Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ROMANCE ON THE SHELVES: Selling at Store Chains

by Sarah Tormey

After several years on the other side of the publishing industry, I bid goodbye to my career as a mass merchandise sales representative to pursue my dream—writing full-length historical romance novels. I knew from the beginning that it would not be easy. But I also knew that the romance community was very supportive of all writers, both published and those still in hot pursuit of their dreams. So many of my fellow writers have provided feedback on my work and helped with research that I find myself asking: what do I have to offer this wonderful group that has helped me move one step closer to my dream?
          I have my experience on the sales side of the industry. Now this is not to say that I know everything there is to know about sales—far from it in fact. After all, it was been more than a year since my departure. But I can try to shed some light on this side of the publishing business.
          When I left my position at Random House to focus on writing, I was selling adult imprints—including mass market and hardcover romance—to Target. And yes, it was a wonderful and amazingly rewarding job. Before selling to Target, I sold hardcover adult imprints to Levy, a mass merchandise wholesaler. I also handled Stop & Shop, Meijer and other grocery store chains.
          I was fascinated by how these accounts worked. When you stop and think about it, mass merchandise stores are drastically different from chain bookstores in that the mass merchandise accounts do not need to sell books. And yet they do, sometimes with shocking success. This also means that books are not necessarily competing for space with other books, but with toilet paper, bananas, candy, diapers and every other item you might find on the shelves in these stores.
          I was also intrigued by the fact that the majority of book purchases at mass merchandise accounts appear to be impulse buys. Think about it, do you go to the grocery store knowing which book you intend to purchase? Or do you spot the latest release by your favorite author and toss it into your cart alongside the juice?  I could go on and on about why mass merchandise sales fascinated me, but instead I will try to answer a few of the questions I am asked most frequently.

How does Target select the titles that appear in their stores?

Well, first and foremost, the buyers look at the numbers. As a sales rep, I would present the past sales information for the author’s previous titles during my sales call. These in-person meetings generally covered two to three months of upcoming releases. It took weeks to compile all the information that I would leave behind with the buyer. In that binder, I would include the cover image, a summary about the book, and sales data for the author’s previous titles. I also made sure to highlight growth from book to book.
           On a side note, I think I should point out that I did not read all of the titles I sold, nor did I write the summaries of the books. A large portion of this information came from the editors and the marketing departments (there may have been other individuals involved whom I am not crediting and if so, forgive me). There were a lot of people at Random House who made sure I had the materials I needed to present each title.

Does this mean that Target only takes established authors?

Not necessarily. The Target buyers know their guests (also known as customers) and they have a strong desire to make their product area, in this case books, as profitable as possible. In my experience, the buyers worked very hard to make sure they were not missing out on a sales opportunity. If I presented a debut mass market romance that would appeal to their guests based on the sales data from similar titles (also called comparison titles), they might take a chance and place an order.

What might prevent them from taking that chance?

There are lots of factors, many of which depend on the book in question. But one factor that stands out to me is lack of space. There are only so many pockets or spaces in the book department, and the amount of space often varies by location. To keep the book department as profitable as possible, Target buyers need to make sure the big names (authors that they know will sell based on the author’s history) are their top priority.   I should also note that if a book “took off” or hit the bestseller list and looked like it might stay there for a while, Target would find a place for this title in their stores.

What other factors play a role in whether Target chooses to buy a title?

I would like to think that the buyers were sometimes influenced by my enthusiasm for a particular book or author. I still believe one of my greatest accomplishments during my tenure as a Target sales rep was procuring top row endcap (shelving facing the main aisle in the store) placement for one of Suzanne Brockmann’s “Troubleshooter” novels. How did I get this amazing placement? Lots of factors contributed, including the fact that Target decided to buy more units and to feature the book cover in their weekly circular. Target sales increased over Brockmann’s previous release thanks (in my opinion) to the placement and the fact that it was an amazing book.
          Why do I consider this one of my greatest achievements?  I am a huge Suzanne Brockmann fan. Huge. When I presented this title to the buyers, I think they could see the excitement written all over my face. Personally I am surprised that I managed to stay in my chair. Inside it felt like I was bouncing off the walls, I was so excited to sell that book.

How long will a specific title remain in stores?

This depends on sales and once again space. The Target buyers and the wonderful group at the Levy Minneapolis office (Levy supplies Target - publishers do not generally ship direct to this account) looked at the sales each week and the ones with the lowest numbers were often dropped to make room for the new titles.

What can other authors do to get their books into Target or other mass merchandise accounts?

I would say write the best book you can write (personally I am still working on that part of the picture) and then market it to the best of your abilities.

Does it help to meet the buyers?

Perhaps, but there are not a lot of opportunities to meet the mass merchandise buyers and in the end I think a writer’s time might be better spent writing.

Does it help to meet your sales reps?

