Claire West: I'm Claire, and I'm one of the senior book buyers working for a group of eleven bookstores within Australia - my official title is Category Book Buyer. My job primarily involves meeting with publisher sales representatives to review and order upcoming titles for all of our stores, and to re-order books as needed once they sell. Other parts of my job include sharing information with our stores, establishing social media pages for new stores, and continually refinining what stock goes into each store.
GR: Are the stores all part of the same company (if that's the right word!) or are they independent stores that joined together to hire you?
CW: Our company comprises of five Berkelouw Books stores: Balgowlah (NSW), Cronulla (NSW), Eumundi (QLD), Rose Bay (NSW), and Berrima (NSW), and the six BOOK FACE stores: Port Macquarie (NSW), Pacific Fair (QLD), Orion (QLD), Erina Fair (NSW), Gungahlin (ACT) and Macarthur Square (NSW). They're all unique which makes buying for them a fascinating job.
GR: You said you were "one of" the senior book buyers, how many of you are there?
CW: There's one other senior buyer who also buys new releases. We also have a new buyer on the team who helps us with replenishment ordering (re-ordering what has already sold).
GR: What aspects are different between dealing with large publishing houses (e.g. HarperCollins, Penguin Random House) and smaller independent publishers (e.g. Magabala, Ford Street, Pantera)?
CW: At our end, very little - a lot of small publishers, including the ones you've named, are distributed by larger publishers with whom we have regular meetings. Magabala and Ford Street are distributed by New South Books and Pantera by Bloomsbury, who are in turn distributed by Allen & Unwin in Australia. So if a small publisher has good distribution that's very helpful to us.
GR: That's interesting - so when looking at new titles, is it easily noticeable what is published by the major publishers vs the smaller publishers who are using them as a distributor?
CW: I can't really say, to be honest. During a sales meeting I'm focused on other factors and where specifically the book is from doesn't always enter into the equation. I'm usually thinking about my initial impression of the book and its place in the market, or if the author has previous titles and how well they did. Sometimes I make a point to notice the publisher (eg, if it's a book about Indigenous Australians and it's from Magabala Books, I can be confident it's a quality title).
GR: How often do you have sales meetings to talk about new titles?
CW: I meet with the majority of my sales reps once a month, and there are about twelve or so reps I see. Some meetings can take 20 minutes, others 2+ hours depending on the publisher and the time of year.
Meetings for October and November titles are always the longest, and those happen about 3 months ahead.
GR: Do you ever purchase self-published books for your stores?
CW: The managers for each store decide themselves which self published books they'll take on - it's lovely seeing local authors have their first book signing at one of our stores.
GR: It would be a nice relationship for them to build too, I'm sure. The stores you represent are across a range of areas and 3 states, so some of your job must be done remotely, is that right? Is it more important for you to be nearer to publishers than the stores themselves?
CW: We can order for all stores from our computers, but we do try to visit the different stores as much as we can. It's great to talk to store managers and staff on the phone as often as possible, and I always love receiving photos of a good display or anything interesting in our stores. Being nearer to publishers isn't a necessity but it makes it simpler to attend their launches and other events, which is nice.
GR: What makes one store’s needs different from another (e.g. how can you tell if a book will sell better at one store than another)?
CW: It's a blend of art and science - looking at sales history of an author's previous title, knowing what genres have historically done well at a location, or knowing what specific staff members of a store are passionate about are all factors. Some stores have lots of shelf space, others much less, so there's a highly focused curation at work that really depends on knowing each store's 'personality' well.
GR: The kind of job you have to learn from experience then! What happens if you buy copies of a book that doesn’t sell easily? How long do they typically stay on a store’s shelves?
CW: In general, bookstores have a window of time after a book is published (usually 3 months after publication, up to 12 months after) where they can return unsold copies to the publisher. I've worked in a few different bookstores over the years and the way returns are managed can vary. As it costs time and effort, the decision to return stock isn't done lightly - which is why it's so important to buy effectively.
GR: Do publishers/sales teams usually give you an idea of their marketing and promotion plans for their books?
CW: Absolutely, that's really important information for us!
GR: You've said that the author's past sales has an impact on how you know what will sell well. If you're buying a book from a debut author, do you usually start with one or two copies and then re-order if necessary, or are there some titles you feel particularly confident about before buying?
CW: If there's a title with a lot of buzz around it, or one I've read an advance copy of and loved, then I'm confident to buy a lot of a debut title. Past sales info is very useful to have, but not always the be all and end all!
GR: Speaking of your own reading... what kinds of books do you like to read?
CW: I love to read a variety of things - my previous role was specifically buying children's and YA, so I have a lot of affection for that area, but now that I'm buying across categories it's allowed me to open up my reading further. I can devour a good crime fiction novel, and every year there's a nonfiction title that grabs me by the heart (this year it's The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein). I'm reading a beautiful book on retail design at the moment which has been fascinating.
GR: Do you specifically seek out Australian authors in the things you read (or buy!) or is that more of a bonus than a consideration?
CW: I like to read and buy Australian authors wherever possible - some publishers mark on their order forms the Australian authors which really helps when selecting titles.It can't inform all decisions but as an Australian business you want to make sure you're supporting the Australian literary community.
GR: Most Australian authors say it's a very inclusive, supportive community to be a part of. Thanks for talking with me today, it's been great.
Check out Claire on her website or follow her on twitter.