Bookstore 101 - The Good, the Bad, & the Dusty

Welcome to Bookstore 101!

Here is everything you ever wanted to know about independent bookstores: the Good, the Bad, the Dusty. Just click on a heading or question and it will take you to the answer.

Have a question you don't see answered here? Email it to us: info@belmontbooks.com.

BOOKS

How do you decide which books to stock?

How do you decide how many to buy?

How long do you hold onto books?

I went in looking for this really classic book and you didn't have it in stock. Why wouldn't you always have it?

 

CUSTOMER ORDERS

What's the best way to place an order?

What's the worst way to place an order?

Do all independent bookstores now have online ordering?

How quickly can you fill an order?

Why do some books take so much longer to get than others?

 

PRICES

Why are books so expensive?

But it seems like prices have gone up a lot lately. Why?

How much of the cover price goes to the publisher, author or bookstore?

Why aren't independent bookstores more profitable?

 

DISPLAYS

How you decide which books to feature on your display tables?

Why do you post reviews for some books and not others?

Are Staff Picks really picked by staff?

Do publishers pay you to put certain books on display?

What is a "face out?" Why don't you face all books out?

 

RETURNS

What are returns?

Why would you want to return books?

Why do the publishers let you do this?

 

AUTHORS

Is it fun meeting so many different authors?

What's the best way for an author to contact a store about carrying their book or hosting an event?

What kind of information is a store looking for from authors?

What's the worst way for an author to contact a store about carrying their book or hosting an event?

 

EVENTS

How do you find out which authors want to do events?

How do you decide which events you want to host?

Do the authors come to you?

 

COMPETITION

Is there a lot of competition between independent bookstores?

Speaking of ruthless competition, why do you hate A***** so much?

Why can't you match A*****'s prices?

Why can't you ship as quickly and cheaply?

Why does A***** sometimes have things in stock and you don't?

If A***** is cheaper and faster, why should I bother buying from independent bookstores?
 


 

BOOKS

How do you decide which books to stock?
In an ideal world, we would stock them all. But since we don't have unlimited space or funds, we do our best to figure out what our customers will want, what will sell, and what needs to be on our shelves no matter what. To do this, the store's buyers have to go through pages and pages and pages of catalogs provided by the various publishers. Most of these catalogs are online and include summaries, reviews (if there are any), past sales data for similar books, and a host of other details that help us decide what to buy. Then, if the publisher has sales reps, we'll meet with those reps to get more information, look at samples, and get details that might not be obvious from the catalog. Publisher reps work hard at getting to know both the catalog and the individual bookstores, and are dedicated to helping each bookstore succeed. So they're often the most reliable source for what makes sense to order and what doesn't.

How do you decide how many to buy?
A lot is based on the reputation of the author, any advance buzz for the book, past success, sales figures for similar books, etc. Indendent bookstore buyers become very skilled at judging how many copies their customers might buy for any given title at any given time of year. But a lot rests on estimates from publisher reps as well. They can often make the difference between buying too many/not enough and buying exactly the right amount.

How long do you hold onto books?
The exact time depends on the store, the book, the time of year and, believe it or not, the category. Most stores expect books in General Fiction to sell faster than books in Poetry or Architecture. Most stores know a $60 gift book might easily sell during the holidays but is not worth holding onto in July. For new titles, we generally look for sales within the past three months. If there aren't any, we'll start returning copies--maybe all of them, maybe only some, depending on the book. If a book was hot on BookTok for months and now the buzz has died, we'll start returning extra copies. If we ordered up on books for summer reading lists and now it's October, we'll start returning those extra copies. (See below for more information on returning books to the publishers.)

I went in looking for this really classic book and you didn't have it in stock. Why wouldn't you always have it?
There are usually 3 factors involved in whether a book stays on the shelves or not: cost, space, demand. No bookstore can afford to stock copies of every single book. No bookstore can fit every available title on their shelves. And no bookstore wants to be burdened with hundreds of books that nobody's buying. So even if they agree that Diary of a Wanton Wombat of the Night is an absolute classic, they are not going to stock it if it only sells once a year.

