Heartland Summer, the regional bookseller virtual conference co-hosted by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association held a one-hour presentation July 7 on “Frontlist Buying in Uncertain Times.” The teleconference, featuring two veteran booksellers, Jamie Thomas, manager of Women and Children First in Chicago (which just opened its doors to customers) and David Enyeart, manager of Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul, Minn. (which remains closed to customer traffic) drew about 70 booksellers and reps.

Thomas acknowledged that booksellers cannot afford to take the kinds of risks they might otherwise have taken when ordering frontlist for stores that have been closed to walk-in traffic, leaving booksellers to rely on phone and online orders. They also must get the word out about frontlist favorites on their websites and social media rather than face-to-face handselling. She suggested that booksellers discuss book promotions with reps, and also ask their reps what books are selling at other indies.In addition, Thomas urged her fellow book buyers to utilize their staff more in selecting frontlist for the store.

Enyeart said that he has met with four reps so far this summer to discuss the fall season, “so it’s happening.” Noting that sales patterns have changed since March, Enyeart said buyers should keep an eye on trends when ordering frontlist, and consider Edelweiss analytics where sales are broken down by region. “Look at sales by publisher, look at sales by category,” he said, adding that, in the absence of in-store traffic, booksellers will have to rely more on publishers’ marketing efforts, rather than bookseller enthusiasm, to draw consumer attention to frontlist releases. “You can’t put all 13,000 titles in your newsletter or on Instagram,” he said, “The demand is being created outside of my store. I am benefiting from it."

Regarding ordering frontlist this season, Enyeart recommended splitting orders on Edelweiss and demonstrated on a share-screen how to do so. “Core orders” are books “I’m dying for, and I want to make a big order, because I know we’re going to sell it through the fall.” The other frontlist buys right now that he calls “non-core” are “gifty books, counter books, children’s picture books, because they’ve tanked since no one is browsing the store.” Enyeart said two-thirds of his fall buying has been core, and one-third non-core.

The booksellers and reps participating on the teleconference also discussed production issues and whether there would be disruptions this fall. While there will be delays on children’s picture books printed in China, as there have been for the last couple of years, as well as art books printed overseas, the reps reported no downward shifts in print runs and no expected disruptions to shipping – although one unidentified rep cautioned booksellers that printers may experience unexpected staff shortages or other unforeseen issues this fall that may have an impact upon reprinting. “Take that into account,” he said.

It was advice that booksellers should heed, as Enyeart demonstrated, disclosing that 85% of his frontlist buying is re-ordering.

Kirsten Sandstrom, the manager of Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield, Wisc., noted that Wisconsin re-opened “sooner than expected.” As a result, she said, Apostle Islands re-opened in late May with “zero frontlist” as tourists poured into town. “If you put [backlist] on display intelligently, they’re going to buy it,” she said, “Know your backlist as well as your frontlist and you’ll be okay.”

As the session concluded, University Press Sales Associates rep Lanora Haradon asked the booksellers to comment on what was selling in their stores – and what was being pulled from shelves. For the most part, booksellers are not pulling inventory, though all are rearranging their stores to allow for social distancing. Several are making sidelines that customers want to handle before buying less accessible -- or not carrying them at all. Ann Woodbeck, the owner of Excelsior Bay Books in a Minneapolis suburb, noted that she is hanging puppet sidelines on cords running above customers' heads, so they can point to them to purchase.

Unsurprisingly, books on social justice topics and about race/racism are selling well, with Sandstrom noting that, due to a large Indigenous population in northwestern Wisconsin, books by Indigenous authors are also selling well at Apostle Islands. Several booksellers noted that romance titles, in Thomas’ words, “are huge” right now.

“Well-written escapist fiction,” Sandstrom added, paraphrasing recent customer requests: “Please take me somewhere other than where I am now.”