Nicole demystifies everything from orders to events to returns in the first installment of my new Industry Interviews series
Interviews with people in the industry used to be everywhere, but as blogs have shuttered and social media has shifted, it feels to me like that access is harder to get than ever. And so, I decided to dust off my publishing newsletter and see if I couldn’t pry some info out of some industry experts that’s specifically geared toward answering some of the questions that puzzle authors the most, starting with Oblong Books’ bookseller Nicole Brinkley.
Nicole’s graciously agreed to let me pick her brain about all things indie bookselling, so sit back, take a read, and hope you learn something, because I definitely did!
DA: First up! Where and how do you find out about new releases?
NB: Oh, I find out about new books from a whole variety of sources. Our publisher sales representatives (and my boss, who is our buyer and works more closely with them than I do) will sometimes flag books to my attention that they think I will enjoy, and publishers send us a literal avalanche of ARCs that I pawn through for interesting gems like a dragon rummaging through knightly armor. Despite not being our store buyer, I also pursue the catalogs on Edelweiss of my favorite publishers and imprints because I'm nosy and like to see what's coming up. I'm also an Instagram girlie, so I do pay attention to some of my favorite Bookstagrammers. But the number one way I find out about new books is through other booksellers and readers: I talk a lot to folks about what they're excited about and love getting recommendations of things to keep an eye out for from fellow booksellers especially.
DA: Would you say the store buyer uses the same-ish methods, or are there other levels to it at that point?
NB: Suzanna is the daughter half of the father-daughter duo that runs the store and is our full-time buyer, and she's got a brain for books that I envy. Most of her knowledge of upcoming books comes from her job as a buyer: she goes through every single catalog of every single publisher in order to place her frontlist sales, and works closely with our sales representatives to find the books she may have missed. We order from publishers that range from the big 5 to medium-size publishing houses to micropresses: it's a lot of books to look at!
She and I both also love pursuing other bookstores to find books we haven't seen or that dropped off our radar, which is how we find some of our new backlist staff picks—but that's a backlist, older books scenario more than a frontlist, new releases one.
DA: If an author wanted to catch your eye with a book they thought you'd love, how would they best do that? Or is hearing directly from authors roughly a non-starter?
NB: It's definitely not a non-starter! I love hearing from authors about their books. The thing to know about coming to any bookseller is that we are already drowning in books: if we say no to reading a book, it's not personal! The best way to let me know about a book is to contact me directly, either by email or sliding into my Insta DMs. Just be kind and let me know what your book is about and why you think it's a good fit for me! If I can't read it, I usually know somebody else who might be interested.
There is a whole other mess of worms when you're contacting a bookstore for consignment or carrying your book as opposed to just, say, reading a galley for blurb—you'll want to follow the consignment steps of the bookstore and, again, be kind if they say no. There's a lot of books, and consignments or books that are off our beaten paths can be real hit-or-miss. We don't want anybody to have their money or time wasted!
DA: So what does determining a book's shelf space and shelf life look like?
There are a thousand variables! Let's put aside the obvious ones, like: is it a big book from a big author? Is it a local author? Is it somebody we are doing an event with?
Some variables depend on individual books and authors. Is it a debut? If not, have we sold that author before, and how well did they do? Do books similar to that book sell well at our store? Has somebody on staff read it and loved it? Some variables depend on physical space in our store or how well specific categories are performing in our store. SFF only has one bookcase: do we have the space to bring in more midlist we haven't read as opposed to this midlist Nicole tried and liked? Our parenting section is really small: do we need three books on similar topics? YA has really slowed down for us: if we don't feel that the book has a strong pitch, do we want to bring it in?
If you feel like a filter of complicated math equations is filtering over your brain, don't worry: I feel the same. I don't envy Suzanna her job. She's very good at it.
All of this is to say: it can be complicated! So let's use an actual example: GODKILLER by Hannah Kaner, an adult fantasy novel I am currently listening to on audiobook and loving. Nobody else on staff read this one before Suzanna did her order, but it's established as an international bestseller already and the rep recommended it, and second-world lady-driven fantasy does pretty well at our store despite SFF having only one bookcase. Suzanna ordered 6, which is a respectable face-out quantity to start for us. (We do frequent reorders.) If I had made it a staff pick and told Suzanna about it ahead of time, we may have doubled that order with the understanding that I would be handselling it rather than letting it passively sell itself.
