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Selling Sidelines

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Selling Sidelines

November 2012

by Linda Carlson

Gifts, games, candy, and other nonbook items, which are important and higher-margin sources of revenue for booksellers, are increasingly important for book publishers too. Some publishers are selling merchandise that ties directly to their titles, with toy versions of children’s book characters the most common product. Others are selling products described in their books, such as dog training gadgets and cookware.

Some publishers sell sidelines direct, and others sell through the same wholesalers that sell their books.

The View from Ingram

Mary McCarthy, director of merchandising at Ingram Content, reports that this wholesaler is now carrying about 10,000 sideline items, most of them retailing for between $10 and $30.

“We are very, very interested in book-related gifts and games,” she says, noting that about 3,000 of the 2012 holiday season items are new since last year.

Vendor size is not an issue for Ingram. Although many sidelines come from major toy companies, it sells products from smaller vendors too, including hundreds of Bible ribbon bookmarks produced by someone in his basement.

Almost two years ago, McCarthy told Publishers Weekly that Ingram’s bestselling sidelines were plush toys, activity sets, and puzzles, and she confirmed recently, “Those are still our biggies—especially plush toys related to a book. Our number-one gift item right now is Pete the Cat. We have also been doing incredibly well with Mighty Bright book lights.”

Other items popular with Ingram customers are puppets, especially those from Folkmanis and the Puppet Company Ltd., and toys from Green Toys. Because of its Christian division, Ingram also sells large quantities of rosaries, communion ware, and Bible study items. Moleskine, well known for its notebooks, diaries, and city guides, remains Ingram’s top-selling gift vendor.

Note cards using artwork from books often sell well. Although most of the note cards Ingram now carries are kid-themed, McCarthy says the company has sold hundreds of boxes of cards featuring Penguin book jackets. (Retailing for $25, each box has 100 cards with examples of book covers from a 70-year period.)

For an idea of what sidelines Ingram is currently wholesaling, its current customers can log onto ipage (ipage.ingramcontent.com/ipage/li001.jsp), where products are listed by vendor, subject, and EAN. If you’re not a customer, you can contact McCarthy directly at mary.mccarthy@ingramcontent.com.

Ingram requires that each sideline it carries have either a UPC or an EAN code. Packaging requirements differ by product, with Ingram staff available to walk vendors through the submission process. Ingram does not deal with display racks or counter prepacks. “Our strength is there are no minimums—retailers can buy one of anything we carry,” McCarthy says.


A Retailer’s Take

Retailers say they evaluate sidelines carefully. At Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, VT, book and gift buyer Jessica Wood says purchase decisions are made “case by case.” In general, tie-ins work better for children’s books than for adult titles. Book/toy packages sell well, even though they are priced higher than books alone, if the customer is familiar with the book and if the item paired with the book is “especially charming,” she explains.

“One of the best examples of a book/plush package that has been around for a long time is Pat the Bunny. It is well packaged; the package is sturdy, and it looks nice on the shelf next to the other Kunhardt books,” Wood reports.

Too often, she says, packaging is flimsy and looks shopworn quickly. “Or the sideline, which is usually plush, has been positioned right in front of the book, and because the package is shipped with books, it is easily damaged in transit.”

For a sideline to sell well, quality and price are both key, Wood emphasizes, and she suggests that publishers think about how booksellers can merchandise sidelines when they’re thinking about sidelines to offer.


Publishers’ Reports

Tom Doherty at Cardinal Publishers Group believes that sidelines make specialty retailers such as fishing supply shops more likely to carry the sports and outdoor guides that his Indianapolis-based company distributes. But he cites several challenging aspects of adding sidelines such as bumper stickers and fishing gloves to his line.

“Sideline products often use UPC codes instead of EANs, so we had to adjust the way we store product information and the way it appears on packing slips,” he explains. Also, Doherty points out, “there’s a learning curve for our customer service and warehouse personnel in processing orders for nonbook customers. Sporting goods stores have routing guidelines and EDI procedures that are different than the ones bookstores use.”

