Late January brings frigid temperatures and ice storms, a ubiquitous layer of sidewalk salt crunching underfoot in the entryway of my store where it was tracked in by little boots and the wheels of strollers, and a calendar marked with appointments as publishers reps all present their spring/summer seasons lists. The phone calls begin right after New Year’s: “Cynthia, I’m headed to town in a few weeks. Is Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon better for you? I will send a box of catalogs and samples, but the mark-ups are already in your inbox.”
Publisher rep appointments are a spot of sunshine in the bitter grey days and swirling snow of January here in Indiana. The store is quiet, we are a bit flush with cash from the holidays, and we really miss seeing our colleagues from the bookselling community. Sales reps, like the Pony Express, bring us packages and treats, but they also bring news.
They have made their way south from Detroit and Chicago, or up from Louisville and Cincinnati, bringing updates from bookshops across the Midwest. They have visited new stores that have completed their first holiday season, and old friends who we may not see again until spring thaw. They tell us of new bookseller babies on the way, of planned semi-retirements (booksellers never truly retire, they just move to permanent adjunct literary status), and businesses moving locations. They bring boxes and catalogs full of fresh, new and distinctly cheerful titles marketed for the spring and summer seasons – lots of picture books with smiling mice, flying kites, and bunnies working out friendship dilemmas in daisy-covered meadows. There is a new round of licensed material related to movies, television and online series to be launched in 2019, all with their expected 8×8 paperbacks and leveled readers. There is a fresh set of remarkably thick YA fantasy titles, all emerging from their winter sales meeting chysallis with an extra 300 pages or so of world-building and a new set of unpronounceable character names. Middle grade lists are expansive this time of year, and those workhorse authors on regular production schedules might include TWO book release dates, one volume for February and one for the summer. Those artsy companies that produce sidelines present elegant page after page of lovely new journals, puzzles, and glitter-filled pencils and scented markers… all in tempting floral designs and cute themes that just cry out to be ordered to replace the tired post-holiday merchandise left on our shelves. (Sideline trendspotters predict a strong spring for platypus, flamingos, and MORE narwhals, bless their little moneymaking horns.)
We’re already behind, of course, as the publishing industry takes no break for the holidays. Bestsellers were published on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in 2018, and there was a solid list of new releases for January 2. We covered the huge titles in our fall orders (to varying degrees of success, as holiday shipping woes and weather delays happened just as they do in every year – HINT to publishing friends: don’t ship a title three days before release in December. Our warehouses get snowed in, and our roads are lousy) but now we’re scrambling to catch up with the rest of the lists. Our “emergency” wholesaler orders are higher than they normally would be, and it’s time to get back to work to maintain key backlist titles. In children’s stores, we go through distinct phases of increased sales by particular age group, and we need to adjust our ordering with each season to maximize turn and profit. Perhaps a core group of customers has “aged up” into a new section, or a successful set of school visits by authors in the fall drove dollars into a series or genre. A mini baby boom occurred here in central Indiana early last fall (I credit the Indianapolis Colts’ disappointing 2017 season, but with no aspersion cast on our friend and then-injured quarterback Andrew Luck, because he READS) and a lot of “baby’s first Christmas” sales have made our board books disappear like binkies dropped under the bassinet.
So we welcome our rep partners’ visits, and greet them with coffee, homemade cookies and apologies for not being better prepared… but surely the stacks of their catalogs with Post-it notes sticking out the sides is ALMOST as good as a finished Edelweiss order, and the yellow pads full of scribbled notes that we decipher together (“Can we get her for …….. event?”) is promising, right? We spend a good half hour catching up, and then dive in to the stack, interrupted only by staff who slip into the room with handwritten lists of requested ARCs and an occasional preschooler who comes in to see if “Mrs. Sinfia is REALLY busy, or can she get the more better train set out, please?”
I think of myself as a pretty quick customer, ordering-wise, and try to have my ducks in mostly the same pond (although never in the mythical row) before most appointments. I don’t need to talk about every title, and usually get into a rhythm of ordering 2’s, 4’s, and 6’s – I have always been an “even number” buyer, which I’m sure is subconsciously related to the number of my children. Publishers insisting on display deals at 5 copies require constant prompts from my patient sales reps (“no, you mean 5, not 4 – or you can do 10…. “). Something about ordering books makes me hungry, though, so there are rather frequent breaks for snacks. As ordering seasons have come and gone, I have become more reliant on my reps’ advice on frontlist title quantities, and more confident in my ability to sort midlist into what will or won’t turn in my store by either shelf appeal or earnest handselling. A really good sales rep (in my opinion) saves their endorsements for when they are needed – if everything is “terrific,” then it’s hard to know when to override your first impression as a buyer and follow the rep’s advice to add a title or two. I have become more comfortable, too, in saying “no,” although usually couched in a kinder phrase like “perhaps not this season” or “let’s wait on this one.” There have been enough titles in my bookselling career that I just MISSED the first time, or underestimated the marketing prowess of the publisher to really think that I’ll get it ALL right, but fortunately, all of our reps will happily take an order next month, too. Until then, I’ll bake another batch of cookies for tomorrow’s appointment, and look for some more sticky notes.