Over the past decade sales patterns have changed, with fall, or “holiday,” sales picking up later and later—often in the last two weeks of the season. But things could be different this year. With the closing of Borders, many stores saw a significant uptick last November, and for some, like San Francisco–based Books Inc., with 12 locations in California, sales have stayed strong right through the summer. According to president Michael Tucker, the Palo Alto store is up 50%; Alameda, 27%. Overall sales for the indie chain are up 9%. Even stores like the Ivy in Baltimore, Md., whose summer was adversely affected by severe storms, including a tornado, have seen sales rise year over year.
Besides the Borders effect, booksellers have benefited from the first adult trilogy to outsell Hunger Games, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades. Books Inc. continues to sell 250 to 300 copies a week, while the books are doing so well at airport stores that Sara Hinckley, v-p of book merchandising and promotion for the Hudson Group, said, “I think September still belongs to Fifty Shades. It’s slowing, but nothing else this year is going to touch those kind of sales. It’s one of the biggest phenomenons the book industry has ever seen.”
But a new slate of books launching this month—particularly an eyewitness account of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, No Easy Day (Dutton, Sept. 4) by Matt Bissonnette, writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen, with Kevin Maurer, and an adult novel by the author of one of the most popular children’s book series ever, The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, Sept. 27) by J.K. Rowling—could drive up sales from the fall into the holidays when and if Fifty Shades drops off.
“The fall looks good to me,” said Judy Crosby, owner of Island Books in Middletown, R.I., who held a soft opening for a second 600-sq.-ft. store in Newport over the weekend. “I’m sure [Rowling and Owen] will help sales. We’ve had a very good summer, and people seem to be spending money.”
Vicki Erwin, owner of the 1,600-sq.-ft. Main Street Books in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, is especially looking forward to No Easy Day. There are a lot of people with military ties in her community, she noted, and Eric Greitens’s The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL was one of her top-sellers in the spring. Beyond strong sales for military titles, both chain and independent booksellers cite the ongoing controversy surrounding No Easy Day, which prompted the publisher to move up the pub date from October to September 11 and then to this week, as well as the first printing to 575,000 copies.
Hudson plans to give No Easy Day a push by creating custom displays at the front of its stores, from table to floor stacks depending on the space. “We’ve had to scramble a little bit to find extra space now that the publication date has been moved up so dramatically,” Hinckley said. In addition, Hudson will offer a 20% discount in its store in the Citigroup building in Chicago.
“Controversy just drives more media and drives more interest,” said Patricia Bostelman, v-p of marketing at Barnes & Noble, who is also planning front-of-store displays. “We’ve been excited about this book from the time it was first heavily embargoed. When you have a book that’s first to market on a vital event, you know there’s going to be a lot of interest. We’re taking a significant quantity.” With the release of No Easy Day coupled with Mark Bowden’s journalistic look at the death of the al-Qaeda leader, The Finish; Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Kennedy; and Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy, selected by Ted Widmer, Bostelman predicted that on the nonfiction side, “it’s a season of strong current affairs and history.”
But this fall also boasts a striking lineup of commercial and literary fiction, with J.K. Rowling leading the way with a two-million–copy first print. While her Harry Potter novels paved the way for crossover YA fiction, Hans Weyandt, owner of Micawber’s in St. Paul, Minn., thinks that this time around Rowling’s new book could go the other way with YA readers wanting to read The Casual Vacancy. He’s taken a strong stand on the book, as has Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C., which ordered 300. “Just reading the plot summary, I’m not at all skeptical [about it selling],” said general manager Sarah Godin, who believes that it will bring in a lot of customers. She’s also excited about Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which she thinks could be two of the store’s biggest books this fall. In addition, she singled out John Grisham (The Racketeer) and Jasper Fforde’s “double whammy”: a book for adults (The Woman Who Died a Lot) and one for kids (The Last Dragonslayer).
Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena is one of a number of stores taking Rowling pre-pub orders. “We’re giving 20% off, the same special we did for all of the Harry Potter titles. These are the only books we’ve ever discounted on advance orders.” Others have not had much success with preorders to date. “We don’t have [any] preorders for it,” said Alicia Deupree, buyer at Katy Budget Books in Houston. “We think [buying] this is a guessing game, so we went conservative on it.” Another question mark is the impact of a live conversation between Rowling and State of Wonder author and bookseller Ann Patchett on October 16, which bookstores can Web stream. Many, like Barnes & Noble, are still making their plans.
Learned Owl in Hudson, Ohio, placed a hefty order for the Rowling and is planning a daylong party on Main Street that starts a few hours after the book’s 6 a.m. official release. Still, owner Liz Murphy agreed with other booksellers: “It won’t be the only novel customers read this fall, and we will be full of suggestions.” She’s excited about several August titles, including M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, and has already sold 50 pre-pub copies of The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima, who will kick off her tour with a signing at Learned Owl in October. “There’s so much good stuff, all these heavy hitters,” noted Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books in Wichita, Kans., pointing to Louise Erdrich’s Round House and Zadie Smith’s NW, as well.
But as Hudson’s Hinckley said, despite the megareleases, among which she also counts Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace, Stephen Colbert’s America Again, and Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, “The majority of our sales still come from featuring the best and widest assortment of titles we can fit in the stores.”