Jim C. Hines (jimhines) wrote,
Jim C. Hines
jimhines

Bookseller Interview: Michelle Sagara, Bakka-Phoenix Books

Given the positive reaction to my last bookseller interview, I'll be working to post a few more. And I promise I'll branch out beyond the Toronto stores! But Bakka-Phoenix (bakkaphoenix) is a great SF/F store, and Michelle Sagara (msagara) has the unusual advantage of being both author and bookseller. In other words, she knows a lot of stuff, and you should listen to her.

1. So who are you, where do you work, and who is your favorite muppet?

First things first: OSCAR THE GROUCH! Although it's true I wouldn't want to eat the food of his people. (I have just had a twenty-minute argument with a friend because I told him about this question with gleeful enthusiasm, and he said "well, technically, he's not a muppet", which, I want you to know, is profoundly wrong. I was forced to correct this, but will spare you the violent details). I have a large Oscar the Grouch sweatshirt and it is my favourite shirt -ever-.

Okay, so, a bit about me. Obviously, the subject of muppets makes me violent.

I'm Michelle Sagara, and I write under both that name and Michelle West. And Michelle Sagara West.

I work part-time at Bakka-Phoenix books in Toronto; it's an SF/F specialty store which has been around (under a slightly different name) since 1972. I worked there full-time, and managed the store until the birth of my oldest son. Before that, I worked at the Classics chain in Toronto, in a bunch of different stores as a floating part-timer; it was bought eventually by W.H. Smith, a chain that was eventually absorbed by Coles. Which became Chapters. Which was bought by Indigo.

2. As a struggling author, what can I do to help you sell my books?

The biggest thing, sadly, is to write a good book. Actually, this is not true. You can write a brilliant book, and it can fail; I'm speaking off the cuff, and should probably not do that. Let me try again.

There is almost nothing that you can personally do to help me sell your books. You can't choose the cover, you can't choose the publication schedule, you can't choose the cover price (in Canada the cover price has been a wee bit of a hot button issue over the last year, so it's on my mind more than it would otherwise be), and you can't offer me placement dollars. Not that we take them.

Almost nothing is not entirely nothing. You can, if you are familiar with the store at all, take a look around at the various reviews that are (often badly) affixed to the shelves in front of the books they are about (or in front of the wrong books entirely because we have Alphabet Poltergeists who randomly move sections of the store and drop them in the wrong places. I digress.) This might give you a sense of who's reading the type of book you're writing, or at least the type of book you think you're writing. If you can pair the book with a staff person who will like it, we handsell a lot.

If you're not local and have no minions who are?

Write a book a year, or less, at least at the beginning, if it is at all possible (I'm aware that it is -not- always possible). It does help to have a bit of a shelf presence if you're counting on browsers, because people are always on the lookout for -authors- they will like, as opposed to just single books, and the more books you have available, the more likely they are to be curious about what those books are like.

3. What's the best thing about working at Bakka-Phoenix?

Opening new release shipments never gets old. Seriously. There is a thrill at opening a box and seeing that we've just received a book that's only existed as catalogue copy or cover flats until that moment. I also love the reading, and the talking with regular customers, and I love, love, love talking about the books. I love matching people with books they will love; I think that's the best part of the job.

4. Without naming names, what are some of the craziest things you've dealt with on the job?

The craziest thing? Sometimes it's people who come in off the street and say bizarre things. One man once walked into our bookstore while I was behind the counter, and he basically asked me to publish his book. It took a while for me to understand that that's what he wanted. I explained patiently that we were a bookstore, and not a publisher, and which point he threw his arm wide in an arc and shouted "Oh yeah? Yeah? Then WHERE DID ALL THESE BOOKS COME FROM???"

I am rarely at a loss for words, but. Well.

Clive Barker, the first time he came for a store signing, because he insisted on Bourbon, he smoked cigars (and if you feel the need to ask, we are not licensed to serve alcohol, it was not a private party for which we might be able to do it, and Toronto had, at that time, strict smoking laws, and still does). The -next- time he came to town? No drinking, no smoking, and he woke up early (according to his publicist) to hit the gym. But in both cases, he was wonderful and entertaining.

Any publicist that had time to chat about their job.

The unnamed author who came and thought it was riotously funny that he had approached a former Prime Minister (they were in the same hotel) to make disparaging comments about his ex-wife's public sexual escapades. I know this only because he was still quite gleeful about it and told a store full of people that he had done this, and when I stared at him in disbelief, he pointed to his publicist and said, "Don't believe me? Ask him." And the publicist admitted that it was, indeed, true.

I had better stop now.

5. Tell us about stripping, if you would? (To clarify for any of my dirty-minded readers, I'm talking about the whole returns process.) How long do you usually wait before returning books, and how do you decide what stays on the shelves?

Actually, we are wimps. Because we are all so squeamish (and because at one point publishers were telling us we had to put the books out covered -in paint- so that the stripped bodies were not readable, which, frankly, was never going to happen), we send everything back to the warehouses full-book. This does mean they have to strip them at their end, but that we don't have to listen to book screams. And they can pour paint on the bodies if they insist.

But since the books end up stripped regardless of how they're received, that's a quibble. We have a New Release paperback shelf, and books go on at the top of the shelf and come off at the bottom, moving to make room for new titles as they come in. New Release quantities are often a gamble, and we carry more of those than of regular backlist titles.

