CIROBE, the industry's biggest remainder book fair, is a little like Groucho Marx's club, the one he wouldn't want to be a member of if they would have him. It's a show that publishers love being able to go to but, ironically, wish they had no reason to attend. But few trade publishers would dream of giving up going. Faced with the perpetual problem of overstock, remainders, hurt books and slow-moving titles, publishers consider CIROBE one of the most important annual publishing events, whether they use it for inventory relief, extra income, eyeballing the competition or simply enjoying a further aspect of the wonderfully varied book business.
"I would love to be in the position of never going to CIROBE, but that's not realistic," says Michael Galvin, inventory asset manager at the AOL Time Warner Book Group, which has been a presence at the show since its inception. The group typically brings 100 titles, or one million units. "Every important vendor and customer will be there. It's important for us because we get to see all the customers we deal with all year and put faces to those customers."
Doug Wilcoxen, inventory manager at the University of California Press, theoretically would also like to dispense with CIROBE—but only in an ideal world would that ever happen, he says. "In each crop of new books there are winners and losers," he tells PW, explaining that CIROBE helps take care of the unwanted inventory of the latter. Like the Time Warner group, the press, which typically brings 100 to 200 titles, has attended the show since the beginning and is a model of dynamic efficiency. "Each year there's a mad rush of people to our table at the outset because buyers know we'll sell out of a significant number of titles," Wilcoxen says. "Certain categories, like classics, will sell out within 30 minutes." Many of the individual titles for sale are in limited supply, available on a first-come, first-served basis. (It's interesting to note that the CIROBE photographer regularly sets up at the California booth to capture the opening day's hustle and bustle.)
"We don't seem to have fewer and fewer books to bring," says Marcelle Garrard, sales manager at University of Washington Press, who sees a noticeable amount of money generated at CIROBE—she expresses it as a blip in their sales pattern a month after the show. "Ideally publishers would have fewer and fewer books to bring each year. We seem to have the same number of titles, if perhaps fewer quantities of them." Garrard expects to have 200 this year, many in art and archeology, mostly drawn from lists that are at least four years old. She says that she's never surprised by what she ends up bringing—"every book could use a little helping hand now and then."
Of all the book fairs, CIROBE's no-nonsense approach is heralded by one and all as a welcome change. "People come to buy, not to get free books or T-shirts," says Garrard. "This show is totally about buying and selling. People get to every table and exhibitor. It's well lighted, it's easy to get around, and it's from 10:00 to 5:00, which are good hours. There are a few little evening things but not like the PGW party or anything."
The show may get bigger each year—Sterling, Eerdmans and Thomas Nelson are among the trade publishers that have increased their presence, and their table space, since they began attending—but Chronicle's director of inventory management (and a CIROBE veteran) Drew Montgomery says for him the core of the show remains the same. "You have people with books to sell, others with shelves to fill, and no BEA distractions. It's pretty straightforward."
Another prime aspect of the show is the personal contact it affords for publishers, booksellers and wholesalers to spend time together. "It gives us an opportunity to meet customers face to face, find new customers and rub elbows with the competition, who are often in the booth right next door," says Tom Rupolo, senior account executive of special sales at Sterling Publishing, which has participated in the show on and off for the past five years.
How do publishers gear up for CIROBE? Lots of research and lots of number crunching. A look at inventory, a calculation or two, and presto, a list is formed. "Basically it's looking at inventory levels and sales patterns," says Montgomery.
There doesn't seem to be a single spread sheet that can spin out information about books and their future, but in many cases a complicated formula isn't really necessary. "If it's not selling, we need to reduce the price," says Wilcoxen at the University of California Press.
"All year long we prepare the list of titles we'll take to the show," says Wilcoxen. "Most heavy-duty preparation is taking place now, in September, because we have the most information about sales patterns on titles we're likely to take. We troll sales and inventory reports to see where we have overstock." He notes that the house doesn't offer new titles: "We allow a couple of years for books to sink or swim at list price. Each year we see how successful the previous year's books were, and if books in a subject area didn't do well we won't bring them again." He adds that cloth titles without jackets "don't appeal to remainder audiences, so we don't bring those."
At Chronicle, if there's more than 18 months of inventory it's added to the list. Montgomery decides what to take in consultation with the editorial director, "so there won't be any author problems," he says, a reference to clauses in certain contracts that may preclude remaindering. A couple of months in advance, says Montgomery, the house will take a harder look at which books to get rid of; in 90% of the cases it's a book that's trending down. A few years ago Chronicle added some stock from its line of gift titles and was pleased at how quickly they were snapped up, so now they take a fair sampling. "When a book was published doesn't matter," Montgomery says. "If it's not working, it's eligible."
