Bookselling with Louise Ryan

Louise Ryan has been working in the Melbourne Publishing industry for 32 years, ten years at Readings and 22 in publishing houses Allen & Unwin and Penguin Random House. A recent recipient of the George Robertson Award for distinguished service in the publishing industry, she is now the manager of Readings flagship Carlton store. She serves on the Board of Melbourne Writers Festival, and is the co-author of Twins: A Practical and Emotional Guide to Parenting Twins.

Bookselling with Louise Ryan


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Lou.

LOU: Hi, Astrid. Lovely to be here.

ASTRID: Now, today is very exciting for me. Normally on The Garret, we talk to writers of any style or genre. Today we go into absolutely pick your brain about book selling. Before we get into the details of how booksellers sell books and what works for that part of the industry, can I get you to give us a brief insight into your previous career? Because not only are you a bookseller, you used to work for one of the large multinational publishing houses.

LOU: I did. I spent 16 years at Penguin Random House and only left there eight or nine months ago. I had a couple of months off and have come back to book selling. I've worked in book selling and publishing, just going what I call jumping the counter for 30 years back and forth, publishing, book selling, publishing, book selling, and every book selling experience I've had has been at Readings. So I keep going back and it's recidivism, just absolutely.

ASTRID: Independent bookstores in Australia are some of the most beautiful things. Lou, I don't know if I've told you before, but one of my first real jobs was actually book selling. I spent my first year out of school at Brays Books, which is now Roaring Stories in Balmain in Sydney, and I think I learnt the most about reading and writing and how readers interact with the world in that year in my life. Forget all the study and everything else I've done, I think that experience of selling books was one of the most valuable things that I had ever done. You have obviously been doing that for many, many years, so let's kind of start at the beginning. This is all for the benefit of writers and people who want to be published so they can understand what happens to their work before it actually gets into the hands of somebody who is going to read their work. How does Readings choose what it brings into the store?

LOU: We have a person who I would consider the best book buyer in the country, Alison Huber. Alison has been working Readings for 18 years and her role there, now and for the past probably six or so years, has been basically to curate a collection of books for our customers. I think in my 16 years away, there were a few things that I'd forgotten and one of them is how deeply thoughtful the curated collection is, how well the staff there know their customers and headed up by Alison but she hasn't team of buyers, and how well they can choose, market, publicise, have authors in, have events, do all of that. So it's actually hard to know which comes first. It's a bit chicken and egg with whether the customers or the store and its choices come first. I guess after the many, many years now, it's a real blend of both.

ASTRID: I would imagine it is a blend of both. Can we just interrogate for a minute that role of the book buyer who gets lists from all the different publishers and then chooses what to bring into Readings? Obviously it is based on a knowledge of the customer who walks into any of the Readings stores or is familiar with Readings and buys online. Readings is a business. Readings does need to stay in business and employee its stuff. So there are commercial considerations in terms of what is bought, but how does Readings, as the company, as the beloved institution, choose how many books to buy of an amazingly successful author that everybody knows will sell? How does Readings choose whether to take a risk and actually devote shelf space to a new author or a genre that maybe hasn't sold but the projections are that it will sell? Can you talk us through some of those harder to answer questions?

LOU: The big thing is, and from a publishing perspective, the best thing is to get people to read the books. So, so many books are published. So many books are published. How do you get a book seller to take notice of a book? We very much at Readings read the local authors. It sort of spreads out from there. We have the Readings prize where everyone in store reads all of the books that are up for that prize, that are eligible for that prize. So there's very much a focus on that. We also read the magazines coming in from internationally and get a lot of information about what's going on there. A lot of it is actually what the publishers put in your face. They've read them first. They've got a narrower kind of pool of books to pull from then we have.

We've got every publisher to look at their books and there's not enough of us to read everything at all. So they need to point us in the right direction with their books as well. So in terms of an Australian author, are you wondering what an Australian author... what their opportunities, I guess, are like when they have got their book published?

ASTRID: Absolutely. So if there is an author out there who has their book coming out in three months and they know that the first couple of weeks of a book being on sale tend to set the tone. There are exceptions, but the first couple of weeks are the important time to make sure your book is selling so bookstores make the choice to keep stocking it. Right? So what would an author need to understand in order to make the most of that time? I guess the elephant in the room for all of us these days is COVID. I do understand that the immediacy has changed, but can you give us the all-time answer and then maybe we'll unpack what has changed because of COVID? But as a general rule, what does an alternate to understand when their book is going into a bookstore? How can they help their own sales or perhaps help their relationship with the booksellers who might be spruiking their book?