When a new release title is shuffled off the shelf, we keep a handful of that title, depending on sales, for the regular shelves. We will always keep one copy, regardless, because we try to keep the adult SF/F titles in stock. We're far less complete with the YA titles, which is more a problem of space than preference.

6. How do you decide what to stock, and how many copies?

Again, we try to stock any and all of the major SF/F publisher titles, because those are our core titles. Previous sales history counts when we're ordering, but cover can also make a difference; if the previous sales history is tepid, but the newest book has a fabulous cover that we think will pop on the shelves, we're likely to increase our order. We will experiment with paranormal romance titles and some YA titles selectively.

We order some small press books from Diamond, but it's harder for us to get those direct. We've offered in at least three cases to prepay the entire order from small presses, and failed to get the books. I can understand why a small press might not want to ship an invoiced order to a customer they've never dealt with, because of payment concerns -- but if the customer is willing to prepay, I don't get it.

6b. On a similar note, how would one go about getting a small press or self-published book onto your shelves?

See above. Small Presses are hit and miss for us, which makes me weep. If you have copies of your book, and we are unable to get them through regular distribution channels, and you are willing to sell them to us, we're most likely to take them (and have in the past)(although not in huge quantities, at least to start). We get some of Sub Press, Nightshade and Wildside from Diamond.

Self-published books are harder. We take a few on consignment, but not many at all, because they just don't sell for us. It's partly because, whatever else one might think of regular publishing channels, editors guarantee a certain basic competence with the tools of the trade. That said, Jim Munroe's self-published books sold very well for us; we also sold the chapbooks that Sharon Lee and Steve Miller self-published (I think we bought what they'd brought to a convention, after the con was over).

7. You're also a published author with the absolute best publisher out there. What insights have you gained working in the bookselling business that have helped you as an author?

I am, in fact, published by DAW as you say. I've been with DAW since my fifth novel, and I adore the family dynamic of the company. I could write an entire novel about my experiences working with DAW, and Sheila and Betsy would only strangle me for a twentieth of it :D

But the insights?

The flat out most important: Nothing in this industry is personal. Nothing is meant personally. The bad cover you get is not personal. The unreadable type you get is not personal. The publication month is not personal. The number of books ordered is not personal; the lack of attention the reps give your title is not personal. I realize I sound like an automaton at this point, but I can't stress this highly enough.

If you want to -take- things personally, you will obviously be able to do so -- but it seems self-defeating and enormously discouraging to do so.

Look, I've seen -brilliant-, flat out -brilliant- books, die on the shelves. Not at my store, because if the book is brilliant, it is going to be read, and then shoved into the hands of other readers. But overall? Yes. I've seen books for which -everything- was done right; in my days at the chain, I've seen fantasies that were given at least as much push as the first Robert Jordan novel, in terms of floor space, dumps, placement, and large posters, bookmarks and ARCs. Those books disappeared. Went out of print.

There's a myth that we tell ourselves about self-promotion and publisher-promotion. It's encouraged because we can point to so many success stories. Working in the bookstore, however, has also shown me that the -exact same- marketing push has utterly failed in a large number of cases. Promotion, in the end, is not the golden goose. Or egg. One of those two.

I've also talked to enough reps, and been offered enough lists, that I know that the reps are doing their job, and their job is -not- to tell me what I should be ordering. If they're going to have a long-term working relationship with me, there has to be some respect offered for my opinion and my sense of my customers. This is why it's not helpful in any way to attack reps for not getting your books into certain stores. A rep -can- do this, but they can do it once every couple of years, and if they're going to do it, they're going to pick a book that they are almost certain will do well for the buyer they're pushing it at. Your epic fantasy in a general bookstore will almost certainly not be that book, and it is not personal; anyone who has done this for years understands that. They're doing their job. Their job covers the -whole list-.

8. Anything else you wish people knew and understood about bookselling?

That we're all still readers at heart; that we read the books we personally like and pass over the ones we bounce off, and that this, as well, is not personal, although to be fair, I will jump into an argument about books with customers because I'm like that, and would probably do that in any case.

In the end, it's about the books.

9. Finally, if my readers wanted to go out and buy your books as a way to thank you for your time, which one should they start with?

Ummm. I am told that HUNTER'S OATH [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is probably the weakest of my novels, but it's one entry point. Julie Czerneda and I were at the store together for a signing (I think Tanya Huff was also there), and Julie pointed out that -she- had started with BROKEN CROWN [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] and had no problems (she liked it). The funny thing about this is that the person had been asking -me-, but he listened to -her-, and not only did he listen to her, but so did everyone else in hearing range. We sold out of that book about 5 minutes later. I wish I could put her in a pocket and take her everywhere with me.

But I've also now heard from a handful of people who started with HIDDEN CITY [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], and had no problems at all starting there. This would be for the West novels.

CAST IN SHADOW [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is the start of the Kaylin Neya novels; it is faster, less political, and single viewpoint, so they could start there.

Or... the could read BLACK MAN by Richard Morgan, which I adored. Or NAME OF THE WIND, by Patrick Rothfuss, or the ATTOLIA books by Megan Whalen Turner, which I read, and then immediately re-read -- three times.

Michelle has graciously offered to answer follow-up questions on her LiveJournal: msagara. So head on over and say hello!
Tags: bookselling
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