 

CUSTOMER ORDERS

What's the best way to place an order?
For independent bookstores with web sites, placing the order online is the safest way to go.
For stores without their own web sites, check to see if they have a storefront on Bookshop.org.
For stores with no web presence, or if you just don't like ordering online, then calling or coming to the store to place your order is fine.

What's the worst way to place an order?
Calling on your cell phone while driving. Please don't do this. It's not safe and we often can't hear anything you're saying.

Do all independent bookstores now have online ordering?
Most do, but not all. Those that don't might still have a storefront on Bookshop.org where you can easily place an order, have it shipped to you, and know that a portion of the sale will go to the bookstore.

How quickly can you fill an order?
If the book is on our shelves, we can usually fill it within 24 hours. If the book is one that we have to order, it can take anywhere from 2 days to a month or more. (See why below.) BUT, a lot depends on the time of year, how many orders we have in the queue, how fast or slow the publishers are filling orders, and whether the shipping services are running on time or not. What we usually can't do is same day order fulfillment. If you need a book right away, you should come to the store and pay at the register. It's still the fastest way.

Why do some books take so much longer to get than others?
We're glad you asked! Why does it take so long for bookstores to fill some orders? It’s just a few books, right? They’re right there on the shelf. How long could it take to grab them? Well, here's a simplified run-down of what's involved in processing orders:

  1. We get an email and your order shows up in our system with anywhere from 0 to 6 billion other new orders, some of them for books that have been out of print since Dickens’s time;
  2. One of our elves (possibly at the store, possibly buried under sheets in their makeshift office/laundry room or typing between answering math questions for their kids) starts going through orders 1 by 1, oldest first.
  3. After checking for signs of fraud (ripping off small businesses is the most popular sport for credit card thieves these days), we start the fun business of figuring out which books we have, which we can get easily, which we can get with enough time, and which we could get faster if we wrote them ourselves.
  4. Remember that time the website said your book was in stock but then it wasn’t? That’s because the website and the store live on 2 different planets and the data-updates between them only go out 4 times a day.
  5. If all your books are in stock, hurray! We send a friendly order acknowledgment, then flag the order to be filled by whoever’s in the store. Which may be that day or may be the next day, depending on what time you placed the order.
  6. Your books aren't in stock? Okay, House Elf looks at each one to figure out: a) is it published yet? b) is it in one of our warehouses? c) is it in the quick one or the slow one? d) if not, can we still get it from the publisher? e) does it even exist?
  7. We put whatever can be ordered in our To Be Ordered pile, draft a long, hopefully not too complicated email to let you know the situation with each book, and hope that you’re one of the 99.999% of customers who are just happy to get their books from us whenever they come.
  8. For an average order (3 books) that all takes about 5-15 minutes, depending. Some orders have as many as 30+ different titles. Sometimes we get orders for 10+ titles that are ALL difficult to fill. So now we’re talking an hour to fill 1 order.
  9. Here’s the fun part: Some bookstores still don't have their website and store ordering systems integrated. So all those orders we just processed? They have to be retyped *by hand* into the store’s Point of Sales system. Argh!!!
  10. How does this all work out timewise? Well, if you figure we’re getting at least 25-100 orders a day, and each order takes an average of 7 minutes to process, that’s 175 - 700 minutes or…um…anywhere between 3 to 12 hours to get through a day’s run of orders.
  11. Oh, I forgot: All those books still have to be fetched from the shelves, or unboxed and checked in from the warehouse shipments, then rung out, then bagged and tagged and either put out for pickup or packaged up for shipping. And we have to email or call you to let you know your order’s ready. So we’re now up to an average of roughly 15 minutes to process each order. Which, scientifically speaking, comes to about a jillion hours to get through each day’s orders.
  12. Except at holiday time we might get as many as 500 orders in a day. You see where this is going?
  13. Luckily, we have a huge staff of…well, 1…or maybe 2…possibly 3 to process orders. Because everyone else is doing the 1,001 other things that have to be done to keep a bookstore going. (Those books don’t leap onto the shelves by themselves, ya know.)

Anyway, that’s the picture. We’re working hard every day to make the process smoother, but we know it’s not perfect.

