The Book Buying Process (For the Bookstore)

Such magical, mythical words…  the book fair! A place for insiders only, an event happening behind the scenes. Publishers and bookstores come together to decide what’s in store (literally and figuratively) for the coming months. Which books get the publishers excited? What kind of promotions do they have in mind to tempt us? And what are we going to choose to display in our stores? The Dutch book fair will decide much of how our collection will look for the next 3-4 months. This year we are going to take you by the hand and show you how we do things. It’s almost as if you’re here with us!

Independent bookstores in The Netherlands can choose to join Libris, a national buying organisation that gets you better deals (and a lot of national marketing tailored to “buying locally”). They arrange 3 majoy book fairs a year: one in January, one in May and the biggest one in September. As a reader you probably won’t notice this much, but there is a strategy behind the scheduling of book releases. During the spring fair, you’ll see a lot of debut authors. At the summer fair the emphasis is on thrillers (we have something called the “Spannende Boekenweken” in June, a national campaign featuring the genre). And during the fall book fair we see many of the big names and blockbuster books, all ready for the buying frenzy of December.


Step 1: Watch the Folders Arrive and Despair

You just finished up with the last book fair: despite the enormous stack of folders you filled out all of your orders and sent them off to the publishers. Now you can look forward to all those exciting new titles and promotions! And you can look around your bookstore knowing that you’ve got everything under control – at least for the coming months. You get to unpack all your new books and feature them on the shelves, exactly like you pictured it during the book fair.

Then the mail comes in, and I kid you not: the first folders start arriving for the NEXT BOOK FAIR. And they are coming in droves. Before you know it, you’re like Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter (“No post on Sundays!”). The result is the enormous stack of folders you see featured in the photo. But slowly you start to get excited again. Because once all your orders have – more or less – arrived, you get used to seeing them in your store. And the itch for new books starts all over again, too.


Step 2: Browse Through the Folders With Unabashed Curiosity

If you don’t have to start ordering yet, you can pretend you’re not on a budget (it’s a harsh reality, but there’s no way around them).  Everything is fun. Every single book can come into your store, you can surely find a booklover who will want it. This phase is used to orient yourself on the entirety of what’s to come. Although it’s not a necessary phase when you are against the clock, it is a sensible one.

For example: now you’ll know that this is the year of the… (name a trend), and that at least five publishers will offer a book on the subject. You will need to choose which ones you like best, because 5 different books on the same topic might be a bit overkill. If you skip the orientation phase and start filling out orders directly, you will say “yes” to everything in the beginning, and say “no” to everything at the end. Poor last folders in the stack…

Because you are looking at books in a folder, you aren’t getting the same amount of information on it as when you’re holding it in your hands. Oftentimes you don’t know how it looks on the inside. You get a picture of the cover and a short description. Book buyers often develop a hunch for the kind of books they want to order, but nothing beats the actual browsing of a book. That is why we have book fairs: the important titles get printed in advance, and you can lay your hands on them all you like (also, yeay, ARCs!)

During the orientation phase it’s a smart move to pay attention to the smaller publishing houses. There is a good chance you only see them in a folder. The book fair lasts a whole of 3 days, but usually you can only attend for 1 or 2. You are going to see the big publishing houses during that time. They have the ARCs to tempt you and have wild promotional offers. (Take 25 copies and you’ll get a promotional doormat for free, for example.) These promotions are limited to the book fair, so you don’t want to miss them. But it does tend to make you skip the smaller publishers. So if you get excited about their titles now, during orientation, there is a bigger chance of ordering said books when you’re doing some critical downsizing.


Step 3: Who Are You Going to Talk To at the Fair?

Sorting the folders comes automatically once you’ve done a few of these book fairs. There are – according to us, of course – 3 stacks. One is for the publishers who make an appointment to come to the bookstore. You go through their folders and get shown the books, and you order with them one on one. It’s a handy way to still get personal time with a book buyer (yes, you do order more), and create some breathing room for the book fair at the same time.

