During the ABC Children’s Institute education session “Growing Sales With Your Favorite Backlist Titles — What Works, What Doesn’t,” a panel of booksellers discussed how they approach curating backlist inventory to grow sales and to convey their store’s distinct personality.
The panel featured Karin Schott of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine; Erin Barker of Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, Virginia; Molly Olivo of Barstons Child’s Play, which has four locations in the greater Washington, D.C. area; and Meghan Goel of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, who served as moderator.
A bookstore’s curated selection of backlist titles is important because it emphasizes the store’s voice and is more unique than frontlist inventory, said Goel. “You’re going to see a lot of the same frontlist titles at a bookstore,” she said, “but the backlist speaks volumes about a store’s point of view and personality.”
Each Barstons Child’s Play location has its own personality, said Olivo, and each personality is reflected in the backlist titles that particular store carries. “Being honest about who we are makes it easier for the customer to feel comfortable in our store,” she said. “That’s how we want people to feel when they visit the store — that this is the bookstore that understands me and my family.”
Devaney Doak & Garrett (DDG) has a particular personality it’s trying to convey and that is taken into account when ordering backlist titles, said Schott. The store’s children’s section, for example, leans toward fantasy, but overall DDG aims to be a resource for all types of readers in a large geographic area.
While Hooray for Books’ backlist identity is heavily tied to its popular story times, Barker said other featured backlist titles are based on staff requests. Allowing frontline booksellers to help select the inventory empowers them to sell it better, explained Barker, who said she is not always able to be on the floor hand-selling the books she has ordered. Staff members are invited to make notes in the store’s point-of-sale system if there are titles they want to see on the shelves, she added.
Barstons Child’s Play uses a sticky note system, which enables staff members to leave notes about books that are out of stock and need to be reordered immediately, books that they want extras of, and books that a customer asked for but the store does not carry. “Everything we do is while we’re on the floor, in between customers, while we’re circulating, so writing a sticky note is easier,” said Olivo.
To get staff excited about backlist, Barstons holds a quarterly book talk where staff members bring their favorite titles and discuss why they love them and how they’re selling them. “That gets all the other booksellers invigorated about that title,” said Olivo, and also puts less pressure on booksellers to have read everything.
When new booksellers are hired at BookPeople, along with the usual paperwork they are required to complete, they are also encouraged to fill out a list of the titles they want to sell, and those titles may be ordered just for that person, said Goel.
Trending topics can also dictate what backlist titles are featured at each store. At BookPeople, Goel watches what notable people are talking about online and will bring in backlist that previously wasn’t on their list to reflect those topics.
Barker touted publishers’ backlist offers as incentives for bringing in new titles for holidays or current events. “If you’re going to round something out, do it when there’s a promotion; give yourself a little more leeway to try something out,” she said. Booksellers should also talk with their reps about their publisher’s bestsellers in backlist, she suggested.
Talking with school librarians has been helpful for Devaney Doak & Garrett, said Schott. “They discover something and order it, and we decide we need to bring it into the store, and vice versa,” she said. “There’s this constant dialogue that’s going on within the community about what the community is actually looking for.”
Olivo stressed that booksellers should not purchase a book for their store if staff members are not excited about it. “Don’t order things just because someone tells you it sells well somewhere else,” she said, because that does not mean it will sell well in your own store.
To promote backlist titles, Barstons Child’s Play creates displays that feature titles alongside toys and stuffed animals, which makes for easy gift purchases and also makes paperback books feel more valuable, said Olivo; gift wrapping gives customers an additional incentive to shop at the bookstore.
The annual summer sale at Barstons Child’s Play also boosts the sale of backlist books each year, said Olivo. The sale, which runs from the start of May through the end of August, offers customers 10 percent off five or more paperback books, including titles ordered for kids doing summer reading programs. “We sell piles and piles of paperbacks during the summer,” she said.
Devaney Doak & Garrett has had success with a summer reading bingo game, but found an additional bump in backlist sales when the game was modified to include squares that encouraged parents to read with their children, said Schott, because it inspired them to purchase their favorite books from their own childhood. Banned Books Week has also been a great way to start conversations with customers and showcase backlist titles, she added.
Hooray for Books uses endcap displays that say “Like this? Try this.” throughout the store to prompt customers to try a new title based on a favorite backlist book, or a backlist title based on a favorite new book. The displays are flexible and allow the store to show off a wider range of titles, said Barker.
BookPeople displays backlist titles through a staff selection row that runs at eye level throughout all of the sections in the store. Goel also creates sections anchored by backlist to call attention to important topics and engage customers in conversation. Recent sections have included “Global Stories,” “Love Your World,” and “Being Me.”
The store will also create dedicated sections for publisher imprints that are putting out interesting books or have strong points of view, and whose voices jive with the store’s personality. “Let others talk through your store, but choose the ones that speak to your personality,” said Goel.