Chronicle has a few big titles this year. One is The Amazing Book of Paper Boats, which Montgomery calls a "spectacular" failure. "We were very aggressive with the print run," he says. "Sales were very disappointing." Other misfired titles that will be on the Chronicle table are The Artist's Way Creativity Book, a follow-up to the popular Artist's Way, and a hardcover cookbook, Italian Food Artisans. "We are willing to take chances and sometimes you have spectacular successes, like with Griffin and Sabine, and other times it doesn't work. We do have our misses and they tend to be serious."
Lawrence Adamo, senior sales executive at Harry Abrams and another show participant from the beginning, tells PW that his staff constantly looks ahead in all their selling efforts, and that CIROBE selling is no different than any other kind. "The specialness of this show is preparing to offer books in a public forum," he says. "Part and parcel of what we do is prepare ourselves throughout the year." Among the offerings this year from the publisher's Abradale line are several big sellers, all with promotional prices, including New York from the Air, Diary of Frida Kahlo and American Roots Music. Of the 110 titles from Abrams itself, 75 are Abrams titles, with the remainder from Stewart, Tabori & Chang and a couple of distributed lines. "We have them on sale because there's a large enough quantity to do so. No one sells out everything, but we leave with hundreds of orders."
At Thomas Nelson, where the bargain books division sold between 700,000 and one million books in each month last year, executive director Barry Baird likes to entice customers by taking the most recent and the strongest titles. Among the 300 they will represent this year are Rebel with a Cause by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son; Leading at School by John Maxwell; and He Did This Just for You by Max Lucado.
To ensure a good selection, Baird makes an appeal to the seven publishers under his company's umbrella for titles they need to move. "We tell them it's a great opportunity and could they give them to us." Nelson also promotes the idea of bargain books as a lucrative category for booksellers. "Retailers can use bargain books to create traffic and make margins," Baird explains. "If customers can get a $2.99 book in the front of the store when they walk in, they are about 80% more likely to get a full-price item inside the store. You reward yourself for the inexpensive item." Baird says their goal is to be partners with their customers, rather than using them just to liquidate inventory. At CIROBE, Baird's staff meets with booksellers, no matter how small, to acquaint them with Nelson, its key authors and the potential benefits of adding bargain books to the sales mix. "We do well at CIROBE," Baird says. His goal this year is to achieve $300,000 or more in net sales and to see an established five or 10 customers, some international.
The Goal Line
An engaging lineup of titles is the key to a profitable show at AOL Time Warner. "We prepare a list that will be enticing to customers, including key titles that represent the company," says Galvin. Earlier lists included such favorites as Bridges of Madison County and Life's Century of Change. Now, Galvin says, Oprah Book Club titles with the club stamp are beginning to turn up, along with books by such notables as Sandra Brown and James Patterson.
In terms of show objectives, Sterling's Rupolo echoes an often-heard refrain: "My goal is to move the slower sellers and overstock." Rupolo plans to take about 300 titles totaling nearly half a million units. The press's top-selling remainder categories are cookbooks, gardening books and reference.
Sam Eerdmans, who as sales and marketing v-p at Eerdmans has been making the trip to Chicago each year since CIROBE began, also uses the show for inventory reduction. "Our goals are modest," he says. "We simply want to move remaindered and white sale items. We just show up and try to move dead stock," he says. This year, a prime item for the Eerdmans table is a 38-volume history of the Early Church Fathers (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2), originally published in the 19th century and taken up by Eerdmans when the house was founded in 1911. "It doesn't make me happy to bring it, but it will be eminently cheap," Eerdmans says. He expects to have about 100 titles this year, and anywhere from 500 to 4000 units. About 60% of the books will be newly remaindered, the rest older stock.
Garrard at University of Washington Press has been attending CIROBE every other year for the past five or six. "We went regularly until we got our inventory to the level we wanted it, and now we go every other year for inventory maintenance," she says. The press used to sell remainders and white-sale items at BEA. But then, she says, "We got serious about inventory management with CIROBE. People love university press books. You don't need a lot of money to go, since there aren't a lot of displays. You go, you do business." She always appreciates how many used bookstores and scholarly stores come to the show.
