Publishing Buying Power at Work

Ash-Milby and Levanthal at Barnes & Noble. Photo by Preeti Chhibber
Edward Ash-Milby and Sallye Levanthal at Barnes & Noble. [Photo by Preeti Chhibber]
Last Thursday morning I found my bleary-eyed self and 37 other (more awake-looking) NYU M.S. in Publishing students raptly listening to two of Barnes & Noble’s leading book buyers, Sallye Leventhal and Edward Ash-Milby.  Both Sallye and Edward are highly experienced publishing professionals: Sallye presides over the history, military-history, and current affairs sections and Edward manages the titles appearing in biography, psychology, self-help, and health.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the publishing industry (like me a few months ago), buyers are in charge of deciding which books are available in all 700 Barnes & Noble stores. This means that every month, Sallye and Edward meet with sales representatives from various publishing houses and go through their forthcoming book lists, deciding which books and how many of each title Barnes & Noble wants.  We learned that these meetings can take anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour—approximately 45 seconds for each title.  I know, that doesn’t sound like a lot of time, does it?  However, the buyers explained that if the title and book summary are descriptive enough, a book doesn’t require extensive discussion or additional information from the sales representative to help them determine if they want it.

Considering the huge responsibility buyers have to ensure that the books they choose sell, it’s understandable that they need to keep up with trends and current events related to their sections.  Still, their responsibilities don’t stop there.  Edward and Sallye shared that they are also charged with knowing which particular titles are likely to sell at each of their stores; after all, popular books at one store may not work at all stores. (If you’re living in Idaho, is everyone in your neighborhood desperately going to want books on Oregon’s history?  I don’t think so!  No offence intended toward either state, of course.)

Both Sallye and Edward made it clear that sales for some books also have a lot to do with placement and timing.  To illustrate her point, Sallye noted that books on the Taliban and the Middle East were relatively unpopular until September 11th.  On September 12, 2001, maps on the Middle East sold out and Yale University Press reprinted a book on the Taliban that sold more than 100,000 copies (3,000 had sold previously).  Similarly, Edward brought up Dan Brown’s bestseller, “The Da Vinci Code,” and how it created an opportunity to sell other books, such as Brown’s earlier works and books dealing with the Knights Templar and Leonardo da Vinci.

As the morning progressed, it quickly became clear that book buyers have a lot of control over what publishers publish.  Not only do the buyers get the final say on whether a book appears in their store, Edward and Sallye emphasized that they may influence a book’s packaging (from the cover design to its trim size), price, publication date, and even store category and placement.  From this standpoint, it appears that publishers are far from having the upper hand in their relationships with book buyers.

Still, there is some good news for independent publishers who don’t belong to “big” publishing houses.  Edward noted: “I have plenty of books [from university and independent presses] that outsell the big publishers. Don’t even think for a second that we’re here only to support the big publishers….  I mean, as long as [a book is] hitting a trend and doing all these other things that we were talking about, we will sell it.  I will guarantee that we will sell it.  There’s no question about it.”

by Dani Young


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