Edward Ash-Milby is an avid home cook and the cookbooks buyer at Barnes & Noble, the largest book retailer in the United States. He’s been at it for nearly twenty years, so you could say he’s been at the forefront of all the major recent shifts in the publishing industry—from the emergence of e-books to online bookselling, the burgeoning blogosphere and the powerful rise of social media, plus the insatiable consumer demand for well-designed books on niche topics (there didn’t always used to be dedicated shelf space for gluten-free baking, molecular gastronomy, and whole animal butchery!).
He also is a supportor of self-published books; I owe a lot of my self-publishing success to Edward—he was the one responsible for placing my cookbook onto the physical (and digital) shelves of Barnes & Noble.
With so many cookbooks coming out, how does Edward choose which to stock on the physical and digital shelves of the largest book retailer in the United States? Read on to find out, along with the books he’s excited to feature in the coming months.
Tell us Edward, what is a typical day in your life as a Cookbooks Buyer?
1. Read up.
I arrive at the office and read up on what is being reported in the culinary/food/restaurant world. My favorite sources for info, trends, and just plain good writing are Food52 (!), Serious Eats, NPR’s The Salt, The New York Times’s Food section, The Los Angeles Times’s Food section, Eater, 101 Cookbooks, Skinnytaste, Smitten Kitchen, and My Name is Yeh. I also really love Bee Wilson’s column in The Telegraph.
2. Analyze what's responsible for sales spikes.
Then I analyze sales from a variety of ways to see how titles are doing across the country. I keep a calendar of which authors are doing media for any given day, concentrating on media that could create a sales impact on a national level. When I see sales from the previous day, I need to know what generated the customer demand. I’ll check my calendar to see if it was a morning show appearance that did it or front page editorial in Woman’s World or an author blog post, or some such.
A morning show appearance could generate a very quick hearty response but the demand tends to fade faster; a big mention on an author’s blog page might not generate the same kind of strong demand initially, but the effect on sales could last longer. This intelligence will allow me to make decisions regarding inventory.
3. Meet with publishers.
When I’m not actively analyzing data, a fun part of the job is meeting with publisher sales representatives and talking about books that are coming. There are too many books this fall that I’m excited about, but ones that stand out right now are: The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Come and Get It!; Smitten Kitchen Every Day; Munchies; State Bird Provisions; Autentico; Sweet; Meehan’s Bartender Manual; Valerie’s Home Cooking; and last but definitely not least, F*ck, That’s Delicious!
With new titles being released every day, what considerations do you and your team make when selecting inventory for your physical shelves?
When I choose a book, I take a number of factors into consideration: the most important one being the content itself. How is the author presenting his or her ideas? Who is the customer of the book? What are the sales, if any, of previous books by the author? What are sales of similar books on the subject? Then I look at the physical package itself: the jacket, the typography, the interior design. For a cookbook, food styling and photography are very important. How are the recipes written? Is there harmony between the recipes and the photography?
I also consider how and where the book will be marketed to customers. I carefully examine their publicity campaign, which gives me clues about where the greatest interest of the book might be. For example, marketing plans for books on Southern cuisine often include major market areas in the South, or books from an L.A. chef may focus a huge part of the publicity campaign on the West Coast.
How do you determine if a book is going to be successful on your physical shelves versus your digital shelves?
Sales of books online rise and fall based on what is being talked about in the media at that very moment, so we’re very in tune with consumer demand throughout the day. We can merchandise books online based on what’s happening right now. We do this in our stores, too, but it takes a little bit more coordination. That’s the fun part of bookselling to me: to find out what people are talking about and to give them the books to keep our customers current.
What trends do you foresee in the cookbook industry?
I see the cookbook industry adapting to technology and to social media in inventive ways to market all the talented chefs, cooks, and their books. Chefs and home cooks are more media-savvy than ever. They’re producing excellent content that’s being seen and/or read by millions of people. Bloggers in this space have been recognized by the industry as some of the strongest talent, with books hitting bestseller lists all around the country.
I love what I’m seeing from cookbook publishers that create amazing books with excellent photography, food styling, layout, design, and jacket treatments that stop customers in their tracks. They are works of art and serve authors and customers well.
Also, I think there’ll be no shortage of new voices in the cookbook industry.
Thanks for your insight, Edward!