DA: And how do returns work?
NB: So!!! We do returns several times a year—to big guys like PRH multiple times, and littler guys like Scholastic only once if that—because otherwise we would run out of room for books on our shelves. Publishing is rad in that it's one of the few industries where we can return an item for credit, which is good, because it would be otherwise much more difficult to take risks on strange books or debut authors.
Different bookstores do returns differently, but the way we do them is that we run a report in our point-of-sale system to generate data to see how long books from specific publishers have gone without selling. From that, we select what books we want to send back. A book will usually get a good 9 months to a year to sell on our shelf before we send it back—and sometimes we override that if we want to try to sell it, and sometimes we will end up reordering books we previously returned because of a shift in market or a fresh staff pick. We also return hardcovers of books that are coming out shortly or have come out already in paperback just due to lack of shelf space.
DA: What do you think authors generally misunderstand or simply don't know about bookselling?
NB: We don't spend all day reading. I have too much to do for that.
It depends. Bookselling is such an odd profession: it's retail, but it's also publishing, and it's also a specialized sort of experience that comes with curated knowledge and a lot of emotional labor and deep investment on the part of booksellers.
I think the biggest misunderstanding comes from not fully realizing how big a role independent booksellers and bookselling can play in the industry. Amazon is a behemoth—but if independents (or Barnes & Noble) were to fall, the fate of traditional publishing and the careers of authors would be left to its algorithm. Books would continue to be devalued, and the industry would be a lot less diverse and interesting. Independent booksellers and their individual curation at their stores ensure that there can be small, niche, supported markets for every sort of book—and they're proof that the next big blockbuster or bestseller doesn't just come from what is handpicked by publishers or mainstream media, but can be led by enthusiastic readers on the frontlines. (The success of GIDEON THE NINTH came heavily from how many independent booksellers rallied around it!) We are a huge and necessary part of the varied, wonderful ecosystem that is the book industry, and we're full of people who deeply care about books and are (for the most part) trying our best.
DA: So you touched on this a bit when talking about shelf space, but what does best in your store, and why do you think that is?
NB: We have two bookstores and both are located in heavily touristy areas—Oblong Rhinebeck is "the perfect 100 miles from Manhattan"—so there are some things that do well without us trying hard, the sort of lighter readers or historical fiction that people going away for the weekend naturally gravitate toward somehow. We also have robust children's sections in each store that we invest heavily in and which do very well for us.
But the sections that do best in our store are the ones that the booksellers themselves feel most passionately about and litter with shelftalkers (those little handwritten signs that recommend books). Our romance section is doing so well and finally has a whole bookcase to itself, and our horror section has been booming thanks to the handselling prowess of two of our superstar booksellers. Our SFF section at our sister store in Millerton is booming for the same reason: they were able to rearrange recently, and between the expanded space and the skills of our booksellers, we are moving a lot of books.
We sell a lot of frontlist, of course, but what we are most proud of as a store is the amount of backlist we sell. Publishing does itself a huge disservice by focusing so much on preorders and first and second week sales—most readers aren't going to find out about a book that fast! So many of our staff picks that we sell stacks and stacks and stacks of are backlist titles that publishers would consider smaller or midlist from 2, 5, 10 years ago. From where I am standing at the front of the store right now, looking into our adult fiction section, I can see staff picks for Ryka Aoki's brilliant Light from Uncommon Stars and Andrew Martin's short story collection Cool for America and the novella Last Night at the Lobster—all backlist, with no fancy bestseller title among them, and yet we sell tons and tons to excited readers discovering them for the first time.
DA: Aw that is so awesome - I love to hear it!! And it's such an interesting point about a weekend vacation spot yielding specifically seekers of reads perfect for that kind of trip.
NB: Honestly, serving such different communities—locals vs. regular tourists vs. Big Trip tourists—means we get to have a store that serves all those different communities, and it lets us really vary what we carry. It's why it's so much fun for me to look at other bookstores: they serve different communities than I do, and I can take what they're doing and bring them back to mine.