Other important issues: Sporting goods shops that don’t ordinarily carry books may not understand book merchandising and so may order the wrong product, or merchandise a product poorly. Many don’t have book racks, so they display books behind the counter or in other low-visibility areas (providing special racks might solve that problem, but since they’re expensive, Cardinal tries to offer countertop displays for its books). And because Cardinal’s commissioned reps primarily sell lures, hooks, fishing lines, and similar supplies rather than books, they need special flyers instead of the company’s book catalogs.

Despite these hurdles, Doherty expresses enthusiasm for the sidelines he’s now handling. Although he estimates that they produce less than 1 percent of Cardinal’s business, they are growing in importance. Not only does “carrying sidelines make it more likely that a retailer in this specialty market will add us as a vendor for books,” Doherty says, “it also has helped us attract reps, and because of the sidelines the reps can spend more time with the customer.”

Another major advantage for those in the book industry: Cardinal’s sidelines, like most others, are sold nonreturnable.

For Roadrunner Press in Oklahoma City, sidelines also provide a way of “getting our foot in the door.” The company’s scenic wall calendars about Oklahoma fuel “a nice profitable venture that gives us an entree to gift shops, Hallmark stores, museum stores, welcome centers, casino gift shops, hospital gift shops, and other retailers, many of which then buy our YA books,” editor Jeanne Devlin reports.

At Future Horizons, an Arlington, TX, company specializing in the autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and sensory issues market, recent merchandise additions include a weighted stuffed gecko, a one-button alarm clock, and a Tangle Toy, for fidgety children.

“All of these sell off the shelves at conferences,” which Future Horizons attends almost every week, says Lyn Dunsavage Young, national media coordinator. If conference attendance is expected to be 300, Young says the company brings at least 20 Tangle Toys; when the expected audience is 500, they double that number. “We don’t bring them home,” she reports, so assuming at least 35 conferences annually, that’s a minimum of 700 Tangle Toys, each retailing for $4. Future Horizons also sells about 20 geckos at $35 apiece per conference.

“Our sidelines complement what authors say in our books and what’s said by our speakers, who guide professionals and parents on how to sooth and create boundaries for children on the autism spectrum,” Young says. After about six years of selling sidelines, these items now represent roughly 4 percent of Future Horizons sales. The company plans to add weighted vests and blankets, seamless and label-less clothing, and similar items for those with sensory problems.

A much smaller operation, Leslie Korenko’s Wine Press, has also found that sidelines help sell books. Describing herself as “just a self-published author who now has three books under her belt,” Korenko has discovered that there’s a limited market for her histories of her small community, Ohio’s Kelley Island. “Books aren’t enough to keep people interested, especially whenyou sell at festivals as I do. By contrast, posters attract all kinds of attention.”

Which is why Korenko now offers six posters that feature island architecture (Houses, Historic Houses and Outhouses of Kelleys Island, for example). About 20 percent of her gross sales comes from these posters, which are sold both direct and through a local gift shop. With their much lower production costs, they are far more profitable than her books.

Not that all sidelines sales are easy: “Keep it simple,” she advises other publishers. “Plus, be aware that while books come in nice compact boxes, packaging and shipping sidelines—and hauling them to and displaying them at festivals—can be a nightmare.”

Another publisher that uses sidelines at exhibits is Griffyn Ink of Grapevine, TX, a suburb of Dallas. Its author, A.J. Scudiere, a suspense novelist, attends book fairs and conventions with four “collector’s items,” each tied to a different title, that help attract buyers to booths. “They can be purchased separately, but they are intended to accompany the books, and we offer a discount on each item with the purchase of a book. We’ve also had great success offering a free item with any book set purchased,” CEO Eli Jackson reports.

