Today, I’d like you to meet Ann Kingman, a book lover, blogger, and District Sales Manager for one of the major publishing houses. We’ll be talking about what she does with your books in that window of time between turning in your final edits and seeing your book for sale. She’ll also share her opinion about the current crisis in the publishing industry and the important role of independent bookstores. And by the way, as they say on NPR: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the subject and not of her employer or its affiliates.
I hope you enjoy our conversation and find Ann as lovely as I do. And after the interview, be sure to check out her two blogs: Books on the Nightstand, a blog and podcast about books and reading that she does with her colleague, Michael Kindness. And Booksellsers Blog, where she shares what she learns about social media and online marketing with independent bookstores.
First, tell me about you as a reader, and how you happened to make your career about books.
Like so many of us, I can’t ever remember not reading. Both of my parents were readers and that must be where I picked it up. One of my earliest memories is my mother banging on the bathroom door to check if I was all right. I guess I had been in there a long time. I was fine, I was just really enjoying the biography of Juliet Low (founder of The Girl Scouts) and some peace and quiet.
I definitely took refuge in reading in the years up to and after my parents’ divorce, when I was 9. Reading is what got me through those times. I don’t think it’s a particularly unique story, which is why I believe so strongly in the power of literature to inspire, to comfort and to heal.
I was a Magazine Journalism major in college (among other things), and my dream job was to work as a features editor at a well-known magazine. But magazine jobs were very difficult to find, and when I did get an offer, the pay was not enough to live on, especially in New York City. I was working with an employment agency, who sent me on yet another interview, this time to Dell Publishing. I knew them primarily from their puzzle magazines, and I wasn’t all that excited, but I went on the interview anyway. I still remember the feeling when I stepped into the Personnel Office: on the wall was a poster celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dell Yearling Books. And pictured on the poster were many, many of my favorite books from childhood — the ones that got me through so many bad times. I knew at that moment that I just had to work there, even if it meant sweeping floors. Luckily, it was an administrative job in the sales department, and it paid quite well because I was one of the few people who had computer skills at the time. I didn’t know anything about how books were sold, but I was willing to learn. My plan was to move to the editorial side of the company after awhile, but I soon fell in love with the sales side of the process, and that’s where I’ve stayed. Twenty-two years and four mergers later, I’m still basically with the same company, though it has changed in name and location many times since I was hired.
What exactly does a bookseller do? What are the best and most difficult parts of this kind of work?
My actual job is really that of Sales Representative. We think of “booksellers” as the people who work in the bookstores putting books into customers’ hands. My role is that of liaison between the publisher and the bookstore. I work with approximately 30 independent bookstores in New England. I meet with them several times a year to share with them the books that we will be publishing in the coming seasons—we usually work about 6 months ahead. For instance, it is now February and I am talking to them about books that will be published in July and August. I work with the buyer at the bookstore to decide which books they should stock, and how many copies of each they should buy. Much of my advice is based on my knowledge of the store, what their customers buy, and what their booksellers like to read. One of my favorite parts of the job is talking to the booksellers who work on the sales floor. I try to get to know them and know what they like to read, so that I can give them Advanced Readers Copies—these are “preview” copies of books that we will be publishing in the future. I try to get the booksellers to read them early and tell me what they think about them. Our hope is that they will love the books I give them and recommend them to their customers once the books are in the store.
The most difficult part of my job is really remembering what time of year it is! As I said earlier, I am currently selling the books that we will be publishing in the summer. However, I am also working with my bookstores to make sure that they have enough copies of the books that are out right now—the books that are selling, getting review attention, and getting good word of mouth from booksellers and readers. In addition, I am now starting to read manuscripts that will be published in the Fall. I’m always working at 3 points in time, and trying to keep it all in the air without dropping any of the balls is a feat that challenges me on many occasions. It’s not exactly difficult, but there is definitely the feeling that our work is never done. We work the books throughout their whole life cycle to make sure that every book finds its readership.
So, walk me through the process, if you would. An author finds out, Yay, Big Publishing House bought my manuscript! When do you come in?
The timeline differs at each publisher, but the general process goes something like this: Author gets contract, and the book gets put on the publishing schedule (so far out in the future that the author likely believes that they will not live to see the publication, but the long process is a whole ‘nother story). About 6 months before the publication date, the editorial, marketing and publicity departments present the title to the sales reps at a meeting formally known as the “Sales Conference.” These conferences happen 3 times per year. There is a marketing and publicity plan mostly in place, and the cover may or not be finalized.
Prior to the Sales Conference, the reps have received manuscripts or manuscript excerpts, and information about each book on that season’s schedule. At the Sales Conference, the reps talk about the books with the publisher, editor, marketing and publicity departments, learn more about the content of the book, the marketing plans, etc. Then we reps go out and sell the list to our bookstores.
On our sales calls, we talk with the buyers about titles that might be comparable to the books we are selling, we look at previous books by the author and how they’ve sold, and we spend a lot of time figuring out who at the bookstore is the right reader for each book. We also talk about how the store will promote the books they are most excited about: in their newsletter, by putting a stack at the front of the store on a table, a window display, etc.
We know that not every bookstore can carry every book, so we work with the store to determine which ones their customers will most want to buy. The staff at most of our independent bookstores know their clientele extremely well, and with the help of computerized inventory systems can determine which books are the best for them to bring in. Often a bookstore will start with a small quantity, just 1 or 2 copies, but if a bookseller on staff reads and loves the book, they will order more. Many bookstores are so passionate about the books that the staff loves that they can sell hundreds of copies of a favorite book simply by recommending it to their customers.