 

PRICES

Why are books so expensive?
The least expensive part of producing a book might be the paper and printing. The rest of the price (the part that goes to the publisher) has to cover editing, marketing, advertising, design, typesetting, production, printing supervisors, shipping, storage, office space, sales force, travel expenses...and, of course, author royalties. And that's just the abbreviated list.

But it seems like prices have gone up a lot lately. Why?
All retail prices on goods have gone up lately. Books are no exception. But the extra jump in prices for books is because:

  • Paper is becoming much harder to get due to a combination of over-foresting and supply chains being disrupted (e.g. China, Russia)
  • There are fewer commercial printers, which means higher costs and longer waits
  • Almost all color printing is done overseas
  • Ink costs have risen dramatically
  • Shipping costs (both domestic and overseas) have risen dramatically due to surges in fuel prices
  • Warehousing and data processing costs have gone up
  • Labor shortages in almost every step of this process

How much of the cover price goes to the publisher, author or bookstore?
Good question. On average, 54 - 60% of the cover price goes to the publisher. From their cut they pay the authors' royalties, which can vary between 5% - 15%, and then cover all their own expenses. How much is actual profit after all that? You would have to ask the publishers.

The remaining 40% - 46% of the cover price is kept by the bookstore. (On average. The actual ratio varies a lot depending on the publisher and the book.) For bookstores, the net profit—if any—after all expenses are paid, might be 2%. (More for a very successful bookstore, less for many, many small bookstores.)

So from a book priced at $20.00, the publisher might get approximately $12.00, the bookstore would get $8.00 and after all expenses are paid, the net profit for the bookstore would be $0.16. Yes, 16 cents.

Why aren't independent bookstores more profitable?
Some are. But here are all the things a bookstore has to pay for to stay alive:

  • Rent
  • Payroll
  • Utilities
  • Shipping
  • Data services (Point of Sale System, Internet Service Provider, book data services, gift card services)
  • Supplies (bags, tape, giftwrap, receipt paper)

In some places, those costs are very low, so a bookstore has a decent chance of making a profit even with moderate sales. In other places, the costs are so high that only stores with the largest sales volumes can survive.

 

DISPLAYS

How you decide which books to feature on your display tables?
We give preference to new books, since very often people either don't know about them yet or they just heard about them. Sometimes a display will have a theme: something topical, like a holiday or an issue that's been in the news, or a special month. And sometimes we just try to get creative: enemies-to-lovers romances mixed with lovers-to-enemies mysteries; historical novels that show the back of a man's head instead of a woman's; fantasy with queer and non-binary heroes; 100 different editions of Frankenstein, etc.

Why do you post reviews for some books and not others?
The simplest reason is that we can't possibly review all the books, or even a tenth of them. So we post reviews for those books we've read and liked. We generally don't post negative reviews because we'd much rather encourage people to read than discourage them. Plus, negative reviews are pretty easy to find from other sources.

Are Staff Picks really picked by staff?
Yes. And we're very proud of our picks.

Do publishers pay you to put certain books on display?
Publishers offer what they call "co-op dollars" to help publicize books. Sometimes it's for a specific book or line of books but more often than not it just covers any of the books that they publish. To get the co-op money, we have to feature, publicize, hold an event for, write a review, or otherwise give extra attention to one or more of their books. The co-op money is meant to help stores recoup some of the expense of holding an event, or the cost of employees spending time on reviews, or the loss of sales for some books by giving more space to others.

What is a "face out?" Why don't you face all books out?
A "face out" is when the full cover of the book is facing the buyer, instead of just the spine. If we had 300 miles of shelving we probably would put all books face out, because it's much easier to attract a buyer when they can see the cover. Unfortunately, shelving space is limited. So we have to pick and choose which books we face out. The main factors are whether the book is new, how many copies there are (face outs work better when you have at least 3 or 4 copies), if it's a Staff Pick, if there's a review we can display with it, if it's in especially high demand or topical, or maybe it just has a really, really cool cover. That being said, we try to change the face-outs as often as possible so other books can get some attention.

