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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Borders vs. Barnes and Noble

I decided to write a few words on this subject after Eric Wittenberg wrote a related post found here. I intend to eventually go much deeper into this subject (Sarah will too on her blog, I am sure).

The logic behind the placement of specific titles in specific stores can be a real head scratcher. When our distributor sells to these chains, they buy a bulk number of copies and then decide where the books go based upon their own internal data. Traffic patterns, buying habits, location, space, and other factors come into play.

If Borders buys a book on Gettysburg, for example, some stores might get six copies, some four, some one, and many none at all. But Eric is right--often local authors do not get support from local stores. It is mind-numbingly shortsighted, but it happens often. Sometimes authors call to complain, "I just stopped at a Barnes and Noble and Borders in XYZ city, and neither store had a copy of my book!" Individual placement is, sadly, out of our hands. My advice is to meet the management and explain why carrying the book will help them make money (i.e., explain why and how you will help them sell it.)

How or whether a store reorders when copies sell out is also something of a mystery. Sometimes, reorders appear automatically; in other cases, select titles sell very strongly but the reorders are not automatic and never come through. Different buyers/managers in the different chains have provided me with different answers as to how this works. Sometimes they contradict one another.

There is no doubt the Civil War sections are shrinking in a few of the stores I check routinely. The two or three Borders stores in our region (in my biased opinion) have a much better military history section than the two Barnes and Noble stores I hit now and again as time permits.

However, something that I feel compelled to discuss is the matter of internal management. I base my comments upon personal experience, and not hearsay or rumor. In my studied opinion, Barnes and Noble appears to be much better managed--at least when it comes to book signings, promotion, and the tracking of stock.

Here is a running example: Author Gary Moore began touring the country to promote his book Playing with the Enemy in September of 2006. He has participated in literally dozens of signings in the chains and independents since that time. Every time he arrived at a Barnes and Noble, the management greeted him in friendly fashion, a table or section with chairs was ready for him, free drinks or even food were offered, signs promoting the event were up and visible, and everyone was excited and ready for a successful event.

Borders was often an entirely different story. More than a dozen times, and often after long drives or even flights, Gary would arrive in a Borders and the manager would ask him, "Is your signing tonight?" (As an author, digest that fine greeting for a few seconds.)

Staff would then scramble to find a table as disaster slowly unfolded before Gary's eyes. In most cases, little or no promotion had been done, no signs were visible, and more often than not, Borders could not even FIND the books. "We show we have 30 in stock, I guess for your signing, but we can't find them," was a common refrain.

So after our marketing director spent time and money to set up the event, and after Gary had taken the time and expense to drive or fly to a specific store, he would arrive to hear something along the lines of "You are not on the calendar."

As every diligent authors does (and every author should), Gary often calls stores to see if his books are in stock, and then he drives 1-3 hours out of his way to hit those stores, meet the manager and staff, and sign his books. Copies in Barnes and Noble were always where they were supposed to be and easily found. In Borders, time after time after time, it was exactly the opposite: The computer would show X number of copies in stock--but no one could ever find them!

Now let me be clear about something. We have enjoyed a number of highly successful events at different Borders stores across the country. We like Borders and support the chain in many ways. The staffers have always been friendly. The Folsom, California, Borders store event comes readily to mind. There, tables were set in advance, signs were everywhere, the line of people was out the door, and nearly 200 copies were sold in three hours. But every time an event flopped or books could not even be found, it was at a Borders store. Something, somewhere, is seriously wrong within the bowels of that chain.

I rambled a bit more than I intended, but when someone mentions differences in the chains, this is one that always jumps into my mind and sticks in my craw. If anyone else has experienced anything similar, I would love to hear about it.



Mark Hughes, WB4UHI said...

My cousin recently wrote a small, inexpensive ($10.00), inspirational children’s book. The local chain bookstore (not one of the above) arranged a booksigning. They supplied a table and a basket of candy. The publicity was adequate. Unfortunately the store only ordered ten books. Her family and friends bought them in about 15 minutes. She spent the rest of the two hours looking forlorn while she passed out flyers about the book.

If this happened to me I would be tempted to add my email address to the flyers and sell directly to the customers.

Mark Hughes author of the upcoming Savas Beatie book - The New Civil War Handbook

Sarah Keeney said...

Hi Ted,

You’re right on the difference between setting up signings at Barnes and Noble and Borders.

I think our experiences have been so different because of how the chains set up events. Most Barnes and Noble stores have an in-house Community Relations Manager. It is their job to set up book signing events, children’s storytime, the occasional vocal performance, etc. If the store doesn’t have a CRM but still does events every now and then, one of the managers handles the details.

Borders, on the other hand, has a District Area Marketing Manager. This person is in charge of events for a region. The region could be huge and cover multiple states, or it could be all the stores in one county. It depends on the demographics. You work with the district manager to set up the event and sometimes don’t even communicate with the manager at the store who actually handles the event. I would always call the Borders store directly to confirm the event a few days beforehand to make sure they had the event on their calendar and books in stock. As Ted mentioned, we were often shocked with what we found.

Now if only both stores could have strong Civil War sections AND a positive author book signing events . . .


Theodore P. Savas said...


Spot on. Borders' organization in this regard does not work, and their ability to track books in-store is (often) less than desireable.

Mark--We have had that happen with many of our authors, which is why we tell them to always bring a couple cases of books in the trunk. Let the store manager know they are there beforehand, and when the store runs low or runs out, sell them to the store and keep signing.


majorlee said...

Your have touched a nerve about Borders. The staff at the exhibit in Las Vegas arranged for a two-day, five-store signing at Borders. They had two months warning, and the local DAMM (great!) called twice to arrange for the signings, books, publicity, etc. During the two months all of the buyers called me to find out how to order the books from the distributor (not one of them figured out how to do it on their own). Four days before the talks I received phone calls from all five buyers: none of them had remembered to order books, and being a weekend, they would have to airfreight them to the stores. Being the gallant and forward thinking individual I am, I volunteered to bring books with me.


I show up at the first store at the appropriate time, books in hand, and nobody knows why I am there. No signs, no announcements, nothing. Just me and my books. So the store staff scrambled around and found a table (the buyer was on a day off, very convenient.) I set up my books and signs and actually sold TWO books. Store two had a table only, no advertisement (I think store one called and warned them.) I sold two books. The next day, store three was prepared with signs and a table. I sold seven books. Store four knew I was coming but said they didn't have time to prepare (two months?) Sold one book. Store five knew nothing, couldn't find a table, I got fed up and left. Total sales: 12. Now, I left a total of ten signed copies at each store, or fifty copies (plus the 11 I sold). Proper paperwork was filled out. A week later I went by each store and all the books had been sold.

To add icing to the cake, it took me 14 MONTHS to get paid for the 61books Borders sold in one week.

I haven't done a Borders signing since then. I don't shop there anymore, either.

Phil LeDuc said...

Hello, Ted -

I've been enjoying your blog a great deal since its inception.

Here's a late addition/question regarding this post. I've commented over at Eric W's blog and asked the same question of him.
This morning's Wall Street Journal has an article in which Borders states that it's going to display more books with the covers face-out. This will lead to cutbacks of 5-10% in their inventory (read, customer selection). I guess how this will affect the History section in particular remains to be seen, but cover art will clearly become more important as a selling tool. What are your thoughts as a publisher?

And, by the way, what are your thoughts about using movie tie-ins as cover art on history/biography titles? I'm thinking, as a specific example, of the use of Paul Giamatti's face (as John Adams) on the cover of David McCullough's "John Adams". I realize the cross-marketing aspect involved, but I find it out of place.