When I started my own publishing company, I had the chance to sit down with the owner of the largest science fiction publisher in Canada. We talked about a lot of the arcane details of publishing, but most of our discussion was on how to drive sales. His strongest bit of advice was this:
“You know what the best way is to sell your books? Have them on bookstore shelves.”
In recent years much has been made of the rise of Amazon, ebooks and online shopping in general, and the death of the bookstore has been heralded as imminent. The disappearance of Borders, a national US bookstore chain, in 2011 certainly seemed to support this claim. Indie bookstores across North America come and go, and while some shut down others open. The fundamentals of the market are shaky these days, however, and a couple of recent articles by the NY Times and Shelf Awareness provide further insights.
There are several national bookstore chains left in North America, with Barnes & Noble leading the American market and Chapters-Indigo dominating in Canada. Both of these chains have started offering a much wider variety of non-book products in their stores, to the point where a shopper often has to walk past several aisles of candles, throw pillows and picture frames just to get to the books. These non-book products are much more profitable to sell, and their increasing presence in your local B&N or Chapters suggests that book-selling is not as profitable a business as it used to be.
In my previous article I talked about how the financial risk of producing a new book rests entirely on the publisher. This is exacerbated by the ability of bookstores to return books. A bookstore will place its order for new titles and, eventually, pay for them – but if that title doesn’t sell off the bookstore shelf, the bookstore can return the book to the publisher and get full credit. Publishers and bookstores play a continuing, monthly dance of new sales versus old returns and the cost is ultimately carried by the publisher. It might not sound so bad, until you consider that the publisher has to pay to print enough books to fulfill initial orders – if 40% of those books are ultimately going to be returned, that’s a lot of “old” books sitting in the warehouse.
But surely the publisher could then just turn around and sell those returned books to someone else. No, generally, because bookstores aren’t interested in books that have already launched. A title will be pitched to bookstores about four months prior to launch – and that’s it. Unless it wins an award, gets made into a movie or has some other extraordinary post-launch success, it will never again be pitched to stores. It will go onto the publisher’s backlist to quietly die.
(As an author and a publisher I personally disagree with this mentality, but my purpose here is to reveal the no-BS truths of our industry.)
Another important aspect to be aware of in the book-selling industry is the role of the distributors. These are companies which effectively act as middlemen between stores and publishers. The people in bookstores are hard-working, harried folks and it is too time-consuming for them to meet with a sales rep from every single publisher. Publishers, likewise, are hard-working, harried folks who rarely have the resources to meet personally with every single bookstore. Distributors solve this problem. Each distributor will represent hundreds of publishers and will have regional sales reps who visit the stores to present titles en masse. Distributors will also warehouse the books for publishers and fulfill orders to bookstores. It’s an efficiency born of necessity that helps both publishers and stores.
But it doesn’t really help any individual title. Each publisher will have what is effectively a sales pitch session with their distributor, trying to convince the distributor why their titles should be well-represented to stores. The distributor, though, has to present thousands of titles (from their hundreds of publishers) and no sales rep can possibly give full energy to each. So the distributor picks its favourites and ultimately only a small percentage of the total list of titles is actively sold to the stores. It’s a question of numbers, and no one is really “to blame” for this – but it does threaten the chances of success for any particular title.
The Big Five publishers have their own sales forces and distribution facilities, but even here the same problem emerges. A Big Five publisher has thousands of titles per year they’re publishing – their own sales force can’t possibly know every title and represent them well. So internally each editor has to do a sales pitch to the sales team, and the reps will choose only those titles which they think they can make money selling. It’s the same process, just internalized to a single company. This is important for an aspiring author to understand: just because you’ve signed with one of the Big Five doesn’t mean that your book is going to get the publisher’s sales team’s full attention. In fact, you’re now competing directly against best-selling authors for the attention of the sales team.
Despite this seedy underbelly of the sales process, none of this means that bookstores are bad. They’re not – they’re great! Any book lover can happily spend time in a real “bricks-and-mortar” bookstore and the ability to just browse the shelves until something catches your eye is a very pleasant method of buying which cannot be replicated online. As a publisher I still want my books to be on bookstore shelves, and I still endure the significant resource drain to make every effort to get my titles there. I want my titles to be on the shelf and ready for the book lover to discover them.
But it’s a tough business, for publishers, for distributors and for bookstores. All of us basically play the averages, knowing that a handful of titles are going to sell well and pay for all the other titles that don’t. That’s business, and that’s how the traditional system is built.
Does it effectively serve any particular, individual title? Not particularly. This tension between what’s best for the company (be it publisher, distributor or bookstore) and what’s best for the author is the great challenge we face in publishing today.
I recommend that anyone interested in learning more about bookstores, and Barnes & Noble in particular, read this recent article by Mike Shatzkin at The Idea Logical Company.
Photo is pixabay Public Domain
Recent Bennett R. Coles Articles:
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part 4 – The traditional industry: the bookstores (and distributors)
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part III – The Traditional Industry: The Publishers
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part II – Making sense of the lingo
- A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part I – Author Motivations
- Star Wars: The Next Generation