Courtesy of Tattered Cover
How do you make sure your photo book stands out among all the other books in the store? We asked book buyers at five independent bookstores how they choose which new titles to buy, how they evaluate self-published photo books, and which photo books are popular in their market in order to better understand what sells well—and what doesn't. The first article in our series featured Ampersand in Portland, Oregon. Below, we speak with Cathy Langer, the book buyer at Tattered Cover in Denver.
When PDN contacted her in May, Cathy Langer, the buyer of art, gift and photography books for Tattered Cover, was preparing to buy books for the fall season, the busiest time of the year for photo-book sales. She was heading to Book Expo America in New York City to look at new books and dummies of forthcoming titles. When she returned, sales reps from large publishers and distributors like Ingram and D.A.P. would come to the store to show her their catalogues. In deciding what to stock, she looks for books that are likely to get good press, especially before the holidays. “I’m looking for things that I think are going to be in rundowns of gift ideas,” she says. To guess in May which books will be featured in holiday gift-buying guides, she relies on a publisher’s track record for generating publicity. “Some publishers are always getting good press,” she says.
As an example, she cites Dancers Among Us, photographer Jordan Matter’s first book. At last year’s Book Expo, Workman Publishing prominently featured the book of Matter’s whimsical photos of dancers pirouetting among New York City’s streets and landmarks. Knowing the power of “the Workman publicity machine,” she says, “I bought about ten copies to be face-out,” that is, displayed with the cover turned to the front of the shelves. The book was featured on TV talk shows and in newspaper articles. Langer says, “People came in looking it for it and if they didn’t know they were looking for it, it was a good impulse item.”
The store’s customer base is “not very adventurous,” she says. If the fame of the photographer, or good reviews, can’t draw curious customers to the store, then it needs to have another quality that might attract the attention of people browsing the shelves. These include a popular subject or high production values.
“The cover is important,” Langer says. “It has to look good and look interesting and be compelling.” She adds, “If there’s a foreword by somebody interesting, that catches the eye of a customer browsing in the store and legitimizes what they’re buying.” West of Last Chance, the book photographer Peter Brown and novelist Kent Haruf published in 2008 sold well, she says, because Haruf, who writes about the American West, has a following among Tattered Cover’s customers. An introductory essay written by someone well known in his or her field also helps Langer when she’s buying. “If so-and-so thinks this is great, that’s value added and it makes me more comfortable.”
A book that has sold several copies recently was Wet Men, which features black-and-white photos of seminude men, taken by François Rousseau; it was published by Universe, a division of Random House. “It was only $55, and it was a phenomenon.” Over the last holiday season, Andrew Zuckerman’s latest book, Flower, sold well, as had his previous books, Creature and Bird, all published by Chronicle Books. Once the holiday buying season had passed, Langer says she was keeping just one copy of Flower on the shelf. A book whose success took Langer by surprise was Tim Flach’s More Than Human, published by Abrams. “I’m usually an aggressive buyer,” meaning she’ll buy at least ten copies at once if she thinks a new title will be popular. “But that one I didn’t see. I should have ordered more.”
Langer says she prefers to order through distributors or from large publishers like Abrams, Rizzoli, Taschen, Chronicle Books and Phaidon, or university presses like Yale and the University of Texas Press, in part because she trusts the production quality of their books. She’s often contacted by photographers who are selling self-published books. “I’ll say, ‘This is beautiful, but we can’t handle the administrative challenge.’ We can’t open an account for one photographer.” The store does sell books on consignment for local photographers. These can sell well, she says, “if the price point is right and the production quality is high.” She adds, “They’re typically beautiful, touristy books” on Colorado themes.
When she agrees to carry a title in the store, whether from a sales rep or an individual photographer, she asks for and usually receives one free or discounted copy that can be used as a display copy and then disposed of. “Because books in bookstores get handled and they get dirty or shopworn,” she says. When thinking about how to make a book more marketable, Langer advises photographers and publishers to focus on the customer’s first impression. “Don’t clutter the cover. A single, strong image works.”
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