Excellence in Buying

When E. L. Doctorow made the extravagant statement quoted in the introduction, he didn’t do so out of admiration for our ambience or our knowledge; his comment pertained solely to the books on our shelves. Foot for foot and shelf by shelf, The King’s English does have a remarkable inventory. We labor intensively over our backlist, at least two of the three buyers (and sometimes all three of us) doing the daily updates together so that we at once pool our knowledge and double-check one another’s choices. We expend the extra staff time to do this because in a selling space of under 2000 square feet, our shelf space is limited and therefore precious. We are determined to keep in stock those books we believe any and every good bookstore should have and to market them in such a way that they sell; we are equally determined to maintain depth in not just new and fast-moving titles but also in those titles our staff has handpicked to hand sell—new or not. This determination to maintain a quality inventory is at the top of our priorities; we believe it to be, along with customer service, the secret of our ongoing success.

A team approach is used in both frontlist and backlist buying. The three of us who buy have the longest history in the store (33 years, 15 years, and 12 years respectively), and we all work on the floor selling books on a regular basis. Thus on the one hand we have overarching knowledge and won’t cavalierly axe from inventory a book that hasn’t turned three times but is actually important to keep on our shelves (we do believe it is vital to keep an eye on turns while buying, but equally important to bring long-term knowledge to bear on the subject of inventory). On the other hand, because we all work on the floor we witness firsthand the new-found enthusiasms, can tell from the light in customers’ eyes as well as the numbers on the sales reports which books are hot and about to get hotter, which are cooling. And, because we see most customers on a weekly or monthly (sometimes daily) basis, we know firsthand their likes and dislikes, their enthusiasms and obsessions—all of which informs our frontlist buying to the point that we often write the name of a customer we know would like a forthcoming title on a catalog page (or make a tag for it in Edelweiss).

Since our management systems all interface with one another, our frontlist buying process is interesting in terms of marketing as well as inventory. Two of the three buyers always work together, and we consider the rep—who is invariably knowledgeable not just about the list he or she is selling but about our store and its identity as well—a third member of the buying team. The subject of TKE’s identity is in a sense a marketing topic, important from both a buying and marketing perspective: when we buy for the store we are buying for a customer base we know, which is why working on the floor is so important. But we are also making a statement about who we are with each buying decision, since in a very real way a bookstore’s identity is expressed by the books that store carries on its shelves. At The King’s English because we buy selectively rather than stocking at least one of most new books as larger stores do, our books are our identity—our way of telling readers who we are. The buyers are therefore determining and maintaining that identity on a daily basis as they buy books for the shelves—and, as they pull returns; buyers pull returns (with help from Above the Treeline) as well as buying since what goes is as important in that process as what stays.

Back to the buying team and its interface with marketing….Together, the three of us make careful choices, sometimes talking in detail about how a title does or does not fit into our inventory. Then, whether we’re working with catalogs or with Edelweiss, if we’re interested in using the title we’ve selected in The Inkslinger (our print and online newsletter), we choose a bookseller we think might like it, put his or her name on the page in the catalog (or a tag in Edelweiss), add other pertinent information (a proposed event, display for holidays, Jewish Community Center, Local First Utah, etc.), and request a manuscript or reader’s copy from the rep. When galleys and ARCs arrive they get checked against this list and books we’ve ordered in any quantity or are intrigued by get read by our booksellers. The rule is, read at least 50 pages and if you don’t like it but think your reaction might be idiosyncratic, give it to another bookseller to try; if it’s just not good, tell The Inkslinger editor. If, on the other hand, you do like the book, write a blurb for the Indie Next List and The Inkslinger. Once these blurbs are edited for publication, we also use them as shelf-talkers.

Our buyers are:

Anne Holman, who has been with the store for 12 years, and reads and buys both adult and children’s front-list and backlist titles. Anne also oversees staff, events and marketing, and works the floor two days a week (she’s here, she’s there, she’s everywhere). Anne was an English major, has great taste in books, a well-developed sense of humor and is someone who, like all of us, has been addicted to books since infancy.

Margaret Brennan Neville who manages the children’s room, is a voracious and discerning reader of both adult and children’s books. She buys children’s books with Anne and can help with adult buying as well since she runs adult book clubs and keeps abreast of adult fiction and nonfiction alike. Margaret, who has an MBA from Boston College (a decided asset in this bookish clan) works on the floor four days a week, two days in the children’s room, two at the front desk—at least when she’s not doing presentations to schools, libraries, and women’s groups, running book groups, or, of course buying books.

Betsy Burton has been buying books for 33 years. She buys adult frontlist with Anne, backlist with Anne or Margaret, writes and edits The Inkslinger, oversees finances, scheduling, and general operations with Anne as well doing work for the community board and for the two national boards (AMIBA and the ABA) of which she is a member. She works the floor every chance she gets although her favorite activity is straightening and doing face outs. She, too, was an English major and grew up reading Nancy Drew by flashlight (she still reads in bed but has graduated to the Itty Bitty Booklight). 

We have one more buyer, Aaron Cance, who not only does all our receiving and shipping, but also buys all our rare and used books. He owned his own bookshop for five years before he joined TKE and has a Masters in British and American Literature. Aaron is not only knowledgeable but reads critically and writes with style. He writes reviews and interviews for The Inkslinger and such publications as Fiction Writer's Review and has just published a poetry chapbook.

Because the buyers at The King’s English have been at their jobs for so long, publishers know them and regularly seek out their opinions (which they’re never shy to deliver as you can see in Random Rep's letter below) and their reviews. But more importantly, the store is well and thoughtfully stocked thanks to their efforts, stocked with books that tell the world The King’s English is a place readers will love.


Letter from Ron Smith, Random House