Like Korenko, Jackson warns that managing inventory and handling transportation of sidelines isn’t easy. “I wish we had a single vendor,” he says, but it “takes lots of research and several months to find the right product at the best price. We order a couple hundred of everything except for the plush creatures. We had to order a minimum of 900 of those to get them made, and that took almost six months from start to finish.”

“The items have been great for our marketing and for helping A.J. stand out in the minds of customers,” Jackson continues. “But we pay for everything up front and must stock it. So while we have a good return on investment, we also have to deal with cash flow.”

At Double Dove Press, the Petaluma, CA, publisher of Lipstick and the Leash: Dog Training a Woman’s Way, Camilla Gray-Nelson says the dog training tools she recommends in her book generate as much as 25 percent of Double Dove’s sales at exhibits. The tools are also sold on the company Web site, which is referenced in the book’s appendix.

Sidelines generate 20 to 40 percent of sales at exhibits for Willow Bend Publishing in Goshen, MA, says author/publisher Ellen Feld, who writes about Morgan horses. At shows that do not permit sales of items purchased (rather than crafted) by the exhibitor, Feld says her displays of plush horses attract visitors to her booth and help book sales.

She can mark up the toys by at least 100 percent, but she must buy each product in quantities of 12 to 48, which means she makes one large annual purchase to provide enough inventory for her fall schedule of shows.

Giveaways are an easier way of increasing exhibit sales, believes Patricia Turner Custard of Black Plume Books in Chesapeake, VA. The author/publisher of children’s fiction reports that “coloring sheets and printed bookmarks, as well as downloadable teacher’s guides on my Web site, work the best in direct sales venues as lures to attract buyers to my table and as conversation starters.”

If you’re considering adding a sideline as a book tie-in, publisher Linda Salisbury of Tabby House in Lake Anna, VA, has some advice: “Independent author/publishers can spend a lot of money on sidelines that are cute or attractive but probably won’t sell their books or add to the bottom line.” Caution is advisable, she continues. “Ask store owners if they will carry your books and the sideline and work the numbers” instead of assuming all sidelines will sell like Paddington-type toys and shirts that are mass-produced for high-profile books with national advertising.

Her comment stems from experience selling T-shirts through Tabby House as a tie-in to her Bailey Fish books. Yes, she says, it started out well, “but the price of shirts went up, and the retail outlets wanted a bigger discount, so it wasn’t as good a deal for us. And it was getting complicated; we had trouble finding a new vendor that would economically print T-shirts on demand rather than large quantities of every size from infant to 3X. Buyers also wanted various colors instead of just white, and we found ourselves lugging many bins of T-shirts to book events as we tried to fill orders for this and for that.”

The shirts were fun, though, she adds. Tabby House sold hundreds, but Salisbury says that a couple of years ago, “we decided that we’d stick to what we were really about: books!”

Jeff Minard, general manager of the Pasadena-based William Carey Library, came to a similar conclusion: “We have a global reach and I might get a deal early on a new item, or a sole import or distribution arrangement, but it doesn’t last long enough, and I have no control. Soon that same item might be merchandised across the Web.” In addition, says Minard, who sells religious books, he needs to stay focused on publishing: “Keep the main thing the main thing.”

Black Plume Press in Chesapeake, VA, decided against selling sidelines—specifically plush toy editions of its children’s book characters—because of margins. “The character in my first book, Jules the Lighthouse Dog, was so popular that I wanted to offer a sideline featuring Jules,” says Patricia Turner Custard, the author/publisher, especially since “several bookstores that carry my books also sell such toys and report that often the books will sell a toy or vice versa.”

Investigating toys that represent the dog breeds featured in her books, she found that the lowest price was $4 per toy with a minimum order of 100. “Now, this doesn’t sound too bad,” she notes, “but it was for a low-quality product of a minor character. I cannot even get wholesale prices for stuffed Bernese Mountain Dogs and Shelties, the breeds featured in my books.”

And she too concluded: “I want to sell books, not toys!”

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