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Saturday, October 31, 2009

JJ: Selling Books

Book Cover
  • Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, has been a bookseller for nearly thirty years, and a passionate book lover all her life. Her modestly sized, yet widely respected, shop has hosted authors such as E. L. Doctorow, Isabel Allende, Jon Krakauer, Margaret Atwood, Octavio Paz, and Sue Grafton.
  • Burton now shares her story, including the amusing trials and triumphs of author visits, attempts at censorship, the modern business of bookselling, and the complexities of staying afloat as an independent in the world of chains and superstores.
  • Burton also offers dozens of "Top 25" reading lists on a multitude of topics, from psychology to poetry to fiction, business to the best banned books. Burton has also painstakingly collected favorite reading lists from the best independent bookstores throughout the country, including the Tattered Cover in Denver, Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and Powell's Books in Portland, sharing what some of the best-read folks in the country currently can't put down. Filled with wit, passion, and a strikingly independent message, Burton's story will delight booklovers of all kinds.
I've been working my way through this, and enjoying it. It is fun, insightful and educational. So why is this post part of the "Just Jim" series? I guess because I was thinking about the contrast between her store and mine, and her methods and mine. There is a huge difference in inventory management between selling new books and used books. New book stores have to order their stock and do a best-guess as to which titles and how many of each they will need and they have to figure in seasonal stuff and lead times and a hundred other factors. In my business the incoming inventory walks in unannounced, a book or bag or box or trunkload or truckload at a time for me to deal with. Since I trade books, and my trading policy is essentially "two-fer-one" and I accept almost any books, I always have more inventory coming in then going out. I lack room, not stock. A new book store deals with invoices and the publisher's prices printed on the book, so handling incoming inventory is a matter of checking off lists and stocking shelves. It's not that simple for me. First I have to figure out what I can sell the incoming books for, then give half of that as a credit to the customer. This is pretty simple with newer paperbacks where I sell them for half of the cover price and the customer gets a fourth of the cover as a credit. Older paperbacks make things a little more complicated, though I sell the majority of them for a dollar and the customer gets fifty cents as a credit. I don't worry much about collectible paperbacks as there is no local market for them and handling them is a headache. The majority of the under-two-dollar cover priced paperbacks I sell for a dollar each, which allows a knowledgeable collector to make a killing in here once in a while. Hardcovers are where things can get a lot more complicated. I hate to tell ya this, but there ain't no relationship between the new cover price of a hardcover and the used value. Once a book hits the used shelves it is all about supply and demand, and I am lucky to be able to peddle last years hardcover $29.95 best seller for five bucks. Conversely, some books are worth a lot more now than when they were on the shelves at Borders. Sue Grafton's first book, A is for Alibi, goes for as high as eight thousand dollars in mint condition, quite a jump from the fifteen bucks it cost in 1982. Do I "know" what is rare and what isn't? Sometimes! Usually I make a seat-of-the-pants guess when I am doing an initial triage on the incoming books. Triage? Yes, since I accept virtually any book I have to do a quick sort into Keepers, Tossers, and Maybes. The infrequent possibly-valuable books go into a fourth stack to be looked up later. Keepers go straight out into the store. Tossers go into a giveaway box or the garbage. Maybes, well, MAY get tossed, MAY be given away, MAY go on the shelves, and MAY just sit on the counter until I get a chance to go through them in more detail. Another consideration in pricing books is that a good new book store rolls its entire inventory over three or four times a year, while the average used book store rolls its inventory once every ten years. That Grafton book might be worth thirty thousand in ten years or it might be worth thirty dollars if she falls out of favor. Book prices are volatile and it is hard to guess what they will do, especially since the advent of the Internet. The Net made book collecting a lot easier. Instead of joining mailing lists, accumulating catalogs and trudging from store to store to find old/rare/odd books, a collector can go online and find almost any book desired. This has driven the price of moderately collectible books down and the price of true rarities into the stratosphere. I tend to bypass the quagmire of pricing by not putting the prices on the books but by dealing with them on a case by case basis. This way I can get the average current price for a rare book at the time of sale and it allows me to vary the prices by the customer's attitude. Make me mad enough and my prices hit infinity, and don't let the door smack your butt as you go out. ----- Inventory control for a store like The King's English or Borders consists of watching the shelves and reordering what is in short supply and shuffling off the books that aren't selling. My most effective version of inventory control is to insist that people take out the same genre of books that they traded in, a policy that irritates the man bringing in Aunt Matilda's life collection of Harlequins to trade for Montana history books. I suppose that I am inconsistent when I allow the lady that brings in Grandpa Bob's collection of Montana books to trade for a ton of Romances, but the fact is that I am just too lazy or incoherent to explain that I really have a trading hierarchy and that rare/valuable/salable books can be traded for lesser books but not vice versa. ----- A big difference in our daily operation is that she "sells" books. I don't. The books in here have to sell themselves because I am not a salesman. I don't pressure anyone to buy a certain book and I rarely make suggestions. When I shop, I prefer to be left alone to browse, and salespeople who hover around to help me just irritate me, I assume my customers feel the same way so I try to treat them the way I like to be treated. To be honest, I think part of my "lack" of service in here is just laziness, but only a small part. And, to be very honest, I am not well read. Ninety-nine percent of the books that make the best seller lists and ninety-nine percent of the books thought of as classics or literature are of little interest to me. I read for relaxation or vicarious adventure, not to improve myself. I know my limits pretty well, and so I restrict myself to "This has been popular" or "Folks that bought those sometimes buy these" when people ask me for a recommendation. Let me say again, with emphasis "I am not a salesman!" Luckily, books tend to sell themselves, I suppose because reading is an addiction and addicts are easy to sell to. I should know: I am an addict. Blacktail Mountain Books TBC (Me)