Fascinating! Over the years, I’ve gathered bits and pieces of this process, but, finally, I have a coherent picture. And I never knew bookstore owners gave their customers so much consideration.
With your more than 20 years in the publishing business, you’ve seen companies grow and buckle and merge before. Does this current publishing crisis feel different to you? And would you call it a crisis?
I’ve been through many “crises” and though it’s a cliché, it’s true that in publishing, the only constant is change. That being said, we are definitely in a time where there are many challenges to keep us all on our toes. During my career, the challenges have previously come basically one at a time, with most of them being a new outlet for book sales threatening the survival of existing channels. This time we have that, of course, with online bookselling, but we also have the rise of the e-book, print on demand, various formats, a recession… and they are all happening at the same time.
Is it a crisis? I don’t think I’d label it as such. This feels more like an evolution. Certainly things will change, and the uncertainty makes people uneasy. It’s a personal crisis to those who have devoted their lives to the industry and find themselves out of work with few opportunities to stay in publishing. But as an industry, publishing will always exist.
I’m such a fan of your bookseller’s blog because I think it’s really at the forefront of trying to rethink how publishers and booksellers might adapt to the changing habits of readers. Talk to me about the types of changes you’re making (or thinking about making) to stay competitive.
I think we all have to change our definition of “customer.” As publishers, our customers are not only the retailers and wholesalers who pay us directly, but the booksellers on the front lines, and the consumer who purchases a book at retail. The industry is great at speaking with their retail and wholesale customers, but not so good at talking with the others. This needs to change. Booksellers have to get up to speed on the technology, and probably make some significant investments in their websites and e-commerce systems.
A website is no longer “nice to have,” and a robust e-commerce system will allow them to stay competitive. We are in a time when the idea of supporting local businesses is nearing a groundswell, and local bookstores stand to benefit if they can keep the customer experience at the top of mind. Many customers will happily support a local business, and even pay a bit more, if it is convenient for them to do so. Booksellers need to make sure that ease of use is there, as well as continue to educate the public about the benefits of shopping locally. They also need to work with other local businesses to help drive that message home. And it’s more important than ever that booksellers create relationships with their customers to better serve their market.
As publishing becomes easier and less expensive, the number of books will increase. And I think that there will be an even more important role for people to act as curators for the volume of content that will come. When faced with an infinite number of choices, we will still need someone to put a book in our hands (or the virtual equivalent) and say, “Read this, it’s fantastic.”
Last question. How could you convince a chronic Amazon user like me to buy from one of your independent bookstores instead? Here’s my reason for using Amazon: They already have my credit card, I always find what I’m looking for, and I can shop impulsively—the moment I hear of a book I want, I’m seconds away from placing an order.
Yes, let’s talk about bookstores.
I think people should feel free to shop at whatever business best meets their needs. When you shop at a locally-owned and operated business, $68 of every $100 will stay in the local community. Shopping at a business that is part of chain will retain $43 in the local community. As the economy continues to falter and more of my friends and neighbors are losing their jobs, this has become even more important to me. I want to keep local businesses vital in my community, as they are what keep my community vital.
The second reason to support independent bookstores is one that should be of supreme importance to writers. There are more than 2,000 independent bookstores listed on Indiebound.org. Each of those bookstores determine for themselves what books will be sold in each of their stores. Pretend that there are no more independent bookstores. Imagine you are an author. What if the Romance Buyer at the big chain store decides that he does not want to carry your book in their stores? Now your book is not in any physical bookstore location. Worse yet, it’s possible that the publisher will not be able to proceed with the publication of your book. This is, admittedly, an extreme example, as I always think that there will be some thriving independent bookstores. However, leaving the decision of what will or will not be published in the hands of just a few is a dangerous path to take.
But let’s talk about you, the customer, for a minute. There’s no arguing the convenience factor of Amazon. Independent bookstores are working diligently to get up to speed with technology, and some stores have done brilliantly. Powells.com is the most well-known because they were there early. I do believe that independent booksellers need to make it easy for their customers to support them. So I would ask this: if you, the customer, want to support your local bookseller, but there are specific reasons why you don’t or can’t, have a conversation with the bookstore owner. Let them know what they could do to get your business. I know that it’s not always price that causes readers to choose another option. Often there is no price difference, or it’s just $2-$3.
This conversation will of course work better if it’s constructive and not just a litany of complaints. The bookseller may not be able to accommodate your wishes, or move as quickly as you’d like, but it’s important for them to know. In my experience, I’ve found that most bookstore owners love to talk with customers about what they can do better. A healthy independent bookstore is more than just a place to buy books—it’s a community center, a gathering place, and often an important anchor to a town’s retail center.
Ultimately, you should feel free to shop wherever you choose. Seeing the larger picture and understanding the ramifications is important, and may influence your choice of where to spend your money, but in the end, it’s all about choice.
One more thought: I cannot imagine a world where children cannot experience the joy of wandering around a bookstore, taking in all of the colors and pictures, touching everything, and pulling out a few dollars to buy a book that they picked out themselves. I witnessed this scenario in a bookstore yesterday, and it made me smile the rest of the day.
You’re lovely, Ann. Thanks for being here!