Thursday, September 10, 2009

Coming Clean About Romance....

I'm here to come out of the happily ever after closet. I don't read a lot of the same books as a majority of our store customers. I don't read Jodi Picoult, "Christian" fiction, memoirs, or anything dark and depressing... that's right folks- I'm a ROMANCE READER. I have a Masters Degree and then some, I grew up on another continent, so it's not because I'm small minded and can't handle larger more thought provoking tomes.... why did I say that? Because for some, it's easy to snub romance readers and look down at them as being someone that doesn't enjoy literature, can't tell a good story from bad. Yes, there is snobbery, even amongst bookish folks. Even at my own store when I suggest a romantic book (not even one technically classified as a romance) I get the "I don't do those". So I'm here to say proudly I do "do those". I enjoy a story with a happy ending. I enjoy a story that while I know the basic ending (HEA), I don' know how it's going to get there. I enjoy a story where 2 (or more) people discover a love so deep they can't be away from that other person. I enjoy a story that makes me smile and laugh. THAT is why I read romance!

Now that I'm out of the HEA closet... I do also want to address a question that circulated on the web after the Evil Empire's fiasco of de-listing a majority of erotica books. It was brought up that many romance and erotica readers wanted to get away from the Empire and support their local retailers... but alas they couldn't because a large number of indie bookstores don't carry the romance genre. It was generally perceived that we (Indies) don't because of snobbery (like mentioned above).... and I'll give it to them that in some cases that may be it (like I said, I've encountered book snobbery even in the bookish world)... but honestly it all really comes down to economics. And while I'm no math teacher (I taught world cultures), I'm going to attempt to break it down.

First- size and location: most Indies are in the 2000-4000 square foot range (some much smaller). Which means we need to fill about 10% of shelf space as a mega chain store, therefore we need to be a more selective on what to carry. So then why not dedicate at least one bookcase to romance you ask- again mostly economics.

A vast majority of romances are mass market paperbacks... the smallest margins in publishing. Mega retailers and online warehouses order them by the pallets (like 10,000 books at a time), whereas even the largest Indies out there would order in the low hundreds. Publishers give much deeper discounts the more you order... so the corporations that make millions do so cause they invest much less in their inventory than us little mom and pops. So let's take your average romance paperback at $6.99.

One Month at Mom and Pop vs.  One Month at MegaSameEverywhereMart

MegaSameEverywhere Mart's #s
6.99 paperback
2.79 cost (at about 60% off.. making guess on the discount)

27,900 cost
sell 50%  at list price for $34950 gross
cost for sold bks: $13,950
Net for books sold: $21000 (enough to pay a salaried worker to do nothing but manage a romance section)

Mom & Pop's #s
6.99 paperback
3.99 our cost (at about 44% off, book dsicounts ranges from about 38 to 50% depending on getting from a distributor or direct from a pub that is running a backlist "special" extra discount)
X100 (what an average small to medium store's monthly new romance order might be)
$399 cost
sell 50% for $349 gross
So right there, we've had a loss and they've already made a profit.... but let’s continue through the return and only pay for the ones we sell
cost for sold is: $199.5
Net for sold: $149.50
BUT WAIT- returning.....
Indie returns the 50 that didn't sell, at 50% of cover price (that's right, we don't get full credit for returns) AND we pay shipping

So the 50 books we paid $199.50 for we get $174.75 in credit for... BUT we can only return 10% of our total purchases from said distributor in any given time frame... so we discount the more popular titles and sell 10 more at a net of a whopping $15. Then we box up what is left and ship them back... at the cost of that $15 we just made. So our actual net for carrying 100 new romance books was $149.50.... now let’s see it took us 20 days to sell that 50.... and we had 2 part-time employees in the store for 8 hours each day at $10 an hours.... so you see the numbers lead us to want to carry books that have a higher margin and that we can handsell quickly (more on the staff handselling in a minute)

So yes, I'm sorry it does come down to economics. We can't compete with a megachain that also sells $2000 flat screen TVs, or a conglomerate that can buy their books at half of what we can, or a warehouse that doesn't have to pay for space to display books.

But there is one more side to this story- education.

A lot of Indies, especially in the more metropolitan areas don't have romance reading staff. Therefore they can't handsell a genre they don't read. Conglomerate bookstores have much larger staffs, many of whom are part-time HS or College age just working for a paycheck and not for the love of the bookstore a group more likely to pick up a $6.99 mmpb and the chances of meeting a romance reader on staff there are much higher. Indies may have 2-5 people on staff... many of whom have decided to opt for the lower pay because they love the store.
So what do us romance readers that are IN the industry need to do.... STOP HIDING. I hereby call all us booksellers that love the HEA to share that at our upcoming regional meetings. Make a b-line to the Harlequin table at the floor show and let them know that there is an indie owner or manager that reads their books. Is one of your favorite romance authors at the trade show? Make sure you introduce them to other indie bookstore people.

