Barnes & Noble: Judging a Book by Its Cover

Barnes & Noble book buyers Edward Ash-Milby and Sallye Leventhal speak to SPI students.
Barnes & Noble book buyers Edward Ash-Milby and Sallye Leventhal speak to SPI students.

What makes a book sell? It’s a question that we’ve grappled with for the last three weeks of NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute as we’ve refined ideas for our hypothetical book imprints. Regardless of our allotted role in the imprint creation process–whether in art direction, marketing or editorial–the prospective reader was always on our minds. Perhaps that is why our visit to Barnes & Noble’s Union Square flagship store was so gratifying. As we listened to veteran B&N buyers Edward Ash-Milby and Sallye Leventhal discuss the specifics of their profession, much of what they said sounded familiar. They, however, really could answer that question of what makes a reader buy a book.

Lesson one: covers matter. “There’s gotta be a promise,” said Ash-Milby in regard to the health and fitness titles he acquires. He was quick to point out that some of these promises are rather ambitious, citing Tana Amen’s Omni Diet, whose jacket bears the message LOSE UP TO 12 LBS IN TWO WEEKS. This aspirational element, Ash-Milby reminded us, is also why diet books usually come in life-affirming colors.

Sallye Leventhal, whose area of expertise includes history and politics, explained how large bestsellers have a particular cover aesthetic of their own. “There’s definitely a big book look,” she said while holding up a copy of the late Chris Kyle’s autobiography, American Sniper. The title’s blood red lettering, gold Navy SEAL insignia, and ominous depiction of a sniper rifle underscored her point.

SPIers take note of the buyers' advice. (Blogger Fritz Huber located front row, far right.)
SPIers take note of the buyers’ advice. (Blogger Fritz Huber located front row, far right.)

Having worked for Barnes & Noble since the early ‘90s, Leventhal and Ash-Milby are highly skilled at anticipating demand for certain books. Ash-Milby noted the spike in health book sales at the start of the year when people are most motivated to quit smoking or lay off the donuts. In fact, he remarked that almost 30 percent of diet and health book sales are made in the month of January.

For her part, Leventhal explained that a famous person’s demise, while unfortunate for the individual in question, is usually a boon for books about that person. Leventhal also noted that Father’s Day is rivaled only by Christmas as the most important book-selling holiday of the year.

Not all consumer behavior is this easy to anticipate. We were reminded that a bookstore buyer must always be inquisitive with regard to any trends in consumer behavior. In a world where social media buzz is becoming increasingly influential, a precipitous increase or decrease in demand for a title can often occur without the publisher lifting a finger. That being said, a buyer needs to keep abreast of any marketing campaigns that a publishing house is, in fact, planning. For example, after Gwyneth Paltrow touts her cookbook on national television, stores must be adequately stocked for the ensuing rush of novice chefs.

[capshun plz!]
The SPI Class of 2013 enjoy Barnes & Noble’s Union Square flagship store.
Paltrow was, in fact, a popular topic at our B&N visit. During the Q&A session, at least one SPIer swooned about Paltrow’s blog, Goop, while Ash-Milby noted that People’s Most Beautiful Woman of 2013 was indeed one of his bestselling authors. Trying to suggest the 180-degree opposite of Paltrow is as difficult as defining the reverse of a miracle, but I’m going to go ahead and nominate Bill O’Reilly. Leventhal made frequent reference to the host of The O’Reilly Factor as someone who also enjoyed an avid readership for books like Killing Lincoln and Culture Warrior. Barnes & Noble, as any serious book buyer knows, caters to the broadest of tastes.

On the morning of our visit, Barnes & Noble also catered to SPIers, as we were treated to bagels, muffins and freshly brewed coffee. It was thus with sated appetites that we emerged from this landmark bookselling emporium, armed with new insights about how those on the buying side can also play a crucial role in the book creation process.

by Fritz Huber

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