A Good Local Bookseller Can Be an Author’s Best Friend: an interview with Margot Sage-El, proprietor of Watchung Booksellers

A Good Local Bookseller Can Be an Author’s Best Friend: an interview with Margot Sage-El, proprietor of Watchung Booksellers
Margot Sage-El, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ.
Margot Sage-El, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ.

I met Margot Sage-El, proprietor of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, when I was brand new to New Jersey, making my rounds in anticipation of the launch of my debut novel, The Thrall’s Tale. After an exhausting day visiting bookstores in the region, I was anxious to get home and collapse, when I made one final stop at Watchung.

There Margot sat at the register, smiled as I introduced myself (Not all the booksellers had done that.) and listened patiently as I made my book-pitch for the umpteenth time. Unlike anywhere else I had visited that day, she nodded and reached to open up her event calendar. “Great. Let’s see when we can get you in for a reading.”

I knew then and there that Margot was no ordinary bookseller.

At every book event I’ve attended in the Montclair area in the last many years, from celebrity readings in 1000 seat auditoriums to private book launches at an author’s home, Margot or one of her staff has been on site, selling author books, making meaningful conversation with readers and writers, and generally acting as literary anchor and ambassador in a vibrant writing community.

I recently sat down with Margot for a long-overdue lunch to talk about bookselling, publishing and the local literary world. Who else could give me a truly insightful, feet-on-the-ground view of what’s selling, how publishers, big and small, are playing the game, and what we lowly wordsmiths can do to find our place on the shelves?

JUDITH: Is Montclair a particularly good place to be an independent bookseller?

MARGOT: Yes. It’s kind of extraordinary. Montclair is a unique environment. There’s lot of literacy – writing, reading, talking about books. And it’s not only authors. There are media people, journalists. Watchung Booksellers has seventy local authors on our list. We’ve been collecting authors all along the way.

JUDITH: How did you get started in the bookselling business?

MARGOT: I was working in educational publishing – the production side, so not even the fun stuff. I’d always wanted to be in trade, advertising, something…. I was working an insane schedule with a lot of uncertainty. It was really the grunt work of the publishing business. Then I moved to Montclair and had kids. My children are biracial and I noticed that there were no children of color in any of the books at that time. This was the 1990s. I remember asking the people at the Chinaberry catalogue, “Why don’t you have any books with children of color.” Their response: “Why don’t you make your own catalogue?” So I said, “OK, I will.”

I sold picture books by mail order. These were pre-Amazon days. It was going pretty well. And then the local bookstore went up for sale. It was 1996 – nineteen years ago.

JUDITH: What did you want when you started Watchung Booksellers?

mse_watchungMARGOT: Those were the days of Barnes & Noble and Borders. They were big, impersonal corporations. I wanted our store to reflect the community. Some people felt that indie stores should be more literary and elite – the old model bookstore run by a grumpy intellectual. I wanted high literature, sure, but there were also moms just looking for a light read to escape the motherhood monotony. I wanted Watchung to be a community bookstore that had something for everyone. Everyone should feel welcome.

JUDITH: How do you choose which books get on your shelves? What goes into making those selections?

MARGOT: We ask, “Who will pick this up?” The marketing descriptions on the publishers’ lists are all laudatory. It’s hard to get an honest recommendation. Sometimes the reps will give us a hint: “It’s an odd book,” the rep might say, but then I might know someone who would really like it.

Because of our size, we have to be that much more careful. We have meetings with the publishers’ sales reps and are presented with their lists. The “Big 5” lists have thousands of books on them, and the rep goes through them with us. Some reps know our store and our tastes – somewhere between suburban and urban, willing to experiment a little with high literature, but also commercial. Beyond the must-have titles, we face a lot of split decisions. If it’s a book by an unknown author, we consider the subject, the book cover, where the author comes from, and the rep’s advice. Sometimes we don’t guess right. We only ordered one copy of Seabiscuit when it came out because I knew one of our customers went to the races. But then the book spoke to everyone!

Nonfiction is different – and easier because it’s about the topic and the author’s rep. The only thing I consider is if the topic seems to be worth a book format versus an in-depth magazine article.

The Kite Runner I remember enjoying. It is fiction, but it blended information with a story which made it stand out – especially at that time when we knew so little about Afghanistan.

Still, fiction is hardest. The appeal is in the elusive magic of discovery. We’re all looking for that magic. We want to feel a story powerfully again. A good book will blossom the emotions inside you.

JUDITH: How has bookselling changed in the last decade or so?

MARGOT: In the old days, Barnes & Noble and Borders were the big meanies. They targeted successful indie bookstores, while, in a way, democratizing bookselling by making so many titles available across the country. Barnes & Noble used to deep-order books that they knew they would be pushing, which meant there weren’t enough copies left for indie stores. The publishers learned from this and started reserving enough of these big-selling books so that we could have access to them. Amazon also has targeting tactics which we have to compensate for.

Publishers tend to flock toward different trends and often get burned – sort of like book cover trends. Remember the season when every book cover had shoes on it? E-books, for example: they were supposed to be “the answer,” but they weren’t. Except for genre books like romance or horror, e-books aren’t really making a big dent in the market.

Publishers for the last five years have published way too much, so it’s hard for them to support and promote everything. But they do look at the market. And publishers are paying attention to indies again. For example, they push literary fiction to indie sellers because we are better at handselling.

