“Always be closing,” the oft-quoted line from David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, could serve as the mantra at today’s big houses. With seasonal lists that can stretch beyond 1,000 titles plus drop-ins, or “add-ons,” as late-breaking titles used to be known, publishers are constantly selling. As a result, booksellers confront what Mark LaFramboise, head buyer at Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose Bookstore, called “one perpetual season.” Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. As he points out, publishing seasons were originally determined by when barges could deliver. Nowadays print books compete against e-books, which are in effect seasonless.
The rise of digital catalogues and of Edelweiss, which, among other things, encourage more drop-in titles; the 24/7 news cycle; and the changing role of sales reps who focus more on sell-through than sell-in have all contributed to a blurring of the publishing seasons. While publishers and booksellers still like the idea of seasons and try to buy and sell seasonally, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to adhere to two or even three seasons.
“Smart booksellers tell us they are spending less time thinking about initials, and more time staying on top of breaking media and daily sales reports,” said Ruth Liebmann, v-p, director of account marketing, at Random House. “For them and for us, reorders really matter. The reorder is often more important than the initial order.” She points to a recent success story from Random House, George Saunders’s bestselling short story collection The Tenth of December, which both publisher and booksellers were able to keep up with when it broke out a year after it was initially presented at sales conference.
That’s not to say that initial orders don’t count. “You want initial merchandising,” said Josh Marwell, president of sales at HarperCollins Publishers, who values bookseller feedback at sales calls, including whether a book should be postponed because it’s slated to pub during a “busy” month. “We’re less concerned about getting the big stack up front and more with what happens when they’re in the store. You need to have built a case for the booksellers on the floor along with the case for consumers.” Sell-through is also key for Simon & Schuster. “We’re really much more focused on sell-through and where we’ll be with the account postpublication,” noted Michael Selleck, executive v-p of sales and marketing.
Still, it can be hard to see individual books for the forest of titles. According to Edelweiss’s Joe Foster, nearly 5,400 titles are due out in September; between 20,000 and 25,000 titles this fall, depending on drop-ins. Given the sheer volume, Cathy Langer, head buyer at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, said, “There’s really no break anymore. I buy all the time. I have appointments with my reps seasonally, and there’s rarely a day I don’t have to respond to a drop-in.” Then, too, shifts in publishing, like the shrinking time lag between a hardcover and paperback edition, can cause anomalies. Sometimes Langer buys both a new hardcover and its paperback, pubbing months later, from the same list.
Even with massive lists like those for Random House, which just switched to a two-season year with two 900-title catalogues and roughly 35-title midlists each, Langer prefers buying seasonally. “I really like seeing themes and trends with seasons,” she said. Like most buyers, she relies on Edelweiss markups or notes from her rep to figure her buy before the rep’s appointment. “The real value [of a sales call],” said Langer, “is that the reps and buyers can concentrate on merchandising.”
Bookseller/buyer Jason Kennedy, with Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, also likes buying by season, although he said the traditional seasons don’t really exist today. “What [publishers] define the season as has kind of gone away. You have the fall/Christmas season and the rest of the year,” he said. Because buying isn’t his only responsibility—like most buyers, Kennedy also works on the floor—he relies on reps to e-mail him when drop-ins have been added to Edelweiss. Even so, he worries about missing an important drop-in, something he very nearly did for the paperback edition of J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy.
One long selling season makes missing a book much more likely despite publishers’ attempts to accommodate the way booksellers buy—three to six months out for indies; closer to six months out, with some previews as much as nine months ahead, for chains and mass; and Christmas titles in November the year before at mass merchandisers. At Books Inc. in San Francisco, with 11 bookstores and a gift shop, Scott Kinberger, director of the buying department, finds keeping track of drop-ins an “ongoing challenge.” He’s developed systems for double-checking the larger houses. “We’re worried,” he said. “We’ve had cases where we’ve had to order from a wholesaler because we missed the drop-in. Information is constantly feeding onto [Edelweiss]. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it were [for] insignificant titles.”
