Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Business of Selling Books

I thought this topic would be interesting for you guys because I'm not sure if everyone is aware of what a big influence book buyers at the big box bookstores stores have in the industry. How their business model shapes what gets published and how books are bought by publishers.

Despite how it may seem, most books these days still are bought in brick and mortar bookstores. So it is vital that your book, as an author, is on those shelves otherwise, to be perfectly blunt, your book will fail. Thus publishers have to appeal to the taste of the book buyers for these stores. They have to choose to publish books they know will be bought by the book buyers.

Think about that for a second. Let's look at the States. We've got Borders and Barnes & Noble, Target and Walmart. That's four people who decide whether a book fails or succeeds, is bought from an author in the first place. Four people.

I know of books that are bestsellers in one country that book buyers for the big chains in another country wouldn't buy from the publisher and so (obviously) the book totally flopped.

I also know, personally, that the American cover of the paperback of "Alex" had to be changed at the request of the book buyers. In fact covers in general these days are being created to suit the taste of these buyers..

Interesting right?

Now of course the book buyers are buying books with an eye to what we the readers want. Their job is to sell books so they want to buy books that sell. They see what kind of covers readers buy, what kind of topics are of interest, so it isn't like there isn't method to the madness. I also happen to have met some book buyers over the years, and I can tell you, they are pretty passionate about books. But they really do have to be careful, and they can't buy everything, and it's a better business practice to purchase a sure thing over what might be perceived as a risk.

So that's one thing. The people who buy from the publishers the books to place on the shelves.

Here's another thing.

Bookstore chains are paid money by the publisher to place their books in certain parts of the store. It's called co-op. So books are paid to be on the table, as opposed to the shelf. On the front table, as opposed to the one in different sections. Paid to be face out on the shelf (where you can see the whole cover and is more eye catching), as opposed to spine out. This also determines what gets bought from the publishers. If a publisher is willing to invest the money, then the book has a distinct advantage.

There is a very interesting article over at the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency Blog about the big box bookstores, and their (possibly) faulty line of reasoning in selling books. The article actually references yet another, so if you have the time, you've got some pretty interesting reading ahead of you. To quote from the article:

" In brief: placement on the front table in a major chain bookstore costs the publisher up-front, about $30,000. Yes, after the publisher has paid the author’s advance, the costs of publishing and manufacturing the books, they also have to pay the booksellers to try to sell the book. . . they switched the book retailing model from selling books, to charging for shelf space for displaying books.
. . .

I believe that book chains don’t really want to be in the book business. They just want money because they control the access to readers. This allows them to dodge the question of responsibility for doing their job (selling books) and instead to collect an entitlement (basically a tax) for being in control of a step in the process. Unfortunately, they never draw new book buyers into their stores. The message is always: if you buy books we got a bunch of cheap stuff here, but they don’t even try to get new people to buy books. That would require a different type of marketing."

I have to say that I'm not surprised that the people in charge of these book stores don't feel it necessary to adopt a different model of marketing. It's been a trend of late that all you need is an MA in Business and that qualifies you to sell any product to anybody. Of course this is illogical, but you see it applied to many different businesses so it must be working to a degree. A profit must be being made. Of course we then return to the argument, is profit the only thing worth being in business for?

That's a debate for another time.

At any rate. When bookstores are making a lot of their money from publishers and not readers, what incentive do they have to work to sell books?

It's an interesting question.

At this point I should point out that people who work at these chains, including the managers, are often huge book lovers, and it is because of them that you still get all the love in these stores. I remember when the last Harry Potter came out, my local big bookstore chain store had a massive party, I'm talking closing off part of the street massive. The next week I was chatting with one of the booksellers in the children's department about what a great time I'd had, and she said it had been her idea initially. It surprised me because I assumed it was an order from on high, but no, it had started as an idea from someone who worked at the store who loved books.

There's also a woman called Wendy at the Indigo at Yorkdale mall, whom you have seen several times on this blog as she's been so helpful in helping me get together my book launches. This is a woman who ADORES children's books, and does everything she can to promote them.

In all there are wonderful people who work in these stores who are as in love with books as the rest of us.

The issue is with the business model. I'm not sure exactly what needs to be done, if it even needs to be fixed. I just know that the idea of so much power in the hands of the few can be a little frustrating (it can also be fantastic if you turn out to be the next Stephenie Meyer). But aside from trying to make any kind of statement, I just thought you guys should know this. That the books on the front tables (aside from ones which are marked "staff picks" etc) have spent a lot of money to get there. That it isn't necessarily a value judgment in placing them up front. That maybe, once in a while, you should check out what's in the back, spine out, next to hundreds of other such books.

There be jewels in them shelves. There be jewels.


Alan said...

"A Community's Bricks and Mortar: Karibu Books" Read it at

snarkfodder said...

"Bookstore chains are paid money by the publisher to place their books in certain parts of the store. It's called co-op. [...] Paid to be face out on the shelf (where you can see the whole cover and is more eye catching), as opposed to spine out.

I had no idea! Any time I'm in a bookstore and I see a personal favorite relegated to spine-out status, I'll pull it out, pretend to be interested, look left and right with the James Bond theme playing in my head, then replace the book face-out before I vanish in a puff of black smoke.

I didn't realize I was sabotaging someone's business plan! Not that I'm apologizing... ;)

Jessica Strider said...

"I didn't realize I was sabotaging someone's business plan!"

Don't worry, you're not. Co-ops apply to table and endcap displays. I've never heard of payment for facing out books on the shelves. That's usually based on how many copies there are of the books and how much space there is on the shelf. (Oh, and whether a bookseller at the store likes that author.)

Adrienne said...

Actually Jessica, depending on the store, even face out placement is paid for (well at least this what I've been told, you probably know more than I do, I can only speak to my personal experience). Now I think stores have a lot more leeway. For example, when I sign books at a store, they then face those books out on the shelves. But I have been told that there are certain books that pay for the privilege.

sanjeet said...

I'll pull it out, pretend to be interested, look left and right with the James Bond theme playing in my head, then replace the book face-out before I vanish in a puff of black smoke.

Work from home India

snarkfodder said...

^^ What a strange way to spam a comment section. Just to clarify, that's not me being redundant.

(What happened to you, robots? You used to want to enslave humankind and take over the world. You used to be COOL! Now you just crawl the web dropping spam in innocent comments sections. I'm so disappointed.)

Thanks for the clarification, youse two. Shall continue on the path to bookstore anarchy with easy conscience.