LOU: This actually goes back to my job as the publishing manager at Penguin Random House because my job there really was having relationships with authors and teaching them how to go about making people take notice of their books. Look, I think personally it is all very much about genuine relationships. We would often visit bookstores with a copy of the book, have a chat, the author would talk to a book seller about what they'd written, why they'd written it, a bit of background. You would just find that you might be in sort of Matilda's Bookshop in Adelaide, and there'd be a spark between the two people. So suddenly that book would be falling into their newsletter and getting front of store.

Honestly, with the books that are going into independent bookstores, it is absolutely about relationships and word of mouth. So they're the two things. I think there's a danger in authors being too pushy. I think they need to be directed by their publicist or their publisher in how they go about making those relationships. Sending a proof copy of a book with a note can be lovely or a card. You see people sending something that's wrapped nicely with a little message on it, booksellers really to take that sort of stuff seriously, that sort of personal approach.

ASTRID: Can you talk to me about in-store marketing? I mean, I live near Readings Carlton, which is the flagship of the Readings network, and everybody notices when you change your window display. But in-store marketing is more than the window display. It is, of course, where the books are stacked, if they're big stacks, little stacks, face out on the shelf, how many different places in a bookstore you can find a particular work. Talk me through almost the ecosystem that is a living, breathing bookstore that has books moving around all the time.

LOU: I think the longest possible amount of time you can get it up at the front of a bookstore is ... probably books are in bookstores for three months and then they've got to prove themselves, but those personal connections do disrupt that thought. They do change that. At Readings, we have a non-fiction and fiction side of the store when you walk in. There'll be books that we've ordered hundreds of that are in those stacks there. There'll be books that are in actual piles or the hundreds, and they're in our newsletter as well. Our newsletter's actually enormous. It's enormous influence. It reaches so many people and people are constantly calling or coming in speaking about things that have been reviewed. All the reviews in there are by staff, so it is very genuine. There's no money exchanged for any of the reviews in there, or what's chosen to be promoted is chosen purely on merit, local, often staff.

We have so many staff who've written books. It's quite lovely. We do have ads in the Readings monthly that are paid for, but they're very clearly ads. So you walk into the store. Sorry, Astrid, going back to what you asked, you walk into the store and there's fiction on one side, nonfiction on the other, hundreds and hundreds of copies of things. You'll notice it's very different from walking into a big W store where you might sort of see 10 books and there are so, so, so many copies of each of those 10 titles. We try and have a good selection. Then we've got our new release walls, which are books that we may have ordered. They're not in the piles. They're sort of less, maybe we've ordered 50 or whatever of each of those, and then there are books that are brand new that we ordered sort of five and 10 copies of that just go straight to their section on the shelf and have to do their own hard work.

At the moment, we have a section up for the Readings prizes, which has got the six shortlisted books and we're selling those in pacts. We judge in store, but also our customers can judge which they think that should win. We have lots and lots... staff are constantly choosing their favourite books and writing a sentence, literally a sentence or three words, or even just the words, ‘You must read this’, on it and clicking them up next to their favourite books. That is extraordinary how well that works.

ASTRID: I'm fascinated to hear that the reviews or the little notes saying, ‘Read this’, from the staff at Readings do sell books. Back in the day, I wrote those myself and every bookseller has kind of a mental list of books that they go to when they find someone who is looking for a book for kids or a book for someone who doesn't read or a book for someone who has experienced grief. Individual books that has had those things, but I'm really interested in how a writer, because predominantly writers listen to this podcast, how a writer could somehow get their work written up by a bookseller. Now, I know you mentioned before, it's sending a proof copy of your work wrapped nicely or with a handwritten card to kind of get the attention of the readers. Maybe if I flip my own question, is there anything that really turns off a bookseller apart from being pushy? Is there anything that would cause someone to be like, ‘No, I'm not going to be the one to sell this book’.

LOU: Oh, well, obviously certain sort of styles and plots and looks of things appeal to different people, but honestly, booksellers love meeting authors. They love it when they pop in and say that they're an author. I think what is wonderful from an author's perspective is that if they do understand the number of books that are published and are actually appreciative of the job that's done in terms of people reading so, so very much, that they're in great hands, in a lot of ways it's a really... what would you say? An industry where it's just evolved and we don't go looking for someone who reads a certain number of books or who does a certain type of thing. It's just very much there are people who are just booksellers and they read broadly and they recommend beautifully and they sort of know how to react with their customers, being pushy is probably the only ... or not understanding that yours is not the only book out there.

‘I can't say why you haven't read it. Why haven't you sold more than that? It's because it's not up the front’, and not understanding that there's so many books to go up the front and we would love to put everything up the front. Yeah, understanding, I guess, how hard booksellers work for so little money and that there's a lot out there. Most authors come in and are charming and grateful and they're just so glad that this thing that they've worked on and looked after for so many years is actually in people's hands and people are bothering to stock it, and when booksellers have read their books, it's extraordinary.

