Published Podcast Episode 14 | Interview with Books-a-Million Buyer Margaret Terwey about Book Sales & Distribution

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We have a great episode for you today, featuring an interview with Margaret Terwey, Senior Buyer at Books-A-Million. We'll be talking about brick-and-mortar bookstore distribution and what book buyers are looking for. Listen to the full episode below or check out the highlights below. 

1:50 Book sales and distribution can be complicated from the outside, especially the timeline. Can you explain why the timeline is set up the way it is? 

  • I buy in 3 seasons: Summer, Fall, and Winter/Spring.
  • I buy for Summer titles (on sale May-August) in January and February. 
  • Fall is our biggest season, with books going on sale September-January, but I buy them from April-June. 
  • Winter/Spring includes books going on sale February-May, and I buy for that season in August-September. 
  • It may seem like a really long lead time, but that 4-6 months is required to create a merchandising and marketing plan that are competitive for our stores. In this time, the merchandising department, operations department, and marketing department will meet several times to discuss trends we'll focus on or how to be competitive with the previous year. When there isn't a Harry Potter or a coloring book trend happening, we have to brainstorm to create that next big book or next trend. 

5:10 How do you decide who buys what kind of book? Do you have experts in certain genres? 

  • We are lucky to have long-time buyers. We have 10 book buyers total, and each one of those buyers is an expert on the categories assigned to them. 
  • Sometimes the buyer doesn't agree with the categorization of the book assigned by the publisher, so they may hand off the book to another buyer. It depends quite a bit on where the likely reader will try to find the book. 
  • I manage about 25,000 titles in fiction, new age, poetry, and audiobooks. 

7:50 Why are authors not able to pitch book buyers directly? 

  • The sheer amount of books that we're buying and selling doesn't allow us enough time in our schedules as buyers to receive direct pitches from authors. 
  • We also don't buy from authors because we have vendor contracts in place with publishers and distributors that allow our shipping, receiving, and invoicing processes to flow smoothly. So we rely on the publishers and distributors to pitch the books for the authors. 
  • Authors are welcome to pitch their books to their local Books-A-Million bookstore, and if they're interested, they will pass the book along to a buyer. 
  • That said, self-published books are a tough sell because they're often a short discount (lower discount than a publisher would offer, 48-55%) and non-returnable.

10:00 When you're listening to publisher pitches, what makes your ears perk up? What makes you excited about a book? 

  • If Reese Witherspoon has already read the book and loved it, that's a huge plus.
  • If the book was won at auction (a bidding war among editors), then I want that book, too.
  • So many books now are driven by social media. I want to know what their social media presence is—how many followers do they have, are they active with their posts, will they link to Books-A-Million. The amount of followers I look for varies book to book and category to category. But for Twitter, we look often for several hundred thousand followers or numbers that are starting to climb.

12:20 Do you judge a book by its cover? 

  • Absolutely. If the cover immediately draws my attention and creates the suggestion of a story that I need to learn more about, I'm more likely to buy enough to allow that cover to be seen in our stores. I don't want to just buy 1-2 copies that would be spine-out on a shelf. I want the cover to be seen. 
  • The cover may spark my interest, but it does come down to the writing to keep my interested. 
  • Book covers that look amateurish are ones that I won't bring in. It's hard to say what makes a bad book cover, but you know it when you see it. 

14:30 When you see an issue with a pitch, do you give that feedback to the publisher in the hopes that they'll change it? 

  • We absolutely talk about it during the buying session. I give my opinions, and the sales reps are really good about bringing those back to the publisher. Sometimes changes are made and sometimes we live with the book as-is. 

15:20 Can you speak about the importance of author publicity efforts when it comes to your decision to buy a book or not? 

  • Social media does play a large role in deciding whether or not to bring a book into the store. 
  • TV and radio interviews also create interest. 
  • Readers still love to meet authors. So knowing that there's going to be a book tour that includes my stores is a nice selling point. 

20:10 How do you know if a book will be a bestseller? 

  • Some authors always hit our bestseller list, so we know that when they come out with a new book they'll hit it. 
  • We also decide to make some books bestsellers by putting them front-of-store and marketing and advertising the book to our customers, telling them that it's a book they'll want to read. 

21:50 How many books do you read each week? 

  • I read about 2 books per week. 
  • Some publishers have started sending "advanced listening copy" audiobooks that I can listen to on my commute, which I love. 
  • I'm always reading 2 kinds of books: debut fiction because I'm always looking for that book that we can "make" and authors that I know that I love. 

Founded in 1917 as a street corner newsstand in Florence, Alabama, Books-A-Million has grown to become the second largest book retailer in the nation. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, the company currently operates more than 260 stores in 32 states and the District of Columbia. It also sells on the internet at  

Margaret Terwey has been a buyer for Books-A-Million for twenty years, and has been the fiction buyer for sixteen years. Prior to being a BAM buyer, Margaret managed a Books-A-Million store in Port Richey, FL. Originally from Long Island, NY, she moved to the Tampa Bay area as a child and graduated from the University of South Florida. She lives in Birmingham, AL with her former Army Ranger husband. They have two adult children and three grandchildren who also love books!