BTW Asks Smaller Stores: How Do You Handle Pre-Orders?

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In the past 13 months, the American Booksellers Association has increasingly focused on encouraging member stores to offer customers the option to pre-order books before their publication date. In 2018, the association devised a “Maximizing Pre-Orders” education session at the falls shows; formed a Pre-Order Task Force to test the market at several different stores around the country; and created a Pre-Order Calendar to keep track of options to pre-order books with added value from publishers.

Bookselling This Week recently spoke with the owners of several smaller stores, one of whom was on the Pre-Order Task Force, to see whether the ways smaller ABA member stores manage and promote pre-orders is different from how big stores do.

Whether owners consider theirs a “small store” can vary from owner to owner: some base the criteria on square footage, others on number of employees, and still others on sales volume; some base it on a combination of these factors. Here, four owners who consider their stores small and/or micro-stores offer insight into how they manage these orders and ways they promote the option to customers. 

The 1,500-square-foot Page 158 Books in Wake Forest, North Carolina, was one of 22 stores on ABA’s Pre-Order Task Force; the association worked with publishers to choose seven titles for these stores to promote and record sales for between July and November of 2018. Members of the task force included a mix of large and small stores hailing from different parts of the country, many of which had no previous experience taking or promoting pre-orders. 

Co-owner Dave Lucey told BTW he probably devotes a couple of hours per month to managing the pre-orders his store gets, and so far, designating that time has been worth it. With two recent pre-order campaigns that were announced by the authors of the books, Lucey said, Page 158 was the only store in North Carolina to have signed up for both, and within hours of the announcement they had 20 pre-orders for each.

“We have a staff member, Faith Parke-Dodge, who helps me manage the pre-order campaigns that ABA posts and the ones that our reps bring to our attention,” said Lucey. “Oftentimes there isn’t an actual campaign out there — they just have signed copies, for example, but we treat it the same way. As early as possible, she and I review the upcoming pre-orders and decide if we want to participate. Sometimes a book just isn’t a good fit for our area so we pass on those.”

If Lucey and Parke-Dodge decide they want to participate in a campaign, they make sure they have the item ordered and then Parke-Dodge takes care of creating posts in Loomly advertising the pre-order.

“In some cases, we might make a custom page on our IndieCommerce site, particularly if there’s additional swag available like a tote bag,” Lucey said. “We keep an eye on the author and publisher page and if we see posts advertising the pre-order and what stores are participating, we share those as well.”

Flashlight Books co-owner Shoshana Smith told BTW she is not sure that her 1,800-square-foot store in Walnut Creek, California, handles pre-orders very differently from larger stores. While they haven’t done much yet in terms of seriously driving campaigns, mostly for lack of time and energy, Smith said they are currently planning a campaign to push pre-orders for Louise Penny’s latest book through the store’s newsletter and social media sites.

Typically, said Smith, “If a customer wants to pre-order, we take it as a special order and mark it as a pre-order in our system. Unless there’s a drive going on that requires proof of purchase (such as for the The Last Kids on Earth pre-order campaign going on now), we don’t require pre-payment. When the book comes in, we put copies aside for the orders, and call the customer on the laydown date.”

Kate Rattenborg, owner of Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, said her 1,000-square-foot store located in a rural college town of 8,000 people, has always offered pre-orders for customers in the eight years it has been open. 

“In more recent years, we have marketed to our customer base through our monthly e-newsletter, in-store signs, and on social media,” said Rattenborg. “We may differ from larger stores and markets in that we tend to highlight the books that we anticipate will do well in our region (for example, J Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota) or books that our staff are unusually passionate about (for example, Theresa Thorn’s It Feels Good to Be Yourself). The books we’re promoting may not be the same books that are being promoted nationally.”

Rattenborg told BTW that her staff is trained to mention upcoming books when a customer is making a purchase. “For example,” she said, “when anyone purchases a book by William Kent Krueger (a regional mystery writer with a series in addition to standalone books), staff mentions that his next book will be out in September and would you like to pre-order it/reserve a copy?”

In St. Louis, Missouri, Subterranean Books owner Kelly von Plonski said her store, which clocks in at about 1,100 square feet and employs three full-time and three part-time staff members, doesn’t tend to actively promote pre-orders but will definitely take them whenever they come the store’s way. 

“Our website is enabled to accept pre-orders and we receive a significant portion that way,” von Plonski said. “We also take them when folks come in to inquire about a title only to find out that it is not due out until [a particular] date — we always offer to pre-order it for them. And then we get another significant portion from our regular customers who keep up with their favorite authors or genres and come in to pre-order a title that they are excited about. Quite often those are the ones that weren’t on our radar at all.”

“One thing I don’t think we do that bigger stores might do is maintain our pre-order campaigns on our website,” said von Ploski. Currently, “we don’t really have the time or bandwidth to keep it up to date enough,” she said.

Even with a small store’s bandwidth. every bookstore has the ability to take on pre-orders, either in-store or online, granted they have e-commerce capabilities. Booksellers can view a list of titles with good pre-order potential on ABA’s website by browsing the Pre-Order Calendar. The calendar specifically features books with added value from the publisher, such as signed copies and exclusive merchandise, plus books coming up from big authors, to entice customers to order from their local independent bookstore.

Updated on a weekly basis, the calendar outlines selected books’ publication dates and details for ordering from publishers; new items available for pre-order are indicated by the date they were added in red. In addition, titles being featured as a pre-order ad in an upcoming Indie Next List flier (or in the Indie Next List digital newsletters presented by Shelf Awareness) will have the notation: *INL: Month*.

When available, titles on the calendar will also link to a page with publishers’ downloadable digital marketing assets, occasionally including special ads created by ABA that highlight the offer for customers. ABA continues to work with publishers to add titles to the calendar with their corresponding marketing assets; booksellers and publishers can send new suggestions to preorders@bookweb.org.

In addition, ABA addressed the issue of pre-orders via a bookseller education session at the fall regional trade shows in 2018 called “Maximizing Pre-Order Campaigns.” The PowerPoint presentation from the session, which contains tips on how to manage pre-orders, is available on BookWeb.

Booksellers can also now flag pre-order titles on their IndieCommerce websites. Those who are interested in using the pre-order badge feature on a specific title can enable the setting on the book’s product page. A document with more information is available here.