ASTRID: So far our discussion, I think, has mostly implied that the books that are on sale in Readings have been published by a traditional publisher. Whether small or large a multi-national, it's come from a publishing house. Does Readings ever stock anything that is self-published? I imagine the answer is mostly no, but if there is an exception, what makes that exception?

LOU: Well, yes, we do self-publish stuff. Absolutely. Absolutely. We have a consignment buyer, so it's all bought on consignment. It is very, very hard to sell fiction on consignment. Really tough. I wouldn't recommend publishing that way. We've had many, many books that have come through and I haven't been there for a long time, but I have had them sent to me from people at Readings where a book is selling really, really well at Readings and so they recommend a publisher for it. The consignment buyer there says, ‘Look, we're selling so many. You could do really well with this and I'm happy to write a letter or send it to a publisher’. Nonfiction, it might be books about writing. It might be a cookbook. We've had an African cookbook that's done really well for us that should be published more broadly. Copywriting book that did really well.

ASTRID: I like that. I like that happy news, Lou.

LOU: Can I just also say, Astrid, poetry. Local poets, I mean, at least poetry fiction, because I did say that we don't really have any luck with fiction that is on consignment and self-published. But poetry is the whole other world. We've just doubled up poetry section. Australian poetry is just really wonderful and doing well and my plan is to have poetry nights at Readings when the world is open again.

ASTRID: Now that is an exciting plan, Lou. Moving from something exciting to something perhaps a little bit more depressing, but I do feel that this is a really important part of book selling that writers need to understand. What happens to a book, and I mean the physical books, if they don't sell?

LOU: Do you really want to know?

ASTRID: I feel I have to ask.

LOU: Okay. So anything that is just a normal paperback that doesn't sell is usually... or actually it cannot sell out of the warehouse, firstly, it cannot go to a bookstore in the first place. So say a company, a publishing company, prints 5,000 copies of a book that they think will sell 5,000 plus, those books can be printed and go into a warehouse and the orders come in and maybe 4,000 of them go out. There's a thousand sitting there basically costing money, taking up space. They can be sold off cheaply, or if there's a history of the book not actually working that well anyway, they'll just be pulped, which means that basically the paper is recycled and becomes someone else's book or a cardboard box.

So, when a bookstore orders 50 copies of a book and after three months has only sold three of them, then in our case, we would probably need to send 45 copies back. It's called sale or return, the deal that booksellers have with their publishers. So if you don't spell it, you return it to the publisher and then generally speaking, the amount of work to sort things out and put them back on a shelf is too great and they're pulped, unless it's sort of $100 art or gardening book.

ASTRID: That's when authors get the choice of buying back their own books and maybe trying to sell it themselves. Is that correct?

LOU: They would only do that at around that couple of hundred copies mark. Generally speaking, authors don't take thousands of copies back.

ASTRID: It'd be too expensive, and they'd have nowhere to put them. I did feel like that needed to be asked. Thank you, Lou. Now, COVID. We all know that retail, including book selling has been impacted in the last 18 months. Remembering the time before COVID, can you explain the importance of in-store events and book launches to the actual bookstore and then explain what has happened since that has been no longer the legal thing?

LOU: Okay. I've only been back at Readings during COVID, but pre-COVID we had plenty of launches at different bookstores and with Reading's doing, I guess, the bulk of them. I think a launch is such an important thing for an author. Author's work alone, they have such a sort of isolated experience in writing their books and they often talk about it being like having a baby. Suddenly it happens and it's out there in the world. I don't know. Personally, I think that's really, really important to celebrate something that's been worked on for so long with your friends and your family and have party. That's something that just vanished. But I mean, it's been so much worse than just not having that party at the end of the book. There are plenty of books that have been published into COVID that have not had any opportunity.

Basically, the books that have sold these last two years, the books that have sold well are books by repeat authors. I think people go online to order or ring their bookstore to order and they buy what they know. It's been very hard to break anything out, so those who have written their first, second, or even third novel, and certainly in the sort of books that we sell in the sort of more independent bookstore market, it's just been so tough for them.

ASTRID: So, book launches, as they used to exist, were obviously a wonderful thing for the authors. It's how the authors not only had their celebration, but also were able to get their name out there because a bookstore would be advertising their name and their title and, ‘Come and have a wine and listen to this author talk’. Did in-store events drive sales?

LOU: Absolutely. Because what can happen if you've got enough friends and family and 200 of them come along and buy a book for themselves and one for someone else they know, and then your mom actually buys eight copies and your dad buys 10 and your sister buys another five, you can end up having 300 books sold, which really makes it look great on our BookScan sales for the week and other book sellers all look at BookScan to see what's been selling. Also, that just has a word of mouth and a buzz about it because so often books are great, but it's about getting people to read them. It's about getting them into people's hands that is actually the issue. I think there's so many great books that just the buzz doesn't happen. So creating that buzz is the challenge, and how many buzzers can you have each month?