 

RETURNS

What are returns?
Bookstores and publishers have an agreement where the store can, within reason, return any books that have not sold. There are restrictions—the books have to be undamaged; the store should allow enough time for it to sell; too many returns and the publisher may start limiting the store's credit—but for the most part it's a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Why would you want to return books?
Every book on the shelf is costing the store money and shelf space. The more unsold books a store has, the more money it's losing and the less shelf space it has for better selling books. To free up cash and shelf space, bookstores regularly analyze which books have stopped selling. They pack them up, generate an invoice, and ship them back to the publisher. The publisher examines them to make sure they're not damaged or titles that can't be returned. If everything looks good, they issue credit to the store for those books.

Why do the publishers let you do this?
Publishers discovered long time ago that if bookstores had to keep everything they ordered, they would stock a lot fewer books. Having a pile of the latest mystery on the front table would just be too expensive for them, so they would only order a few at a time. Someone came up with the idea of allowing bookstores to return unsold books for credit. The store can stock a lot more, create eye-catching displays, move bestselling titles quicker, and not go bankrupt in the process. The store isn't burdened by books that won't sell, and because the publisher is giving the store credit, not cash back, the dollars saved can go towards ordering more books.

 

AUTHORS

Is it fun meeting so many different authors?
Absolutely! Authors are kind, funny, generous, and tremendously appreciative of everything independent bookstores do. We love working with authors.

What's the best way for an author to contact a store about carrying their book or hosting an event?
Email, please! Booksellers are often on the floor or in the middle of meetings, so answering calls from authors or having them show up unannounced is not likely to get an enthusiastic response.

What kind of information is a store looking for from authors?
When you email a store, please always include:

  • Name & contact info
  • Title of the book
  • ISBN if you have one (very important!)
  • Picture of the book's cover
  • Link to your website if you have one
  • Reviews, if you have any
  • Interior images if it's a picture book

Never include an Amazon link to your book. Ever. (See "Competition" section below.)

What's the worst way for an author to contact a store about carrying their book or hosting an event?
Dropping in unannounced is probably the worst. Yes, we might be interested in your book, and we might discover you're the most fascinating author ever. But getting pulled off the floor or out of a meeting because you decided this was an opportune moment to make a cold call almost always puts the bookseller in an awkward position and can lead to a very unwelcoming frame of mind.

Phone calls are better but also not great. You may feel like it's the best time to make a sales pitch, but for the bookseller on the receiving end it might be the worst time. The response is almost always going to be "Please email me the details." So you're better off skipping the phone call and emailing instead.

 

EVENTS

How do you find out which authors want to do events?
Several ways:

  • Publishers: The publisher's put out "grids" every few months with information on all the authors with new books who are available for events. The grids include information about the authors and their books, where they're from, how far they're willing to travel, whether they're open to school visits, if they have a minimum audience size or want a guaranteed number of book sales, etc. Bookstores pick out the ones they're interested in and make a "pitch" for each one. It's very time consuming and the vast majority of pitches lead to nothing. But publishers like it because they can get a birdseye view of all the possibilities before deciding on which events to commit to.
  • Authors/Agents/Publicists: Authors who have a new book coming out will often contact us directly (hopefully by email), or have their agent or publicist contact us. If we feel the book will generate enough interest among our customers, we'll work at scheduling them in for an event. But we get many more requests than we can possibly take on.
  • Booksellers: Sometimes we reach out directly to authors, especially if there's someone on staff who knows their work and thinks they would be a great addition to our events calendar.

How do you decide which events you want to host?

  • Book Sales - How many of the author's books do we think we can sell? It costs us money to have the store open or to rent out a theater. It also costs money to have staff on-hand to sell the books. If we don't think we can sell enough to cover those costs, we're probably not going to host the event.
  • Author - Is it a local author? Is it an author we've had a good event for in the past? Is it a well-known author who will draw a big crowd? Is it someone who writes on issues important to us and our community? All of those are taken into consideration.
  • Publishing Date/Status - If it's a new book and we're hosting the official launch event for a new book, we know the sales will be much better than if we're holding an event for a book that's already been out for weeks/months/years. Conversely, if we're the 2nd or 3rd store in our area to host an event for the author, or if the author doesn't have anything new, we know we probably aren't going to sell many books.

