As a rep, I saw how underutilized co-op was almost across the board," Tracy Adams told PW from her Minneapolis office. "The only consistent exception to the rule—the rare independent notwithstanding—were the chains I sold, who are big enough to have someone working full-time on co-op." Last September, with nearly a decade of experience as a sales rep at Penguin Putnam and then Harcourt, Adams left and began working with 15 independent booksellers to try to level that co-op playing field.
Realizing that publishers were offering a significant amount of co-op that most independent bookstores were not utilizing because they didn't have the time or personnel to take advantages of co-op deals or administer paperwork, Adams decided to offer booksellers a new model for managing co-op. She would serve as the (off-site) staff person dedicated to the role of co-op—just like the staff member the chains have.
"What booksellers get from me first and foremost is a comprehensive approach to co-op," said Adams. "They get someone who is keyed in to all the different kinds of co-op available. I pull it all together and present to the accounts the overall resources they have to work with." Adams helps the stores develop marketing programs and create rate sheets as needed. She processes all the paperwork, tracks the pool amounts and even looks at the cost-benefit of different types of advertising for individual stores.
"We were one of her first clients," said Ann Christophersen, co-owner of Women and Children First in Chicago and current ABA president. "I've known for 23 years that it's smart to take advantage of co-op, but we've always concentrated on making co-op claims that were the easiest and not taking advantage of all the money available to us. Tracy has helped us to strategize to use as much as possible, to use money from co-op pools we never used before."
Other clients currently include Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis; Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa; Canterbury Booksellers in Madison, Wis.; Red Balloon in St. Paul, Minn.; and Seminary Co-op and Brent Books in Chicago.
Managing publishers' co-op can be time- consuming. Not only does using co-op money involve coordination between buying, advertising, events and accounts payable, but each publisher and each sales rep have their own protocol for how to submit co-op.
"I wish there had been someone doing this five year ago," said David Unowsky, owner of Ruminator Bookstores, in Minneapolis. "Tracy is proactive rather than reactive. She comes to us, telling us about money that is available. We were just about to stop printing our newsletter and just do it online. But she got back to us with information on how much money we could get in co-op, and we figured that it would more or less pay for the printing and mailing of that newsletter."
"We still have a ways to go to utilize all the services Tracy provides," said Christophersen. "She keeps track of all the details we found impossible to track."
"She's the catalyst to action," said Diana Cohen, owner of Books & Co in Oconomowoc, Wis. and past president of the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association (UMBA). "She's very, very detail oriented and she simplifies the process. She helps me to have a more organized approach to my advertising."
Types of Co-Op
There are basically five different types of co-op, explained Adams. The first is co-op based on direct purchases. Booksellers are allowed a credit based on the amount of their previous year's net purchases. More co-op comes from indirect purchases (through wholesalers and distributors). There is also co-op allotted for newsletters and for author event promotions. The fifth type of co-op is "display co-op," which translates to rewards on a minimum order. Most stores take advantage of the last type because it's the easiest to do.
"Going into this, I knew there was a lot of co-op not being used," said Adams. "But I was surprised to discover how much co-op independents were forgoing each year."
"I liken it to when we first got our computer system, and we thought we had been pretty smart about buying books," said Unowsky. "We thought we were getting a lot of co-op and now we realize there's a lot more to get. Thanks to the co-op Tracy is finding for us, our bookstore is now averaging five events a week."
Because there are so many different pools of publisher co-op, Adams helps stores sort through the tangle and use the right kind of co-op funds to stretch their pool throughout the year. "It's no wonder independents haven't been able to get on top of co-op. It's so inherently complicated," said Adams.
Adams's background helps her understand how important co-op is as a selling tool for publishing houses. "I bring to this service a rep's perspective and strive to be a facilitator for the publisher as much as the rep wants," said Adams. "The reps have been terrific to work with. They keep me in the loop on promotions so I can facilitate bookseller participation. Some reps have gone over their lists with me so I know what offers are available and can reiterate that information with the account. But I don't decide how the co-op gets directed or tell them which books to spend it on. That stays within the realm of the rep-buyer relationship, of course."
She also noted how proactive publishers have been in terms of their co-op policies. "I work with all of the major publishers plus Consortium—and the folks there, especially Susan Doerr, have been really tremendous. Random House, Penguin Putnam, Time Warner, HarperCollins and Houghton Mifflin all have outstanding incentives for independents. Simon & Schuster, Perseus, FSG and Harcourt have terrific co-op programs as well. These publishers really deserve to be recognized for structuring incentives that validate the value of our independent booksellers."
"She's great news for the publishers," Cohen, of Books & Co in Oconomowoc, told PW. "Last year in December, I placed three or four newspaper ads I wouldn't have if Tracy hadn't called me up and reminded me that I had co-op pools still left. I had a large number of fairly expensive gift books, so I ran an ad and I ended up having to reorder those titles."
The savvier a bookseller gets about mining for co-op gold, the more money publishing houses will be spending. But as Roger Williams, v-p, director of field and online sales for Simon and Schuster, told PW, "That's the purpose of co-op: for publishers and booksellers to work together to promote books to the reading public. Booksellers are ideally positioned to know how to reach their market. We encourage our field account manager to work with all booksellers to maximize their co-op."
"You'd be surprised how many good bookstores don't utilize their co-op," said Karen Torres, v-p director of marketing at Time Warner Book Group. "Co-op is often thought of as a scary four-letter word to most people. We recognize that people are scared of it so we go the extra mile to offer assistance. We're probably the only publisher that publishes a '10 Easy Steps' guide to calculating and using our co-op programs."
Adams is ready to build up her one-woman business. "I need to double the accounts I currently work with to make this thing fly," said Adams. "At first I thought there was enough potential that I could make this work with 15 accounts." But she quickly realized that most bookstores didn't have the marketing staff to undertake all the promotions or the inclination to promote books they didn't feel reflected their taste. She didn't want stores to lose their identity just to get co-op money.
Adams's first objective is to take on more accounts and focus on the core business of managing co-op. The second tier of growth, she believes, would be helping stores do more advertising. She has extended her role to advertising manager in a few cases and designed print ads and an extensive two-month radio campaign for Brent Books in Chicago last holiday season. "Eventually, I'd like to help stores who want to expand their newsletter programs, which I believe to be the most effective way for an independent to market its books. As I broaden my base of accounts, I'll also broaden the publishers I'm working with so my clients have a greater diversity of publishers."
The third objective Adams is hoping to get off the ground in 2003 is to develop workshops to help train people at bookstores on how to manage their co-op. "I want to offer them the tools and systems to track co-op," said Adams. "Hopefully, a workshop will help demystify the process for stores who want to handle their own co-op." Independents interested in more information can contact Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested in a sneak peak at her workshop savvy will find her at the upcoming UMBA meeting on September 27 in St. Paul, where she will participate in a panel discussion on co-op with members of the regional association.