"We use the show to generate new contacts, and it's always very profitable," says Time Warner's Galvin. "We show off key titles, which draws interest. Our bids are aggressive, higher on key titles. You put the book out for bid, show the quantity available, and the accounts will bid what they think it's worth. We award the bid to the high bidder." The closed bids don't provide for "topping." As Galvin puts it, "We feel our customers are fair bidders and don't want to pit them against one another."
In terms of maximizing the usefulness of CIROBE, Garrard concedes that you could get in touch with favorite accounts and let them know you'll be there, but mostly, she says, "I go on faith that it will be as successful for us as it's been in the past."
To get the most out of the show, Thomas Nelson will occasionally focus on one line or product and make sure every buyer sees it. "This year it's Word Books [now W Publishing]," Baird says, explaining that by the end of this year, Word titles have to be off the market, according to the terms of the sale that landed the imprint with Time Warner.
Chronicle will follow its usual path, a mix of adult, children's and gift items, increasing the number of gift titles—nonbook products like calendars, address books, decks of cards, diaries—in its mix this year, since they have proved so popular.
Has CIROBE changed much since its inception? "There are certainly a lot more attendees and exhibitors," says Galvin. "We bring larger lists than we used to, but otherwise everything's the same. That's the beauty of CIROBE," he says. "You know what you're getting."
Sam Eerdmans says that because he gets to meet many bookstores "not normally on our Richter scale," each of which represents new business, "the show gets better and better."
Thomas Nelson used to be the only inspirational publisher that attended, reports Barry Baird. "Now there are others. Zondervan, Moody Press, Broadman and Holman, Multnomah Publishing. We're all in a row. It's good for us."
Zondervan began attending the show three years ago when they found out it was an effective place to sell hurt books. They have a relatively small presence: last year they took 65 titles and one table, and this year they'll do the same, says sales administrator Janine Dent. But unlike in earlier outings, this time they will give a preview of their products in a preshow mailing to be sent out in early October. And at the show itself, they will add a little razzmatazz by doing drawings and giveaways. Very few other publishers report doing anything new for the upcoming show.
As to whether the downturn in the economy will help or hurt the forthcoming CIROBE, Baird at Nelson is among those expecting to see a significant positive impact from a weakened market. "In stores, everyone has sale merchandise," he says. "When money's tighter, people want bargains, and some people want bargains all the time." Rupolo at Sterling agrees. "Traditionally an economic downturn only helps the bargain market, so I am expecting a busy show." Montgomery at Chronicle blames the economic climate for their larger inventory this year, as well as for their increasingly assertive stance. "We have more to sell, and more ambition to get rid of it, so we are more aggressive this year in terms of pricing."
How Do You Spell 'Successful'?
Not surprisingly, the definition of a successful CIROBE varies from publisher to publisher. For Sam Eerdmans, success means getting "a plethora of orders, new accounts and good unit figures." He never sells off everything he brings, though sometimes individual titles sell out. The definition's easy for Dent at Zondervan: "One new customer makes it a success."
Chronicle's Drew Montgomery says a show is successful when they can sell either most or all of the stock on a majority of the titles they have selected. In the beginning, the company experimented with pricing, and each year lowered their prices until finally their books were priced correctly. "We started at 75% retail and that didn't work at all. We went to 80%, then went aggressively to more than 80%, to move big quantities. We saw substantially bigger sales." They definitely go home with stock, however. "For some books there was no interest to start with and none even at steeply discounted prices."
In a good year, success to California's Doug Wilcoxen means selling three-quarters of all the titles on their table. "If I sold that amount, I'd be happy."
Adamo at Abrams defines CIROBE success as "a good amount of attendees interested in and buying our books, and if you look around you see the same thing for other publishers." In his years of going, he's never seen a bad fair. "Most publishers do well. The university presses and the remainder book wholesalers are packed with people. I rarely see anyone who isn't busy."
Time Warner's Galvin defines a successful show as one in which he is able to get rid of all the company's obsolete stock. "I'm pleased to say that we move 100% of what we bring," he boasts, noting that compared to the wholesalers present at the show, Time Warner's volume is relatively small. Nonetheless, he seems to be the only publisher who says he gets rid of all his stock.
Rupolo at Sterling has a nicely quirky view of what makes for a successful CIROBE. "I use a complicated formula," he says, "involving the number of orders taken and the number of books sold divided by the amount of fun I have selling them." Does he sell out everything he brings? "No," he says. "I wish."