It might, but I should point out that I have never met Suzanne Brockmann in person. It was my passion for her books that prompted my enthusiasm. I should also mention that I sold plenty of books that I had never read or met the author, but the sales track, and more importantly the potential to increase sales, drove my excitement.  I have met a few authors since I left my sales job that I wish I could go back and sell. The first that comes to mind is Brenda Novak. She is an amazing person (check out her website to learn about her yearly auction to raise money for diabetes research) and I love her books to the point that I know I would be bubbling over with excitement at a sales presentation. I was thrilled to find her latest trilogy in Target and immediately bought all three titles!

Is there anything else an author can do to secure placement in mass merchandise stores?

I would encourage all writers and readers to buy more books at these stores. The next time you see a Target store, stop your car, go inside and take a look at the book section. What titles are they carrying? Note how much space is devoted to books. And whatever you do, don’t leave without buying a book or two! Buy the latest Target book club selection (you would not believe how hard the buyers work to select those titles and ensure their success) or a romance novel by an author you have never read before. The same thing applies to your next trip to Wal-Mart or your local grocery store. Spend some time looking at what books they have in stock and then buy one!

As writers and readers, if we want mass merchandise chains to continue to support books, I think we should do everything we can to support the book section in these stores.

I’ll be checking the blog throughout the day, so feel free to post questions and I will do my best to answer them. I would ask that you keep in mind that my answers are based solely on my experience. And I know for a fact I’m not always right, nor do I have all the answers.♥

Sarah Tormey was a Mass Merchandise Sales Representative at Random House. Her job was to sell romances to chain stores like Target, Stop & Shop and Wal-Mart. Sarah is now pursuing her dream of writing historical romance novels. To read excerpts of her work and her blog, visit


  1. Great post, Sarah! It's fascinating to hear about this side of the business. Being with a small publisher right now, it'll probably be a while before I see my books on the shelves at Target, but it's great to have a better understanding of how this all works...for future reference, of course :) Thanks for sharing your extensive knowledge with us!

  2. Thanks, Sarah, for a lot of info about something I knew *nothing* about. This was extremely enlightening to me. I actually do buy some books at the supermarket, and they are, yes, generally impulse buys. In fact, yesterday the local store was doing some sort of cleanup, and they had roped off the book/magazine section. What a disappointment not to have an opportunity to give in to my impulse!

  3. Thanks for posting this great article. I love to buy books at Target because they often have books I haven't seen anywhere else. One example of this is Laura Fitzhugh's Veil of Roses. I believe it was her first book. Her heroine is an Iranian Muslim woman. So the story was definitely different than the standard romance novel. I think it must have been very hard to convince Target to sell it to mainstream America. But I'm glad somebody convinced them to buy it.
    I loved that book, and if I hadn't seen it in Target, I never would have heard of it.

  4. Jerrica: I honestly don't know much about small publishers, so the next time I see you perhaps you can share some of what you've learned since the release of your first book. And I should mention that in addition to having a great book department, Target has the cutest baby clothes:)

    Babara: You're welcome and I hope you keep buying your books at mass merch stores!

    Gail: Veil of Roses was actually a Target Book Club selection. They pick a new one about every two months and they are always great reads that you might not find as easily in other stores. One of my favorites was The Year of Fog.

  5. Sarah, I tend to go to mass market first to see if they have a book I'm looking for. Our Target can be a bit frustrating because half the time the book case is bare.

    Thank you for the information, I think it helps a writer to see just how far a book presentation travels, so it best be up to parr when it hits the editor.

  6. This is a great insider's look at the process, Sarah. It really brings home what writers are up against even after we get into print.

  7. Thanks so much for this insight, Sarah. I buy books from any venue that sells them. I'm not typically an impulse buyer, though, except at places like the grocery store or Target. I typically don't leave the store without at least one book, even though my TBR pile could likely rival the Eiffel Tower. :)

  8. Hello ladies of the Roundtable! Thanks for stopping by.

    Renee: I think it is important to also realize how many people at the publishing houses want an author's book to suceed from the editor to the sales team.

    Alice: Yes, writers are up against a lot, but the mass merch accounts also offer great opportunities. If romance sells well at stores like Target they will likely buy more romance novels in the future and hopefully that means editors will need to aquire new authors!

    Brynna: LOL! I can picture your TBR tower. I have one near by bed:)

  9. What an interesting post, Sarah. I love hearing about the business side of publishing. As a writer, it's rather comforting to know there isn't much one can do about getting into these stores except write the best book possible.

  10. Excellent blog, Sarah! It's interesting to read about how these books get into the stores. I am an impulse book buyer, but it has to be a book that catches my eye. It seems as there aren't as many debut or mid level (is that the term?) authors in the grocery and drug stores as there use to be, so I don't buy as many there anymore.

    I love Suz Brockman too! She is one of my favorites!!

  11. Sarah - Great blog. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I'm a Suzanne Brockman fan too.

  12. Thanks, Sarah for sharing your first-hand knowledge in this super informative post.