ASTRID: Not that many, although it'd be lovely if we could get more. Can we just go back to BookScan? BookScan is the software that is used in Australia. The general public doesn't have access to BookScan. Obviously publishers and bookstores do. Can you just explain for the writers listening what they need to know about BookScan?

LOU: BookScan measures how many copies of your book sold in a week. So it basically takes all the information through the tills of the booksellers of Australia. I think it covers off about 80 per cent of the places that book sell, and then it weights the rest. It sort of takes a weight from... not all independents are in there. It measures from... there's a top 5,000, every week of books that have sold that week, and so the top one... I mean, Sally Rooney will be number one this week. Absolutely. Without a doubt. She'll be the top book and then everyone else will fall in under that. So publishers look at BookScan very, very, very closely. They look at their competitors very, very closely. I think booksellers look at the BookScan list to see if they're missing out on anything really. Or if they've got something up the back that should be up the front.

ASTRID: Now, forgive my ignorant question, but top 5,000 in Australia, I'm going to take a guess here, but once we're getting to like book 4,561, I mean that might be one on two copies. Is that correct?

LOU: Oh, it depends if it's Christmas, it might not, but yeah.

ASTRID: All right. So in terms of understanding the kind of calendar for book sales, obviously Christmas is important. I'm going to guess that Mother's Day and Father's Day are really important too. What does the general calendar look like, assuming that January is when all the returns come and it's a really slow month?

LOU: January actually isn't... I mean, I'm not sure if I was sort of a bit on my own, but I always loved publishing to January. It's a good time for a certain type of book. It's a great time for fiction. I think it's a great time for breaking out new fiction and we had a bit of success doing that. It is a time when people are spending their vouchers in stores. So they're in there. It's actually not a... I would say more returns happen in February and that's a bit more of a sort of low action time. I know it also depends. I mean, if you're in a bookstore in... I don't know. Where does everyone go in summer? Queenscliff, Torquay, Lorne, people buy massive amount of books in January. If you're in a bookstore in Noosa, you're going to do incredibly well in the winter. So yeah, it does vary around the traps. I think publishers can be a little bit conservative in just publishing into Mother's Day, Father's Day and Christmas because, yeah, we need to publish year around. No one's going to do it, though.

ASTRID: I've been reading throughout the last 18 months, clearly, and I have done click and collect at my local bookstores, including Readings. That has been a genuinely beautiful experience for me as a reader. I'd like to know what it's like for the bookstores.

LOU: Oh no, you don't.

ASTRID: Tell me why.

LOU: We had the start of this lockdown nine lines and five staff. The noise of the phones ringing off the hook, the frustration of customers... and we've managed to slowly get to a better place with all this. But honestly it was really overwhelming. I don't know if you've worked in a call centre, or if your listeners have. God bless them if they have. Honestly, hats off, it is just none of the pleasures of book selling. It's just call after call after call. I think I measured that most days we were doing a call each every two minutes, and you can imagine that just being thrown into this with no warning, suddenly having to close the doors and do it this way and try and figure out a way to do it, we didn't have any sort of system in place. It's gone to a point where we will have a number of staff who can have a computer and a phone in front of them and an EFTPOS machine. So that's six.

So now we've only got six lines ringing and we've made it a lot easier, but gee, it was just noise and chaos, people falling over each other, piles of books coming in and throwing everything everywhere. Because, of course, you're not making enough money to staff the place properly and it's just tough. It's not fun.

ASTRID: I don't imagine it was fun. I would like to give a personal thanks for bookstores remaining open in some way, shape or form through this time. As we look forward and lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne will end and there will be some form of retail that we all are more familiar with face-to-face coming again soon, I obviously would encourage everybody to read and buy books as much as possible, but going back to the audience of The Garret and writers, is there anything that writers can be doing in order to help their local bookstores, but also help their own work or the work that they hope to be publishing in the near future?

LOU: Well, we want to do something for them. For writers of Melbourne, at least, for anyone who's published into this two years, we want to actually have a party and sell all their books and promote them and try and make up for some of the ground that they did lose during that time. I don't know. That's a tough one. Is the time just lost? Do we just sort of pull up our boots and start? I mean, of course I'm always going to say support your local bookstores, your local independent bookstores, shop there, talk to your friends and family about that side of things and just keep independent bookstores in business because publishing will become so boring if we only have the big guys.

ASTRID: It will be desperately boring and that is something that we all need to work to ensure we avoid. Lou, I have had so much fun talking to you. Thank you so much.

LOU: Thanks, Astrid. It's lovely to be here and I do love your Garret podcast. Keep it up, keep up the good work.

ASTRID: Absolutely.