The second stack is for publishers you are going to see at the book fair. I used to bring these with me to the fair, but the publishers all have extra copies on their tables anyway (paper is heavy, people). You order with them one on one, and you can choose one of two ways: you fill out what you want online while at their table, or they write it down and do it for you. I like to be in control, so I bring my laptop and fill it out myself. You do have to be careful with this stack of folders, because if you don’t separate them from stack 3, you run the risk of filling out the orders twice. They’d like that 😉

The third stack is for all the publishers you aren’t going to talk to. You can fill out these orders online, and you’re doing it based on the information in the folders only. As soon as the cluster is released (usually about a month surrounding the book fair), you can start doing this. I usually do about half up front, when I’m quite sure I will or will not want something. The rest I do after I know what I’ve bought from the large publishing houses, so I’ll know where to add a little something and where I have enough of. This stack is the biggest by far, because you wouldn’t believe how many publishers we have in The Netherlands. It’s amazing!


Step 4: To the Book Fair

And then you’re actually going to the book fair! Admittedly, it’s work, but at the same time it’s immensely fun. Throughout the years you’ve become friends with your publishing agents, and talking about books with friends all day long is a treat. The fair is in Hoevelaken, which is central to The Netherlands. Everyone agrees on one thing: it’s a hassle to get there. Go by car and you’ll be stuck in the mother of all traffic jams. Go by train and you have to change three times. Public transport also has the added disadvantage that you’re generally lugging back a suitcase and two bags. To carry all the ARCs, posters, flyers etc. you’re bringing back for the bookstore.

At the fair it’s “first come first served”. Publishers have set up stands, and you can join your agent’s table to talk business. Because you always have a few people you need to talk to, you can usually find the right empty chair after walking around for a bit. And if you don’t, you’ll just get in line for a cup of coffee or tea, and chat with the other book buyers. A lot of them are your friends (and old co-workers), too!

That’s what happens at your publishing agent’s table too. You can’t help but start off by chatting about how you’ve been, how they’ve been and what the bookstore is up to. Ten minutes max, I promise! (I lie.) Then you open up the folders and get started. It’s amazing to be able to talk to publishers about their books. From their enthusiasm you can see if they really believe in a title, and it makes you take chances.

Once I ordered 25 copies of a book that I had already mentally discarded before I got to the fair. And it’s a good thing I changed my mind, because we sold even more than that. (The promotional goodie was the cutest pillow! *hearteyes*) Publishing agents who know your store and your book buying behaviour, will also tell you honestly when they think a title isn’t going to work for you. You’re better off investing money into books you’re both excited about.

They are intensive days, the book fair. But I would never skip one. The energy is contagious. All those new books, all those new things to be discovered. Hanging out with good friends and colleagues and a lot of chatting! It can be difficult to keep your head, order smart and strategically: where can I stretch my budget for an amazing stunt? And can you really fit another book on that topic on its intended shelf?


Step 5: Where Are All Those Books?

Once you’re back into the real world, the job isn’t finished. The online cluster will remain open for about 2 or 3 weeks, and you need to fill out all your orders  before then. Now you know exactly what you bought from the big publishing houses, and how much wiggle room you have left to supplement it. Are you really going to buy that one book from a small publisher, now that you’ve already bought something alike from a big publisher (which has a lot more marketing force)? Shouldn’t you buy a few books about that topic, because you’re running a little low at the moment? Rounding out your orders can give you a slight headache…

You need some time to process all that information as well. I can happily tell someone I’ve bought a certain book at the fair they are going to love, only to discover it won’t release for another three months. Whoops. And sometimes it takes you so long to fill out your orders, books are already starting to arrive! It’s important not to lose focus, even though the book fair is over. (And not, like some people, start writing a long article about the book buying process.)

Once you finally put down the last folder, and have all your orders sent off, you can lean back with a content sigh. On the one hand you’re  happy you’re finally done, on the other hand you miss all those new titles you’ve been discovering. But quickly the books begin to arrive and you get excited again. You can unpack the boxes, and start displaying the new books. Wait with dreaded anticipation if your choices are going to sell as well as you thought. (Confession: I still get it wrong sometimes, even if I’ve been a book seller for 10 years now.) Without a doubt you will also discover you missed something that people want, and need to scramble to get it. Luckily we get 24 hour delivery, even if it is only at the standard rate.

But mostly, you’re just glad it’s done. You won’t have to worry for a few months. Everything is taken care of. And then the first new folder arrives in the mail. Oh no! Or, ehm… YES!

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