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Thursday, October 05, 2006


The Myth of Bookstores

When I started working as an editor just over a year ago, I began to learn about the strange world of publication. In this series, I'll be your inside man on books. I'll get you the hook-up, the scoop, the hush-hush, the low-down. This is part five of a series where you'll learn the real deal.

Ages ago, in my last post of this series, I wrote that a writer needs “good sales into the stores, and good sales out of the stores to readers.” (And a special thanks to Andre for motivating me to write the next part of this series.)

The Book Selling Two-Step

I’m not talking about the cotton-eyed joe. I’m talking about the two steps of most traditional book sales.
1) Convince bookstores to buy your book.
2) Convince readers to buy your book.
I’ve heard authors complain about poor sales, blaming their agent, blaming their publisher’s puny marketing budget. Often, these books have decent sales into stores, but poor sales out of stores. J. A. Konrath talks about this a bit in Worry by Numbers. (His blog is amazing by the way, and I link to him throughout this post.)

I can tell you a typical "author's tale of woe" I've heard several times. The book gets better than average marketing: decent coop in some stores (front of store placement), shelf talkers (a little bit like the instant coupons that hang next to items in the grocery store), and even large display boxes in a few stores.

But the book still does’t sell. Because it isn’t very good.

I sympathize with authors who want to blame others when their book doesn’t sell. Heck, I’m one of those authors. (My books haven’t even sold to publishers!) Every book is like a baby. Many authors pour their lives into their books—and the books still end up being hideous progeny, to quote Mary Shelley.

By the way, she wrote Frankenstein when she was seventeen. How old are you? (Before you beat yourself up too much. Remember this: life doesn’t card you at the door.)

Back to the bookstores. As much trouble as authors have, bookstores have troubles of their own. Especially the independents. Just read the intro to Rebel Books. But they also have a few tricks up their sleeves to help them turn a profit. To really get this, we’ll need to look at the life of a book's printrun. (Completely oversimplified, of course.)

The Book Is Born

And there is great rejoicing. Lots of love and kisses from the publisher, the agent, the editor, the author’s friends and family. Everyone is happy. Someone buys the author balloons.

The Book Sells into Stores

If you’ve worked hard and had a bit of luck, Ingram and other distributors list your book. They don’t do this for free, of course. But a lot of the big box bookstores can’t even order your book if it isn’t listed by a distributor like Ingram (they have a cool site) or Baker and Taylor.

EITHER the Book Sells out of the Stores . . .

If you work a little bit harder and have a bit more luck, people buy your book in the stores. Perhaps your marketing is strong and effective. Perhaps you do a 6 month book signing tour. Whatever the reason, people buy your book. And someone else buys the author balloons again.

. . .OR the Book Gets Returned

Someone play taps.

Here’s the really weird thing about bookstores—I’m told they can return books to the publisher free of charge up to 90 days. What some bookstores do, then, is keep books for 89 days. They rotate significant chunks of their inventory at no cost to themselves except the effort and the postage.

Where Do Those Returns Go?

The best scenario is that they are stored in a warehouse somewhere. Then reshipped to some new bookstore where they will have a chance to meet more potential readers.

Often though these books are never stored. They ship to the publisher on large pallets all mixed up. Many mid-sized publishers find it too expensive to 1) sort the books or 2) store the books. So they sell the whole mixed pallet as remainders.

I can't be sad about remainders, though. Remainders fuel the wonderful discount book industry, like Half-Price Books here in Texas.

If no one buys the remainders, they become pulp. (Gulp.)

What Do You Do If Your Book Stalls at Some Point?

Well, if you’re like me, you’ve stalled at birth. Although I prefer to think of myself as an author who is still pregnant. My gestation period is just unusually long.

Other books don’t sell into stores. John Poch, a poet friend of mine published his first book with a small press, Orchises, then couldn’t get it listed with Ingram. As a result, I couldn’t order copies for my students. I had to call the small press on the phone and talk to the publisher himself! He was a cool guy, though, and he was thrilled that I bought 30 copies of one book.

Self-published authors like John Erickson often have this problem too. If you don’t know who John Erickson is, be sure to follow the link. He completely sidetracked the big distributors.

My poet friend did too, ultimately. His first book has all but sold out! He peddled Poems himself for several years—selling a few copies at every convention or speaking engagement he attended. Now, he has a new book that is just hard to believe. (A bit like that cotton-eyed joe flying lawn mower video.) I wish him the best of luck with it.

Of course, neither Erickson nor the poet would have succeeded if they didn’t have excellent books. If a book isn't excellent, all the marketing in the world won't make it sell much. If your book doesn’t sell, it becomes mush. Ashes to ashes. Pulp to pulp.

Three questions:
Is your book an excellent read?
Is your book an excellent product?
If you didn’t answer yes to both of those questions, what are you going to do?

HillCountryWriter Category: Publishing
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Wonderful post... in fact, I'll probably come back to read it again...

... so, have you had a sonogram? What's in there... a boy, or a girl?
l.l., it's still early. But I think it's a boy--the love child of Scott Derrickson and Flannery O'Connor. I'm just the surrogate. ;)
Ha! :)

Flannery is good stock, very good stock indeed...
Keep on gestating. I definitely want to bounce that baby on my knee.

Thanks for this post. The stories of John Poch and John Erickson are encouraging. I agree that they succeeded because their books were good.

However, it does seem to me from reading your post that while you must have a good product, the marketing muscle of a major publisher is necessary to get any kind of traction at all. And, that publishers are essentially looking for a product that will sell...prefereably in great volume.
Andre, I agree with you to a point. Certainly the five big publishers (all located on one block in NYC) are looking primarily for product that will sell in great volume.

But niche marketing is becoming much more important. While that's hardly free, it usually involves time investment rather than large sums of money.

Max Lucado is a good example. He uses mass marketing now, but in the beginning he was just constantly speaking at conferences, shaking hands with normal people, treating them with respect, signing their books, and showing genuine appreciation for his readership.

That kind of marketing is slow and hard, but seems to work better.

My point is not that writers shouldn't try to get a good marketing budget, but that they should take responsibility for marketing themselves and their work as much as possible.
Good point and great advice. The only thing I have to go by is my general observation and my experience in writing technically oriented books.

I agree that authors need to take responsibility for "marketing" their books. But authors also need a platform to promote their books - speaking engagements, book signings, etc...

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