Author and Book Buyer Catherine Linka had the unusual experience of building her children and teen’s book section at Flintridge Bookstore and Coffee House from the ground up. As she grew to understand the various publishing houses, the Herculean task gave her an insider’s look at the children and teen’s markets. The checklist from her journey, beginning below, is a valuable insider’s look at today’s marketing and publishing world.
Here’s how she’s taught herself the book business:
Learning from others
I visit bookstores around the country, noting what books they have and how they display them. I take pictures of displays and shelf-talkers and gather copies of flyers or newsletter. I attend industry conferences and even won the Glenn Goldman Scholarship awarded by SCIBA to attend the three day Winter Institute put on by Ingram for independent booksellers. When I meet other booksellers, I ask them for advice and suggestions and probably make them crazy, pumping them for ideas. Then I go back to the store and try to put to use what I’ve learned.
Listening to my readers
I have two advisory boards, one for 5th and 6th graders and one for teens. I take advantage of the advance copies publishers send me by putting them in the hands of avid readers and listening to their responses. When they LOVE LOVE LOVE something I pay attention. It’s especially helpful when looking at fantasy and paranormal romance, because my readers know the competition and they have strong opinions and they have no qualms about telling me when they think a book is so-so. I can’t afford to keep so-so books on the shelf. Every book has to earn its place on the shelf.
Learning from my mistakes
I watch the numbers, reading sales reports every day to see what sells and what doesn’t and over time I’ve adjusted how I buy. We’ve been in business about three years. When the recession hit our highly educated, child-centric town, parents no longer impulsively bought $18 picture books. Hardback middle grade languished on the shelf unless it was a fat fantasy or was such a hot book like Lightening Thief that kids had to have it. Even the wonderful Laurie Halse Anderson’s new historical fiction sat there. So I realized that right now, I have to provide value. I also buy fewer titles and commit to them.
Being committed to bringing great books to readers
Sales is connecting people to books that they’ll love. When a child or parent comes in looking for a book, I always ask about a book they’ve read that they love or a subject they love. An eighth grader came in with his mom the other day and she said he liked mysteries. As we talked, I realized that what he really liked were complex stories. I pulled Little Brother by Cory Doctorow which is dystopian fiction off the shelf. He read the copy on the back and was completely pumped, because it offered the experience he wanted to have.
Building relationships with local authors
Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse is not the biggest fish in the pond. Publishers take the big names to Vroman’s in Pasadena, because, let’s face it, tours are expensive. But there are many amazing authors in LA, so I focus on building relationships and events that support and promote them. With talents like Lisa Yee and Marla Frazee in my own backyard, we’re really lucky.
Independent bookstores really have a lot of hurdles. We don’t get the discounts that chains or internet giants do and we can’t price the way they do. We have heavy labor and inventory costs, and the publishers don’t treat us like BFFs. Customers love our atmosphere, but many behave like we are a display floor for publishers. This is especially true when people browse, click a pic of a cover, and then buy online.
The only way we can stay in business is if we are so integrated into the community and its schools and social organizations that our existence matters to them. They buy from us, because they want us to survive. So I work with local pre-school and school parents, teachers, librarians, writers groups, PTAs and other fund-raisers.
Next: Catherine Linka talks about POV—of a bookstore –zu Vincent