Do the authors come to you?
See "Authors" section above.

 

COMPETITION

Is there a lot of competition between independent bookstores?
Honestly? No. The bookstore community is one of the friendliest, most supportive business communities you will find anywhere. We opened our store within 3 miles of several other stores. They not only greeted us enthusiastically at every conference, education session, and industry gathering, but even helped us plan and stock the store. Now, many years and a pandemic later, all of our stores are doing better than ever. Proof positive that the spirit of cooperation can achieve much more than ruthless competition.

Speaking of ruthless competition, why do you hate A***** so much?
We don't really hate them...
Okay, we actually do. Why? Because they have been trying to drive all competition under since they first started selling books. They do this very deliberately, with strategies guaranteed to put small bookstores out of business, and at one point they were so successful it looked like independent bookstores might disappear off the map for good. They've done the same thing in other industries—furniture, appliances, electronics, clothing. They are trying to do it to pharmacies, too, now. There are far fewer local retail stores than there used to be and A***** is the biggest reason for their disappearance.

Why can't you match A*****'s prices?
Because they sell a very large portion of their books at cost or even at a loss. They make up this loss via the sales of other things: web services, video streaming, electronics, etc—which, as you can imagine, are hugely profitable for them. Just look at how many major companies use AWS for their online platforms. Any independent bookstore that tried to match their prices would go under within 6 months.

Why can't you ship as quickly and cheaply?
Getting low shipping rates and quick service from the major shipping companies depends on one thing: volume. A***** ships so many packages a day that the shipping companies might actually collapse if they suddenly stopped using their services. Which means they can pretty much dictate to the shipping companies what they're willing to pay and get dedicated services from them.

Why does A***** sometimes have things in stock and you don't?
One, they have huge warehouses that can store hundreds of copies of just about any book commonly in demand. Independent bookstores have tiny offices and basements and shelves that can barely hold enough stock for a month.

Two, publishers are a lot like shipping companies: The more books you order from them, the bigger a priority you are as a customer. So if Hot Selling Title From Major Author is selling quickly and there are only 10 cases left at the publisher, guess who's probably going to get them? In more recent years publishers have started reserving some quantities of books specifically for independent bookstores--a protocol we greatly appreciate. But it's not every book and the reserves can still sometimes "vanish" if there's enough pressure from big customers like A*****.

If A***** is cheaper and faster, why should I bother buying from independent bookstores?
If all you care about is price and speed, then go for it. But first, read this list of everything you're agreeing to when you buy from them.

A***** won't:

  • pay taxes to your community
  • bring major authors to your community
  • get you signed or personalized editions
  • bring great books and authors to your schools
  • donate or discount books for local schools and non-profits
  • let you wander through their shelves, look at the books and sit in the store for hours reading
  • sponsor your local baseball/soccer/basketball/football/ice-dancing team
  • hire your high school students
  • give your club or parent's group or business a space to meet
  • let your tweens/teens hang out in the store without buying things because it's a safe space for them
  • let the Scouts sell cookies outside their store and give them a tour of the bookstore and probably hot-chocolate if the store has a cafe
  • lend advanced review copies to kids who love to read and want to write reviews
  • be able to get you the book you so desperately need at 4:20 on Christmas Eve
  • provide expert advice from experienced booksellers, not disgruntled customers who gave the book a 1-star rating because it didn't arrive quickly enough

A***** will:

  • Sell your personal information to other companies
  • Track all of your buying history across all sectors—the books you read; the movies you watch; the personal products you buy
  • Target you with ads based on your buying history
  • Target you with ads based on your viewing history
  • Target other people in your friends/family network with ads based on your viewing history

We won't even go into their labor practices or environmental impact or other predatory business practices. (But the Dept. of Justice is.)

For a really detailed analysis of everything that's wrong with A***** and the threat to independent bookstores, we recommend Danny Caine's series on the issue:

How to Resist Amazon and Whyhttps://www.belmontbooks.com/book/9781648411236
How to Protect Bookstores and Why: https://www.belmontbooks.com/book/9781648411632