Selling and Creating Books: An Inside Look

A private, early morning visit to the Barnes & Noble flagship store in Union Square.  Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with top editors busy flinging around ideas for new books at a “development meeting” at Alloy Entertainment.  For NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute students, getting out on the town recently was great.  They were invited to see how the book industry works in various venues  all over the city. Here are reports on two student visits:

Making Magic Happen: Book Buying for Barnes & Noble

Book buyer. Noun. A culture clairvoyant. A trend catcher and creator. A bookstore architect.

The aisles were quiet. The store was closed. But there we were, 99 Summer Publishing Institute students on a private early morning visit to the Barnes & Noble flagship store in Manhattan’s Union Square.

Two book buyers took the stage: Edward Ash-Milby, the memoir, biography, cookbook, and health and wellness book buyer;  and Sally Leventhal, who is responsible for selecting history, cultural studies, women’s studies, current affairs, anthropology, criminology, and social sciences books for all the stores in the chain. The two looked down at us from the stage and said appreciatively, “We’re staring at the future.” Then they generously shared what they’ve learned in their combined forty-five years of experience.

Ash-Milby narrowed the process down to one equation: “The right package plus the right authors plus the right place in the store can make magic happen.” The math is simple: the “fixtures” (how the books are displayed in the store) plus the books equal a message and statement to the consumer. “The fixtures matter,” Leventhal said. The shape of the display tables, the height and depth of the shelves, the placement of the step ladders, the organization of the books within the shelves and on the tables, the way in which they are clustered can all effect where the customer goes to look for the book.

Ash-Milby and Leventhal not only buy books for each of their genres, but they also help organize and configure the Barnes & Noble store so that the consumers can easily find the books they don’t know they are looking for in eye-catching displays. Ash-Milby and Leventhal need to know “what’s hot” in today’s environment, whether it’s digestible feminism (Roxanne Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lena Dunham), celebrity memoirs, (anything “Kardashian”), or summer-time diets.

“Each store is its own ecosystem with its own community,” said Leventhal. “The customer is different in each location.” She goes on to explain that a store near a hospital will sell different books than a store in a college-town. This means that book buyers such as Ash-Milby and Leventhal help individual stores respond to the needs of their communities in addition to tracking larger trends and reader interests.

For Ash-Milby and Leventhal this means working closely with the publisher to decide how many of each book to purchase and where to display or shelve the book. As Ash-Milby said, “There is a customer for every category and book you see in the store.” The book buyer has to ensure that the right book finds the right read and vice versa.

Book buyer. Noun. One who must always be mindful of books, cautious about where they are displayed and what’s inside them, because words have the power to change not only the reader, but also our culture.

By Gabrielle Kassel


NYU Summer Publishing Institute students and Alloy staffers at the Alloy Entertainment offices.  Standing:  4th, 6th, and 7th from left: Joelle Hobeika,  Sara Shandler, and Josh Bank.

Alloy Entertainment: Sisterhood of the Traveling Ideas

Walking past the giant Warner Brothers logo on glass doors and into an office filled with famous movie posters can be a bit intimidating, but as soon as we were seated in the modern conference room of Alloy Entertainment, everything felt more relaxed. Alloy is a book packaging and television production unit of Warner Brothers.  Some of their books that were made into major TV and film productions include Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. We SPIers were invited to Alloy on an industry visit where we got an inside look at how books are made into hugely successful brands.

The novels created by Alloy begin with ideas, usually generated by the staff, and are then brought to the author—instead of the usual process of a book being written and later acquired by a publisher. The key is to pair the right author with the right idea. “The trick is finding really talented authors who have something to say,” said Joelle Hobeika, Director of Book Development. “We find authors in all different ways—writing samples, agents and connections. Then we continue to work with them over and over again in a creative partnership.”

Alloy’s process begins with a development meeting where editors pitch plot ideas based on specific prompts sent out at the beginning of the week. We were lucky enough to sit in on one of these meetings and hear the editors in action. This week the prompt involved finding an article and suggesting a new story from that source of inspiration. The pitches include everything from ideas for adult amateur detective novels to middle grade stories involving pets, orphans, mermaids and more. Sara Shandler, Alloy’s SVP and Editorial Director, insisted: “Great ideas really come from everywhere.”

The development meeting was more like a conversation. Each person contributed two or three ideas and everyone’s input was discussed.  “How do we Alloy-it-up?” asked Josh Bank, Executive Vice President of Alloy Entertainment (East Coast), about one story suggestion, hinting at the unique vision and viewpoint of his company. “We’ve worked really hard to have more author-driven books and voicier books,” he added

All agreed that the hardest part of the business is titling. “Some happen organically, but if they don’t, it’s really, really hard,” Hobeika explained.

Alloy was an amazing place to visit, not just because of the unique perspective it provided to us on the publishing industry, but also to experience the friendly, casual atmosphere. “You have to have some fun doing what we do,” said Shandler. Though clearly very hardworking and professional, all members of the team felt comfortable sharing ideas without watching their words.

At the end of the session, we left with a solid knowledge of how books are turned into TV shows and movies, as well as copies of finished books for our own libraries. Many of us are now Alloy allies.

by Kara Warschausky


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