DA: What makes for a successful event, or at least what's made for the most successful event you've seen?
NB: Well, we work with Neil Gaiman, so being wildly famous with hardcore fans who buy out theaters and buy all the books you bring is ... well, very nice, but maybe an impossible standard to set!
A successful event is one where the author and the audience are both engaged, and where the bookstore and author are both prepared. I love nontraditional events—we did a Zoom event earlier this year where I created a March Madness romance trope bracket with some wonderful romance authors and had us debate them, and we have an event coming up this October with Chuck Wendig where we're all hanging out at an orchard instead of doing a traditional sit-down in-store chit-chat—but traditional read-and-talk event formats work well for a reason.
My biggest event tips are to 1. communicate with your venue beforehand about expectations and what is expected of both author and bookstore; 2. to promote the event, because hopefully you booked it knowing you would at least have some audience in that area; and 3. be kind! Even events where few or no people show up can be salvaged with a good attitude and a willingness to change up the plan on the fly.
Events are really hard right now: people can still be reluctant to come out during the pandemic, Zoom fatigue is affecting all of us, and money is tight for big-ticket events. We're being very picky about what we host, and I know other bookstores are, too, so know nothing is personal if things go wrong.
DA: Heh, that answers my "What have you seen change since Covid" question too, thank you!
What kinds of trends have you noticed from being pitched allllll the books, constantly?
NB: Witch romances. (That bubble burst, and the Tordotcom article does a great job at explaining how and why.) YA that isn't YA, with steamy fantasy books about 18-year-olds that feel more aimed at adults than teens. "Upper middle grade" that is actually YA. Lots of soft, cottagecore picture books that I have sold many of. Queer and trans horror is aplenty, and we will keep selling it in spades.
Publishing is trying to make vampires fetch again, and I respect the hustle even if I don't see it equating in sales.
We're finally past the onslaught of books about the Trump administration and I am grateful for that.
DA: Yesss queer and trans horror seems HUGE right now, just judging by how many posts I have scheduled for this fall that are about new horror titles. And I did notice vampires were coming back but did not seem to be making a splash in a big way, so I'm intrigued to see that confirmed.
That’s it for my personal questions, but did you have anything else you'd like authors or the general public to know about bookselling?
NB: Ask your favorite independent bookseller for book recommendations. They will have some great ones.
And remember: independent bookstores know how to use the mail! We will ship you what you need!
Thanks for reading Acks and Ded! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Of course, I couldn’t let Nicole go without making some book recs! Links go to Oblong, so please thank Nicole for sharing her wealth of knowledge by making your purchases from this wonderful store! And thanks for being with us, Nicole!
LUCKY RED by Claudia Cravens: This sapphic Western about a wild-hearted whore out for revenge is a delicious, action-packed drama. Devour this over a rollicking weekend: you won't want to walk away from it.
STARLING HOUSE by Alix E. Harrow: This Appalachian gothic perfectly walks the line between heart-propelling horror and romantic fairy tale. Starling House will join Alix E. Harrow's other books on my favorites shelf, right between Deathless and Howl's Moving Castle. Dreamy, suspenseful, and breathtakingly written.
THIS COUNTRY by Navied Mahdavian: A poetic, personal graphic novel meditation on falling in love with the natural wonders of America's heartland—even as the people in said heartland remind you of how different and unwelcome you are.
DEAR MOTHMAN by Robin Gow: An affirming ode to queerness and a stunning story about what it means to be different. This is a middle grade novel-in-verse that will make readers feel seen and leave their heart full.
THE APARTMENT HOUSE ON POPPY HILL by Nina LaCour: Whimsical, inclusive, and fun: I want to live at The Apartment House on Poppy Hill! Nina Lacour's first foray into chapter books will tickle fans of Eloise and Ivy & Bean with its rambunctious, thoughtful heroine and its zany house of characters. More, please!
THE TRUTH ABOUT DRAGONS by Julie Leung and Hanna Cha: Fantastical, beautiful, charming: this tale about the stories we tell and the paths we take will resonate with any family eager to create their own magic (and ring especially true for biracial families). Absolutely lovely.