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|Posted on Wednesday, December 31, 2003 - 06:18 pm: ||
This was in the Wall Street Journal. This woman buys for over 850 stores. Authors who visit the boards what has your experience been like with the big chains?
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LEISURE & ARTS
This Buyer of Fiction Has Real Clout
Meet the woman who decides what Barnes & Noble stocks.
BY JOANNE KAUFMAN
Thursday, December 18, 2003 12:01 a.m.
NEW YORK--Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble, once broke up with a boyfriend who didn't share her enthusiasm for "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Undoubtedly, there were other issues (perhaps the callow fellow was similarly unmoved by his girlfriend's passion for "To Kill a Mockingbird"). When it came to books, Ms. Hensley meant business.
She wields influence on a far larger scale now, deciding just which novels the behemoth book chain stocks. "I'm looking for work that sings off the page," she says simply. "But I don't like the terms literary and commercial fiction, because if you love a book you love it whether it's Marcel Proust or Terry McMillan."
How many copies will be bought--of Proust, McMillan, John Grisham, Jonathan Franzen and Ms. Hensley's favorite, Barbara Kingsolver--how they'll be apportioned among the 652 Barnes & Noble branches and 200 B. Dalton Booksellers in her fiefdom, how they'll be placed and positioned--this is all part of the gig. "There are some books that I've gone through three, four, five revisions of how I'm thinking about them," says Ms. Hensley, 48. Concern that she's decided wrong sometimes keeps her up at night. Concern that she's decided wrong keeps publishers up as well.
"Do you have any idea how much power this woman has?" an executive from a major house who requested anonymity asked in hushed tones. "If she doesn't like a book, that's it," moaned a novelist who also requested anonymity because she has a book coming out this spring.
But like a certain subset of heavy hitters, Ms. Hensley, a bespectacled blonde with a ready laugh and a self-declared fondness for quirky books, plays down--even dismisses--the notion that she is anything but a bit player. Depending on one's point of view, this is either charmingly self-effacing or maddeningly disingenuous.
"I'm just one person," she says several times during an interview in her appropriately cluttered office on lower Fifth Avenue. "I'm just one person and I'm not infallible. The fact of it is if I read something I don't like it's just me not liking it, not the world not liking it. Any house that thinks I'm wrong can meet with my boss." For the record, Ms. Hensley can be swayed by a strong marketing plan, a confirmed booking of an author on "Oprah" or "Today" or a publisher's relentless faith in a book. "You can't downplay a publisher's enthusiasm," she acknowledges, "but make the eye contact and figure out if it's real." Further for the record, she cannot be swayed by expensive gifts or cheap talk. If you're in doubt, just ask her husband. "He says I'm the hardest person on earth to flatter."
In her 19 years on the job, Ms. Hensley has become accustomed to certain questions. "Say, how many books do you read a week anyway?" is a popular one. The answer? At least two, and as many as six. "I have a long train ride and I'm a lousy housekeeper, so I have a lot of time on my hands," she says.
Then there's, "Hey, read anything good lately?" Right now, Ms. Hensley is bullish on Sarah MacDonald's "Holy Cow," which she describes as travelogue of India, and two first novels, "Book of Ralph" by John McNally and "Like the Red Panda" by Andrea Seigel.
Those of a more philosophical turn want to know whether you can, indeed, judge a book by its cover. "My high-school English teacher would say absolutely not, but I now know better," says Ms. Hensley. "I can never remember if it's .26 seconds or .026, but that's how long a customer has to decide to pick up a book. I'm trying to suck up every sale off the street, and if the jacket's not quite right it makes it a harder thing to do."
Experience and necessity--so many books, so little time--have made Ms. Hensley quick on the draw. "I give everything 50 to 100 pages. "You can usually tell. If it's a thriller and no one is murdered within the first 100 pages, that's not really going to work."
Ms. Hensley read a hunk of Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" when it was sneaked over to her in manuscript and "I knew immediately it was going to be the best book ever. I think we bought up the whole printing." She saw phenom written all over Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," but missed the boat, she says on "Summer Sisters," by Judy Blume, a novelist known chiefly as the best-selling Boswell of the pre-teen set. "I was very snippy and said 'the people who read Judy Blume don't grow up to read books. They grow up to read magazines,'" recalls Ms. Hensley, who quickly did course correction the day the book hit the stores and was snatched up by eager readers.
"There are times Sessalee won't like a book and she'll buy it modestly despite our pleas to put more out, but she is the first person to admit she's wrong and to say 'please give me more,' " says Patricia Johnson, executive vice president of Knopf. "The best thing about Sessalee is that she really reads and she knows what the market wants."
The eldest of three, Ms. Hensley grew up in Baton Rouge, where her father was a professor of entomology at LSU and her mother was an omnivorous reader. She began selling books part time for B. Dalton while a college student and worked her way up to store manager, subsequently joining Book Stop as an assistant book buyer and, when the chain was bought up by Barnes & Noble, signing on as a buyer.
It's a week and a half before Christmas but Ms. Hensley is already looking to the spring, when her stores will be highlighting what she sees as the new trends in her field: urban African-American fiction and historical fiction. "This is very irreverent, but we also have the spring of death," she says. "I have a lot of titles where one character dies and another is left to pick up the pieces. And they're all funny."
Ms. Hensley is hoping readers agree. "I used to be a much snootier reader," she admits, " but I'm buying for a lot of different stores and a lot of different readers, so I have to be far more egalitarian. I have to be able to say 'this is a really great thriller. It's not Barbara Kingsolver, but it's a really great thriller.' "
Ms. Kaufman last wrote for the Journal on Pascal Dangin.
Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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