Book buyer spotlight: Collins Booksellers’ Diana Johnston
Collins Booksellers national buying manager Diana Johnston ran the Collins Bairnsdale store in regional Victoria for over 15 years before becoming a buyer in the company’s head office. She spoke to Books+Publishing for our ‘book buyer spotlight’ series.
How long have you been in the role and what did you do previously?
I have been working in the current role as the buyer at Collins Booksellers for five years. However, I was a consultant to the buyer for a several years before that.
In 2005, when the Collins group went into receivership, the 30-odd franchisees got together and bought the franchising company. To begin with our group operated on a shoestring, and most of the everyday running of the business, including the buying, was done by the franchisees. Liz Watt from the Sale store, Mandy Allen from Bendigo and I saw the account managers every month in Melbourne and between us worked out the books most suitable to purchase for the group. We had all been working in the industry, and more particularly in the Collins realm, for years and we all had the passion and desire to promote our brand, which ultimately was reflected in the books we sold.
After a few years the group was in the position to employ a full-time buyer and firstly Lou Eveston, then Melinda Downer filled this role. I continued to take part in the monthly rep meetings and worked with the buyer to determine the books for the month. We sold the Bairnsdale store at about the same time Melinda resigned from head office, so I then took on the buying job.
What does your average day involve?
It depends a lot on the time of the month. During the first and third weeks of the month I am busy seeing reps, doing research on the books and authors that have been nominated as possible group buys. When these have been decided I negotiate the quantities and terms of the buys, ensure they’ve been loaded onto our system correctly and activate them on our website. Once the cut-off date is reached, I need to ensure that the terms have been set up at the distributors before sending them off.
The rest of my time is spent putting together our reading guides. This involves working out the layout, writing the blurbs and liaising with our designer.
How do you find out about new books?
I read as much as I can about upcoming publications. Of course, Books+Publishing is a great resource, but also the Bookseller, New York Times and newspapers, such as the Age/Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian. The reps themselves are of course a valuable source of information, as are my colleagues in the book industry. As we share a common passion, invariably we are always talking about books.
How do you find out about new books from small publishers and self-published authors?
Generally, small publishers are represented by another group. For example, Scribe, Text, Black Inc., UQP and UWAP are sold in by Penguin; Ventura and Smith Street Books by Simon & Schuster; and a number of small publishers through NewSouth Books. Affirm and Hardie Grant both visit me independently. As a group, we really like to support the smaller publishers. We really admire that they are having a go in a very competitive market and they are publishing some really good work. For the most part their books suit our market.
What influences your decision to order a book?
Given that the stores I represent are scattered throughout the country and from several varying demographics, it is often difficult to ascertain just what will sell everywhere. Firstly, I take into account the reps’ advice on the suitability of the book and the publicity it will get. If it’s from an author who’s had previous books, I look at past sales. I then research the title and author on the net to see what has been written about them worldwide. This includes reviews from various newspapers, including the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and of course our local newspaper publications, particularly the Age/Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian. There are also other websites such as Goodreads and NetGalley that provide reviews from readers worldwide. Also, I have been in the book industry, and with Collins, for a long time now so I am familiar with many of the authors and quite aware of what genres sell in each of our stores. Often I consult my colleagues and the franchisees, all of whom also have many years bookselling experience.
Do you prefer to see sales reps in person or via email?
I am really lucky to be visited by reps from nearly all the publishers I deal with. This is good as it has enabled me to form a relationship with them. I can trust their judgement and know they are fair in negotiation. I have always preferred to speak with people rather than communicate via email.
How far in advance of a new book’s release date do you place an order?
As I am buying for the group I need to decide on the titles that will be group-purchased before the sales reps go into the stores. Therefore, mostly these purchases are done three to four months in advance.
What is your strategy when it comes to stocking backlist?
I actually don’t group-purchase any backlist titles. This is left to the individual stores. However, we encourage our stores to carry a strong backlist range. These are bread-and-butter titles, favourite reads in adult, young adult and children’s genres, and recognised titles in the health and business areas. The publishers regularly send us a list of their core stock and with a few variations, we expect the stores to carry these titles.
In your experience, what are the biggest drivers of book sales?
Book sales are driven by a number of factors. Certainly, when books are talked about either on radio or television, we see a spike in sales, as is the case when we distribute our Seasonal Reading Guides. Important also are the reviews in the print media, particularly the weekend newspapers. Buzz created by social media sends readers into our stores, as do recommendations by podcasters such as Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales.
Store events with visiting authors not only help book sales but if done well, can take a bookshop from just a retail outlet to a central part of the community, where people can get together socially and discuss different issues.
However, perhaps the greatest asset to a bookstore is staff with a good knowledge of their product and an ability to hand-sell their favourite titles.
What do you think the book industry does well, and what needs to improve?
The publishers support their new titles well with comprehensive information relating to their titles. The reps that visit or ring the stores generally know their product and the suitability of the titles to the store demographic. They provide schedules of publicity and author tours. However, we have noticed over past years that the number of reps on the road has significantly reduced. Whilst this is understandable given the costs involved, there is nothing quite like a face-to-face sell-in.
It is good to have the Australian Booksellers Association to represent our sector of the retail industry, advocate for the book industry and to provide some support to the stores, but maybe its role could be extended to provide training in areas such as customer service, merchandising and running a small business.
Most of the major cities now have literary festivals, which are so valuable in promoting authors and the book industry as a whole. The events at Wheeler Centre in Melbourne are also vital to the literary landscape of that city.
Book awards such as the Miles Franklin, the Stella Prize and the New South Wales and Victorian Premier’s Awards, to name only a few, are so important to encourage our local writers and to bring their exceptional work into the public arena.
Which book do you always recommend?
The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin).
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