Unlike most independents, Kinberger breaks up the lists for major publishers so that he buys monthly, like the chains. “We’re still buying three to six months ahead,” he said, adding that it’s better to buy closer to pub date. “You can be closer to the truth about where a book will land.” Kinberger praised Norton for changing its catalogue and separating out January and February titles this year for the first time, so that he doesn’t have to buy 2014 titles with fall books. And he would like to see smaller houses add more seasons. “If we had a choice,” said Kinberger, “there would be four or at least three seasons.”
Despite blurred seasons, most publishers have stuck to seasonal catalogues, although many are now digital. “It isn’t just for nostalgic reasons that we still feel so strongly about the seasonal catalogue,” said Norton president Drake McFeely. “Presenting our list whole and allowing recipients to see how the pieces fit together is still enormously important to us. Our catalogue is in many important ways our identity, and I know our affiliates feel the same way.”
Other houses, like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade Publishing, are preserving the two-season year, but rely on Edelweiss drop-ins to create in effect four seasons, counting midlists. “With additional flexibility in the Edelweiss and digital catalogue process, we are moving to four selling cycles a year in adult trade paper and staying, with exceptions, of course, with two major selling cycles per year for all children’s titles and adult hardcovers,” said Laurie Brown, senior v-p, sales and marketing. “HMH has the flexibility to have monthly add-ons, but the aggregate weight of the list will still be seen twice annually.”
At S&S, which has a three-season year, drop-ins play a significant role. “The most important thing in selling physical books,” said S&S’s Selleck, “is to start early and then make sure we are in constant contact with our accounts with news that can help them sell our titles. So while we are technically selling seasonally, we also have add-on titles that need to be solicited. And for titles that have already been presented, we take every possible opportunity to go back to the accounts with new information that can help them to properly position the book and drive sales.”
Similarly, Macmillan sells on a three-season schedule for trade, and monthly for mass market, with many drop-ins throughout the year. “The seasons help give a structure to our publishing, but for many accounts our seasons are not the timing on which the sales call is based,” explained Alison Lazarus, president of the sales division. She noted that Macmillan is in touch with accounts through drop-ins, author tours, regional trade shows, BEA, and the ALA’s Winter Institute. “Selling seasonally is a fairly efficient process for all and having Edelweiss has made it even more so. If there is interest in more frequent sales calls, we would certainly be open to it. But the current system works well and has become increasingly efficient through the addition of digital solutions,” she added.
Smaller houses are loathe to add more frequent in-person visits. “Selling by month to independents would be a nightmare,” said George Carroll, an independent publishers’ rep in Seattle. “Buyers don’t have that kind of time because they have other responsibilities besides buying—event planning, dealing with co-op, managing staff, and working on the floor. And I don’t have the kind of time, because I’m not going to San Francisco once a month to sell a new list.”
Edelweiss has made it possible for publishers to add continually to their lists and booksellers to pick up the slack. But there could be some clouds on the horizon as lists get even longer. One that Harper’s Marwell foresees concerns e-book originals. If reps are selling print editions to accounts, what happens when e-book originals, which are also available in POD editions, start to proliferate?
For Rick Simonson, head buyer and events coordinator at the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, the real danger posed by the blurring of the seasons is losing a sense of distinct imprints. Everything looks the same on Edelweiss. “An imprint becomes number 70–150 out of x hundred to be worked through,” he said. To underscore what’s changed, he tells a story about talking with an executive at a large New York house at this past BEA. The executive wanted to know what he thought of the fall list. Simonson couldn’t recall what the list looked like. “I said I was having trouble comprehending what they were doing as a list, as once would have been the case. Now I have to find it within the larger pool of imprints and titles,” said Simonson, adding, “It could be said that that’s fine. Comprehending books this way, as lists—it’s a fleeting aspect in a book’s real life.”