Recap: Inside the book business with Sam Kaas

Sam Kaas, Events Manager for Third Place Books (TPB), gave his audience of SinC members and friends invaluable insights into the contemporary book business at the May 9th meeting. Over the past year, Puget Sound SinC has developed a close relationship with TPB, so it was especially interesting to learn more about them.

The book business, Sam said, is a “low-margin game” with many factors that have to be balanced for success. Choosing the right books to sell is key. TPB staff still hold meetings with publishers’ sales reps to review a season’s new books, but they also do much of their ordering from online catalogs.

At TPB, staff are assigned to monitor shelves in specific sections, so they know these books well – and know how they are selling. Typically, a book must sell at least one copy in three out of every four quarters of the year for it to merit its place on the shelf.

In addition, Sam emphasized that the staff pay close attention to what books are special-ordered or requested by customers, and may order a new title, increase the number of copies of a book already stocked, or restock an older one.

The ability to return unsold books to the publisher is central to the retail book business. Today there are five conglomerates – the “Big Five” publishers – controlling most of the business, with Penguin Random House alone representing 60%. One advantage of this, from the bookstore’s perspective, is that books returned to PRH generate credits that the store can use to buy other titles from any of their imprints. This illustrates why it is harder for small presses to be competitive; their limited number of titles gives the store fewer options for using any credits.   

Regarding trends in the mystery field, Sam reported that psychological suspense, unreliable narrators, multiple narratives, and domestic settings are doing well. But true crime or “what feels like it,” oral history, and dialogue-driven books are “exploding.” Titles with the word “girl” in them (as in Girl on the Train) also continue to be popular.

His advice to SinC writers was to “Use these tropes to your advantage.”

As a 20-year-old independent bookstore with branches in Lake Forest Park, Ravenna, and Seward Park, Third Place Books is very active in our community and committed to supporting local writers. While most books are ordered through publishers, TPB does take books on consignment and Sam explained how that system works

As Events Manager, Sam organizes some 600 author events a year, which are held not only at the bookstores, but also at Town Hall, the Seattle Public Library, and other venues. Authors interested in having an event are welcome to contact him, and he gave us some excellent tips for a successful event.