What can romance reader customers do? Shop indie, at least every once in a while. I know that us rmance readers all have our favorite authors, and we can tell you to the day when the next Eloisa James or Julia Quinn is going to hit the shelves.... don't wait, pre-order it from the indie (yes, indies can get all of the same books that the megas do, we order from the same publishers after all!). They will have it waiting for you at the store the day it comes out..... and some may even give you a discount for the pre-order (we do!).... no indie close enough to pop in to pre-order then pick-up?... shop online... go to, search by zip code, order from one close to you and have it shipped. So now that you've placed an order or 2 with your local indie... buy an extra copy of that Lynsay Sands and hand it right back to them. Say "I know you carry the Charlaine Harris',  but this writer also does vampires and does them well.... give it a try, I'd love to hear what you think". Cultivate a love of the HEA with your indie manager and buyer... if it's something the staff can put into the hands of customers and say "I loved this book and you will too" they are much more likely to carry it on the shelves.... but we don't have time to read a majority of what comes to us from the pubs, and many are reluctant to step out of their box of what they like to read.  I guarantee you though.. if you buy a romance or 2 from the store, then give them to the owner/manager/buyer/seller and ask them to read, the chances of that new Tessa Dare being at the store the next time you come in is much higher than if you had come in looked around seeing no romances, assume they are snobs and huff out.

Romance readers are passionate readers and know their stuff.... lets band together and share that love and knowledge with our Indies!


A Caveat..... we don't carry new romance books at Aaron's Books for the pure economic reasons (but I do order them for myself through my store & I’d be happy to do that for you too!)... there are 5 grocery and pharmacy chains/stores in a 3 mile radius that carry them, we just can't compete with their pricing. BUT we do have a large selection of slightly used romances... It does help that one owner and one staffer a romance buffs, so we keep those 5 bookcases full of great romantic reads!

PS- If anyone from Harlequin, Plume, Signet, or Berkley wants to send me romance swag (bags, t-shirts etc) I'd happily show off my romance pride at NAIBA the first weekend in Oct!

See you all at the Harlequin booths at regionals!


  1. Pulling this out of the air and not particularly well thought-out nor probably a new idea at all but...would it make a difference/be economical to create a an Indie Booksellers CSA type of collective?

    As in, the "CSA" purchases a bulk order of romance novels and then distributes to participating Indies saving everyone $$ and inventory space? Is there something like this in place?

  2. I wonder how many readers and authors have dreamed of owning their own indie bookstore with fragrant coffees always on tap for their customers and comfy chairs near a seasonal fireplace? You give a shocking reality check with your math. I hope more people listen and shop their indies.

  3. Sam, I couldn't agree more with the thump, thump of the Evil Empire. That is why Indie's have to get more aggressive and add items like seminars that are well marketed to bring clients and interested parties into the stores. On the Romance side, I'd invite you to join the Romance, Passion and Intimacy Group on Linked In which will add more value to you and your business. I'd also like to speak to you about co-promotion with pheromone fragrances and other products. Contact me at All the best of the holiday season,

    Lorne Caplan

  4. Thank you for an enlightening post. My local used bookstores support me by ordering my books and I try to return the favor with signings and buying my leftover stock afterward so they aren't stuck.

    If you'd like some promos from romance authors, Sam, just ask!

  5. This is a fabulous post. Thanks, Lorne.

    I write contemporary women's fiction, and I run into the same dilemma: if it isn't already on the bestseller list or one of the already-bestselling names in my genre, no matter how many mailings/swag I send to indies, I get very little pickup.

    Thanks for doing the math, because it makes sense (pragmatically). But I must say, I too have experienced the "we only carry literature" 'tude at some indies--whether it's validates their dollars-and-sense reason or not. However, I see a bigger, more important reason for indies to get on the bandwagon: so that they don't go the way of the buggy whip shop -- or a more recent example, the record store.

    According to Consumer Book Publishing*,
    -Romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2008.
    -In 2008, romance was the top performing category on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly best-seller lists.
    -Romance fiction sales are estimated at $1.36 billion for 2009.
    -74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008. (source: RWA Reader Survey)

    So yes, if indies want to stay in business, this gives the ABA or (or its regional arms, or Indiebound members) valid reason to consider a purchasing co-op with distributors, or directly with pub houses.

    Another area in which indies can make the most of their limitations: BECOME THE EVENT PLACE. I know some are great at this, but the reality is that most don't do a good enough job to draw even 10 to 30 people to an event with a well-known author. Promotion is going to be the key component, and something online giants and chains can't offer. Having one employee who has event-planning skills could mean major sales -- and could allow you to reach out beyond the lit reader, to genre as well. Genre readers LOVE to congregate, talk to authors, and buy books. If indies open up to romance (and other genres, too), the residual effect may be worth it.

  6. Ack! I meant to say "Thanks, Sam". Please forgive!

  7. One local indie supports local romance authors (here in Houston, where the Romance Writers of America organization has their headquarters, there are many local chapters to pull from) by hosting book signings and book parties with food, wine and prizes. The authors who come to sign frequently combine with other authors, and invite lots of family/friends to visit, so the store benefits from the additional traffic.

    I wonder if instead of focusing on competing with the big box and chains by carrying the same books, highlighting your LOCAL area romance authors might be a way to introduce this genre to your buyers. Everybody loves to meet local authors, and everybody loves a party.