local distributors and referred PPP to contact them. “We won’t buy the book directly from you, but we will buy it from one of these smaller wholesalers. Try contacting them.”

What’s to Be Learned

Four important notes need to be made here. First, the chain buyers are wedded to their computers and their computers can tell them the sales history of a previous title by the same author. Some buyers know a substantial amount about the fields in which they buy books; others are just too new to have read much in the field and have only a casual affinity for the literature. (Author Note: I once had a buyer tell me that she was familiar with the medical title I was selling because her father had been a doctor. Further questioning revealed that this was the only familiarity she had with medicine, yet she was the medical book buyer. “Then how did you get the job of buying medical books?” I asked her. Her response was: “Well, your company name begins with P and I am responsible for buying from companies whose last names begin with the letters L through T!” Well, so much for knowledge of the subject matter!)Second, in the overall scheme of things, to give your book the best opportunity for getting picked up, it is better not to tell the buyer that you are a first-time author or that this is your first book. Similarly, if you have a sales history with the chain on a previous title, distributed by you or by any other distributor, you must advise the buyer of this information. (Don’t forget to give the full title and ISBN number.) Provide all the positive input you can, who carried it, how many copies they sold, and what you did to promote the book. Just as publicists sometimes use fictitious names on press releases, your small company should represent itself in a larger framework with a National Accounts Manager, a Sales Manager, Marketing Director, Editorial Director, and more. You see, appearances are important, especially for first timers!Third, being referred to a local wholesaler is not necessarily a bad thing. These regional wholesalers are more focused on local and regional titles and especially if your book has a local focus, they may be a far better distribution partner than such large, impersonal companies as Ingram and Baker & Taylor.Fourth, try switching off. If you are not having success in contacting a buyer, try switching off with your spouse or other staff member. Learn quickly what each of your strengths are and employ them to the best advantage.

Delivering the Books

Mary and Don and Perfect Picture Press continued making pitches and appeals to book wholesalers and chains. At the same time, Mary-through her aggressive publicity campaign and daily contact with photography stores-was having substantial success and orders from photo shops were being faxed in daily. Don remarked that it took just as much time to process an order for one book placed in a jiffy bag as it did for a carton of books, and the carton made them a whole lot more profit than the single book!Mary contacted one of the local distributors recommended by B&N. In a stroke of good fortune, she was able to get through to one of the buyers and make contact with something other than voice mail (no small feat I might add). The buyer told her that “we’re doing you a favor by taking your book, but it sounds as if you’re a big promoter so we may sell a few copies.” Mary soon received a hand-written purchase order for a carton of books.Mary was so excited about being picked up by one of the small guys, that she decided to give some outstanding customer service and deliver the books herself. She made a quick call to the warehouse, got an appointment time and a bay location, grabbed a case of books from the garage, threw them into the back of her BMW, and headed for the wholesaler’s warehouse.Upon arrival, Mary drove around the building until she came to Bay #5. She was 15 minutes early for her receiving appointment. She dutifully backed her BMW up to the loading dock and parked next to the UPS truck. She discovered that she could not lift the carton of books up to the loading dock from her car, so she asked the UPS driver if she could walk through his truck and carry the books into the warehouse on the ramp connected to his truck. She did just that and finally was inside the massive warehouse awed by the din of conveyor belts shooting books and cartons in hundreds of directions.”Where’s the packing slip?” inquired the receiving manager. “You have to have a packing slip,” she said. All Mary had was a copy of the purchase order. Fortunately the receiving manager took pity on Mary, gave her a piece of paper, and Mary hand-wrote a packing slip for 30 copies from Picture Perfect Press.Mary and Don didn’t get paid for the 30 copies they had delivered until more than 120 days had gone by and only after five letters and three phone calls had been made. The small wholesaler did sell-through on the 30 books and ordered a second carton about two months after the first.Today Mary and Don frequently receive phone calls from managers at individual Barnes & Noble stores asking how they can get their new book. Customers have seen the publicity that Mary tirelessly strives to obtain and have come to the store asking for the title. Mary tells them that Baker & Taylor carries the book, but the store managers tell her they can’t order from B&T. Usually Mary ends up taking a PO directly from the store and sends one book in a bag at 40% discount with the store paying the freight.

What’s Up at Borders?

The story for Borders was quite similar to the one at B&N. In spite of the brief written procedure instructions faxed to PPP and followed explicitly, after six weeks, Mary and Don received a form rejection postcard in the mail. After a series of eight or nine phone calls, Mary sent copies of some of the ink she was getting for the title. This time, Mary also faxed a letter that told of the sales history of the previous titles and of the future promotional activities that were planned for the book.Remarkably, a few days later, Mary received a phone call from the buyer who gave her a purchase order over the phone. Mary was extremely nice to the buyer, thanking her profusely. “It pays to be super nice to these people,” says Mary. “They get tons of phone calls from all kinds of weird people every day. It doesn’t mean that if you’re nice on the phone that you’ll end up with an order, but if you’re nasty, you can be assured that you won’t get one!”So the experience with Borders was better, more efficient, and more productive. Mary went on to work on Waldenbooks, using the leverage of having made a sale to Borders to try to get the Walden buyer to consider her title.

Today’s Lesson & More Tomorrow?

The important lesson here is persistence. Mary would not take no for an answer. This doesn’t mean that she charges ahead rudely or without thinking-actually just the opposite is true. Mary analyzes every rejection and reevaluates her strategy. She waits a while and then goes back a second, third, or fourth time with a fresh approach. “It doesn’t always work,” reports Mary, “but it has resulted in more orders than rejections. It helps a lot that I have a strong portfolio of press clips to mail and fax to these decision makers. The publicity lends a lot of credibility to the promotion and publicity promises I make to the buyer.”

Mary called me just the other day to advise that Ingram had ordered 200 copies. She called the buyer and found out that Borders/Waldenbooks would be ordering the book through them! Success!!!

So, now you’ve heard the story of Perfect Picture Press. There are some good lessons here and valuable insights for large and small presses and self-published authors too. If you enjoyed hearing about these experiences and found them beneficial to your own situation, let me know and I’ll be glad to write a follow-up article. Please drop me a note via the PMA office or send me an e-mail at the address given below. Tell me what specific questions you have for Mary and Don or for Picture Perfect Press. I’ll continue to report on the progress of these energetic and entrepreneurial PMA members and share their experiences with you.

Robin Bartlett is the Managing Director of North America Berlitz International Publishing. He can be reached by mail via the PMA office (PMA, 627 Aviation Way, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266) or through e-mail at robin.bartlett@berlitz.com. Bartlett is also a PMA board member.




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