Friday, July 27, 2007

What is The Book Buying Profession?

One dream job I've been wishing lately is to be a book buyer. Unfortunately, when I mention the term, few people understand what I mean. Every person has a different definition of what it is to be a "book buyer" and Morris Rosenthal divides book buyers into four categories in his blog entry Why Book Buyers Buy Books. The first one he mentions are retailer customers and that's probably what most people associate with book buyers. I mean we say "hey, I'm a book buyer" when we buy a book from a bookstore but in that context, it's not a profession. He then describes three other book buyers: institutional customers (i.e. schools), large book business buyers (i.e. bookstores), and independent book business buyers (i.e. a souvenir shop selling books). While the last three are serving different entities, there's room for overlap in their respective duties. And that's what I want to talk about.

In the case of institutional customers, they dictate what books that gets into the curriculum. If you ever wondered who determines what books you should read in school (if it's on a campus-wide basis), the responsibility lies on the institutional book buyer. And in many ways, these people have a lot of clout. They're ordering books for the entire school after all and these are books that are guaranteed sells, especially since students will need to buy them. It's not necessarily the most glamorous profession, but it's a job that has far reaching consequences in the education sector.

The last two are the large book business buyers and independent book business buyers. For me, both entail the same duties and practices but what's important to distinguish them is the scope. A large book business buyer is buying books on the scale of thousands if not millions. An independent book business buyer merely needs to manage a handful of books. One example of the latter are souvenir shops with a small selection of books. It's usually just a rack or a shelf but at the end of the day, somebody needs to decide how to fill those racks and shelves. Another analogy I can think of are comic shops that stock a few books (but they're probably classified as comics inventory).

That distinction aside, what a book buyer does is decide what books to acquire to sell to the public, and, more importantly, in what quantities. If I was a book buyer with unlimited authority for example, I'd probably stock my bookstore with lots of fantasy and science fiction books. However, the problem there is that I'll have to take space into consideration. What if my shelf has only room for twenty books. Do I stock it with 10 Isaac Asimov novels and 10 Robert Heinlein? Or two books each from ten different authors? That might appear simple in the small scale but when you increase the scope, that's where it becomes more difficult. I mean managing one bookstore is hard enough but what if I'm the book buyer for two dozen branches?

Of course that example was assuming I have unlimited authority. If I'm a hired employee, I have to keep the bookstore's business in mind. And that means getting books that will sell. I may not like it but that usually means acquiring derivative books of best-sellers like Dan Brown, Stephen King, Anne Rice, or J.K. Rowling. In fact, that's a part of the job: doing research on books that sell well (or books that would sell well), read up on them, and order them for the bookstore to stock.

And at that point, it might truly become a job. Have you ever wondered why National Bookstore has tons of books yet little variety for its size (at least compared to something like Fully Booked)? You have to understand the book buyer's plight, choosing less books and buying them in huge quantities is easier than picking a wider variety of books and purchasing them in less quantities. For example, as a book buyer, it's probably easier for me to decide to order 1,000 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows instead of say, getting 100 copies of ten different, lesser-known books. In the case of the former, I just need to research one book. In the case of the latter, that's ten different case studies and I have to worry about distributing them.

Which brings me to my next point. Distributing the books. I'm not sure if this is the case with bookstores or if someone else is assigned this job but in comic stores, the book buyer also decides how to allocate the books. For example, if I have 50 copies of Book A, a typical distribution might be 30 copies of Book A goes to Shop A, the flagship store, then 10 copies goes to shop B, and 5 copies each to Shop C and Shop D. There's a lot of reasons why you distribute it in unequal quantities, everything from the market there to how much shelf space that particular bookstore has. And the wider your variety of books, the more distributing duties you have to do.

The ramifications can be seen in local bookstores. For example, the big bookstore chains like National Bookstore/Powerbooks and Goodwill Bookstore, you see a few titles imported in huge quantities (i.e. you see multiple copies of the same book on the shelf). And since they're operating on a huge level (i.e. dozens of branches, at least in the case of the former), this makes sense. Distributing a thousand different titles in varying quantities to several dozen shops can be a chore after all. The smaller, independent bookstores like Aeon Books and Booktopia, it's not that big of a problem as they only need to manage one or two shops, so they usually give you a wide variety of books for their size (i.e. usually only one or two copies of the same title on the shelf).

Presently, there are two exceptions to the rule. One is A Different Bookstore which has been slowly but steadily expanding. A Different Bookstore seems like an independent bookstore in terms of shop size (only one or two shelves at most is devoted to any particular genre) but they order books like a bookstore chain. That's why their stocks are more or less consistent across all their branches (i.e. if you see this book in Shop A, you'll probably see it in Shop B) and at the end of the day, give you little variety (that's why for a few years now, I've rarely bought a book from them... because I already own the books that they're displaying). But that business model works because their shelves are small compared to say, National Bookstore, and the "redundant books" (multiple copies of the same title) are more obvious in the latter rather than in the former. The second is Fully Booked, which is a big bookstore chain yet what ceases to amaze me is how they're acquiring a variety of books at small quantities (for example, I bought the book An Invisible Sign of My Own yet as far a I can tell, it's the only copy in all their branches) despite their scope (they have what, half a dozen branches by now?). It makes me wonder how many book buyers Fully Booked has or if they're really, really efficient and passionate about what they do.

Of course most bookstores will mix both practices of choosing variety over quantity and quantity over variety. For example, in the case of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I expect that most of the bookstores stocked that one title in huge quantities. As for the rest of their selections, they'll practice their standard business model, whether it's getting a diverse array of books but just having two or three copies of them or stocking a few titles with a huge volume.

One thing to bear in mind is that the book buyer isn't necessarily an official designation. In independent bookstores that are just starting up, this role is usually assumed by the owner or manager (they set up the bookstore in the first place after all). So the preference/taste of the owner will dictate the selection of books. Later, if their bookstore business expands, someone else must assume the role as managing the business side of things and managing the book buying side of things can be too much for any one person. In the case of Fully Booked, the owner's preference and hobbies also dictate the types of books his bookstore stocks, even if he's operating on a huge scale. Ever wondered why Fully Booked has a strong selection of comics? That's because Jaime Daez is a big fan of comics. It's even come to the point that certain do-not's of bookstores is being practiced by Fully Booked, such as the selling of comic singles (instead of trade paperbacks or graphic novels). And if there seems to be too many superhero busts or fantasy paraphernalia in that particular bookstore, it's a reflection of the owner's tastes and hobbies. That's not to say it's a bad business decision--it might actually pay off. I'm just using it as an example of how a book buyer with unlimited authority (i.e. you're the owner!) affects the inventory of the store.

So the book buyer position seems like such an influential job but at the end of the day it depends on how much authority you wield. In last year's book fair, I met a batchmate who's new job was to be Powerbooks's book buyer. I was asking her several questions about it and while it's evident she's been reading lots of books (for research), she was also similarly evading a couple of questions which I thought was relevant. In other words, I suspect she's not free to choose whatever books she wants but rather forced to look for Dan Brown derivatives and other books that would sell well to the same target market. And then there are times when I'm talking to the manager of a particular A Different Bookstore branch and I'll place a special order on a specific book, and I'm surprised that when my book finally arrives, they ordered a few additional copies to sell in their bookstore. For the most part, the book buying business isn't any different from other businesses. A lot of guessing is involved and even if you're good at it, it's not a guarantee that it'll make you a success. But to every bibliophile, isn't the next best thing to owning your own library/bookstore to be the person who gets to decide which books gets imported?

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