JUDITH: Do you have any observations for authors who are considering alternatives to traditional publishing like small presses and self-publishing?

MARGOT: Accessibility is really important. A publisher’s distribution is key. Booksellers need to have easy ordering and easy returns. When we reorder backlist from someone like Penguin-Random House, we can only stock enough to last a week, then we reorder. With smaller publishers, there’s often a minimum to reorder, so we have to wait before we can get more.

For example, Perseus distributes for about 400 small presses. And She Writes is a small publisher we’re paying attention to. They’re distributed by Ingram. If you go with a small publisher, check out their distribution. Interview them. How do booksellers know about their books? What do they do to promote their authors?

JUDITH: What about self-publishing? What is your relationship with these authors and their books? How do they factor into your offerings?

MARGOT: If an indie author we know and love comes in with their book, we’ll take it and support it unquestionably. But not if we don’t know them – even if they’re “local.” There was an author from East Rutherford, for example – it’s too far and we don’t have any relationship with them. Readers here aren’t family or friends, so who’s going to pick up and buy that book?

Indie authors need to know their target market, have a good marketing package, catalogue copy, book cover. (I’m a book cover snob. Perseus’ covers are gorgeous.) Most of those books look self-published when I put them on the table. And I’m not even getting into editorial content. Indie authors need to work with editors. It can’t be someone’s daughter who is a paralegal, which an indie author told me once.

It’s hard. We’re asked to read thousands of books. We spent hours going through catalogues, deciding which books to choose and figuring out the right number that we think will sell to our community. When an indie author begs us to read their book, we can’t read them all. And they can’t get insulted if a bookseller says their customers don’t look for or buy those books. We’re vetting for our customers.

JUDITH: What about promotion – what you do, the publishers, and what authors can do for themselves?

MARGOT: We have our staff picks, which we stand behind and promote wholeheartedly.

Publishers these days only entertain author events where they expect to sell 1500 books. For them, it’s not about building an audience. It used to be that a book event with two people could grow to 15 people next time and then 50, and so on.

I’m less inclined to take a chance if there’s little promotion on the publisher’s side unless there’s a topic or author connection.

Fiction is hardest. The publishers who present at BEA are impassioned. But is it just that one book? They have thirty on their list! And sometimes a book’s editor is fired in the middle of the publishing process and the book is “orphaned.” They still publish it, but they don’t do anything for it. The person who really believed in that book is gone.

Still, it’s worthwhile for authors to visit stores to help educate the booksellers and their staff about your book. It really does help with handselling.

JUDITH: We hear a lot about “building an author platform” when we want to be published or gain a readership. How does an author’s platform affect your selections?

MARGOT: We hear a lot about platform, too, especially from the sales reps. “So-and-so is a YouTube sensation!” You do have to have some kind of public presence – a blog, Facebook…. People need to know you and love you. But for us, platform must be relevant to the community. Sometimes it works, but not all platforms translate into other media.

JUDITH: What can authors do to give their books – traditional or self-pubbed – their best shot?

Margot Sage-El with Christina Baker Kline, author of the bestselling novel, Orphan Train.
Margot Sage-El with bestselling author, Christina Baker Kline

MARGOT: It’s such an intricate world. A lot happens through word-of-mouth in publishing. At BEA, someone might be whispering to a rep and suddenly there’s a lot of buzz.

Timing is also an issue. A whole bunch of book releases happened on 9/11. They all failed because no one was paying attention. And Liz Egan’s book, A Window Opens, is about a working mom’s dilemmas, but it got a big boost because of the Amazon connection.

Lisa Genova self-published her first book on Alzheimer’s and marketed it to a lot of Alzheimer’s support groups in Boston, where she was from. She sold about 2000 copies on her own. Publishers look at that.

Christina Baker Kline had all those orphan train groups. They were a ready audience and they helped spread the word. She didn’t say no to a single book group request. And she worked with us for her sales at events so that her numbers would feed back to BookScan. It was good for everyone. But she really worked hard to get that book out there.

Authors have to realize that bookselling is a spiral: family and friends buy first. Then special interests. Hopefully the spiral will expand, but not without busting your ass. Authors have to understand that bookselling is a business and booksellers have to be a business to support all this.

JUDITH: Where do you see the “best books” coming from these days?

MARGOT: We read a lot. Every six books that I read, maybe one I pass on to others. Everyone at the store has different tastes and we know each other’s tastes which helps us make recommendations.

Right now, short stories are making an impact. Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, and David Sedaris anchored the form and they sell – not in hardcover, but we do take more collections. Maybe it’s our shorter attention spans.

Historical fiction has quieted down, as has chick-lit, which we used to keep in a separate section. It looked really odd to have all those pink covers sitting right next to Toni Morrison’s Sula.

One industry professional came in a while back and said, “I hope it’s not a one book summer.” She meant seasons of 50 Shades of Grey or the summer that everyone was only reading Gone Girl and The Hunger Games. Those books kept our doors open, which was great. But it’s more satisfying when different books take off for different reasons.

We’re searching, just as readers are. We want a good book also.

JUDITH: Thanks, Margot, for all your valuable insights. Everyone, go over to Watchung Booksellers and ask for a recommendation!

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