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What Makes Barnes & Noble Decide to Buy a Book?

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In any given week, the Small Press Department at Barnes & Noble receives more than 100 new titles to be considered for inclusion in the store title mix. Over the years, the ratio of “titles selected” to “titles passed” has remained steady; we tag three out of every 10 for distribution into the stores and must turn the other seven down for a variety of reasons.

For instance:

• The production values are shoddy–the book appears not to have been professionally designed or professionally edited.

• There’s nothing remarkable about the book, and there are hundred of titles in the same category with good track records as well as a publisher and author who promote them vigorously.

• The content of the book is a personal story, told in a style that has meaning only for the friends and family of the author or of the book’s subject.

But if those sorts of reasons lead us to decline a book, what makes us decide to place an order? I think all booksellers ask themselves the same three questions every time they encounter information about a new title or pick up a book to consider it for the first time.

1. What is the book?

2. Who is the customer?

3. How will the customer find out about this book?


The answers to these three questions–which are explored below–will determine whether the bookseller decides to buy the book, how many copies will be ordered, and if more than one store is involved, how broad the distribution will be.

1. What is the book?

Is this book in the best format for its category, and priced competitively? Does the title convey the content of the book accurately? Is there a subtitle that tells the reader even more? If it’s a category/genre book, does it convey where it fits into the category at first glance? Does the design make it easy to read, or does it clutter up the message? Does the book meet the competition in both value and content?

2. Who is the customer?

Once we have determined what the book is (and all of this information is processed in a matter of seconds), it’s easier to determine the customer base. If the book does not speak for itself clearly and it’s hard for a buyer to envision who is going to buy it, then the caution signals go up and we’re led to the last and most complex of these three questions.

3. How will the customer find out about the book?

What plans does the publisher have for marketing the book and reaching the consumer? Is the marketing plan more than author appearances at local bookstores? Does the marketing plan make it clear that the publisher knows who the customer is and how to reach that audience? Is there a book club sale? Have first or second serial rights been sold and to whom?

Also, is the author promotable? Are the author’s credentials obvious? Does the author have a track record? Even if this is the author’s first book, has the author had stories or articles published on the book’s subject, and if so, where? Does the author write a relevant weekly column or appear on a local radio station, or travel around the country participating in workshops about the subject (by which we don’t mean: Is this one of those authors who publish books as business cards, and sell those books at the seminars they conduct to promote their businesses)?

Has the book been reviewed in the trades, i.e. Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus or Booklist? If so, other reviews, both trade and consumer, will usually follow. Are there advance quotes for the book from well-recognized names in its field? What has the publisher done to give the book a base from which to move?

Positive answers to these questions usually prompt a bookstore buyer to consider distribution for the title into some number of stores. What then determines the actual distribution? How does the buyer pick the stores? The buyer usually begins with the author’s hometown (this is important information and regrettably often not included in the material we get about the title), and to the town where the publisher is based, assuming that the author’s and the publisher’s strengths are most evident where they are known. If a tour is scheduled, the buyer orders for stores in the tour cities. If there is no tour, and depending on the strength of the marketing plan and the subject, the buyer may choose to put copies into the stores where the subject sells best.

The depth of the sales generated from a distribution of this type will tell us if the book can perform in a wider range of stores, or whether it has reached the limit of its sales potential in these markets. Books from authors who have demonstrated an ability to generate ongoing sell-through of a title by their marketing efforts will be given every opportunity to succeed on the shelves in our stores.

Many titles reach our office because an author has participated in an event in a local store, and encouraged by the experience, sends a copy of the book to us asking for a distribution of the title into more stores around the country. A book may sell well in one store because the author lives nearby and drives all those who ask for the title into that store but a modest distribution in nearby stores may yield no additional sales. Similarly, a number of copies of a title may have been sold during an event in a store without even one copy having been sold since. This usually indicates that the book does not meet the competition on the shelf in its category. Without the author’s personality to sell the book, it has no appeal, and thus does not warrant any additional distribution.

[subhead] Here’s the pitch

What’s the best way to approach a bookstore to sell your title to that store? There are several ways to consider:

• Make an arrangement with a distributor to represent your books.

• Hire a commission rep group to sell your books to the major accounts, and do the fulfillment through your own facilities and those of a wholesaler.

• If you’re not in a position to make those arrangements, then send a copy of the book or adequate selling material–cover, press kit, reviews, etc.–to the bookstore and let the store know how to order the book, either directly from the publisher or through a wholesaler. Make arrangements with more than one wholesaler as your business grows. Make it easy for the bookseller to order your book.

Every bookseller every day is barraged by authors and publishers who want the seller to make a book special to customers, but it’s the author and the publisher who make the book special–first by creating a book and telling a story with a clear appeal to its intended audience, and then by creating and executing a plan for reaching that audience.

Marcella A Smith has been a bookseller in one guise or another all of her adult life. She is the Director, Small Press & Vendor Relations, at Barnes & Noble, Inc. A former member of the PMA Board, Smith is a regular participant in PMA University and a current member of the Small Press Center Advisory Council.

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