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More musing out loud, or Part 3

Now that the book has been ordered, and the initial numbers have come in, it, along with all of the various titles for the various publisher imprints, will be printed and shipped to bookstores and rack jobbers (and Ingram and Baker and Taylor, who will also send it to bookstores. The advantage to Ingram and Baker and Taylor is that there is no per publisher minimum to be met; there's a strict dollar minimum. This means you can order 5 books from Penguin, rather than the 30 that would otherwise be required to make a minimum order, combining the 5 from Penguin with 5 books from Bantam and 5 books from Random House and 5 books from Overlook, etc., you can meet the general minimum).

The book is now on the shelves! Yay!

Sort of. But how many of your books are actually on the shelves? (I'm going to ignore, for the sake of simplicity, the books that never make it out of the rackjobber's warehouses, and the books that never quite make it out of the back storerooms of various bookstores.) Many -- most -- first SF/F novels don't make it to the supermarket racks, so for our example, I'm generalizing and leaving the IDs out of the picture; I'm concentrating on the bookstores, where most of your sales will be. I'm also talking about -chains- for the most part (independents don't work the same way).

This is where we come to the tricky question of what is loosely called promotion. In order to get your books on the shelves in chains at all, some placement money is required. The publisher pays the chain. If it pays a small, base amount, the books will be in the genre section, and often spined. If it pays thousands and thousands of dollars, it will be on the endcaps, at the front of the store, and in standing floor displays (which we call dumps, go figure).

There is some give and take in this. The chains are likely to want the publishers to pay high placement dollars for books which it already knows will sell well. Catch 22. However… in the case where a new book -- say, the first Terry Goodkind, as an example -- is being heavily promoted (and the advance paid -is- a part of that promotion, because it does cause a lot of curiosity), and the publisher has a track record with best-selling fantasy (the Jordans, by same company), the chains will be happy enough to take the chance and the publisher's money. Every success a publisher has emboldens the sales force that represents that publisher, and adds weight to the publisher's position with the chain buyers. So, unfortunately, does every expensive failure.

I hear a -lot- about promotion. And a lot of complaints about the lack of promotion. Fiction and non-fiction are totally different beasts when it comes to promotion, and they are handled differently because they almost have to be -- it's much, much easier to find a tie-in to promote a new cook book or diet book or self-help book or business book than it is to promote a novel, either on the talk-show circuit, or in the newspaper. There -are- some fiction authors who are good at doing this sort of promotion, and even at creating opportunities that would otherwise not exist. But many of them are damn good public speakers, or have training in radio and television work, and they can speak in sound bites on command. They've worked at it, and it shows. If you're like me, and all of your thoughts are long paragraphs, you're much less in demand. This makes sense. Radio interviewers or television interviewers have their own needs, and the ability to slot in with those needs is a talent that is separate from writing.

I don't think print ads work unless the author already has an audience; if the author does, it's simply a reminder that they have a new book out. I don't think advertising in any other venue really works, either. I do think reviews help (especially a good publisher's weekly review). Word of mouth is still very, very important -- but books can disappear so quickly, it's hard for that word of mouth to build if the book has gone bye-bye.

How does it go, as I've so loosely said, bye-bye?

New books come out every month. Books that have sold poorly, or not at all, are taken off the shelves; rather than being added to the regular backlist database, they're purged. Their covers are stripped, and those covers are sent back to the publishers for credit. Hardcovers have a somewhat longer shelf life, and aren't stripped -- but very often, the hardcovers that are returned are pulped, rather than put back into inventory. Why? Because it's more expensive to pay people to put 1 or 2 books each of several titles back into the warehouse than it is to destroy them.

Returns are the bane of the publishing world. I've heard it said a zillion times, and I even mostly agree. If a buyer is on the top of their game, returns should be minimal. They should be. But… they're not. If you have a big display of a title, you need to have excess stock in order to maintain that display. When it goes off the shelf and into the regular section, all of the display books get stripped and go back. Without the books, no display. Period. Cost of doing business.

In an ideal world, each manager would be responsible for ordering -- and displaying -- each book as it comes into the store. This used to be the case. But it's not now. That decision is made, and paid for, above the manager's head. Sales reps are expensive, but they do get more books out there. They could -not-, however, be sent to each and every store in the country. In order to service each and every store in the country, the rep force would have to grow by leaps and bounds -- and salaries -- and this isn't going to happen. But this means that someone buying in head office, even with computer aid, is going to be less sensitive to the clientele for individual stores. And returns are part of the price paid for that, as well.

People seem to think that for a book with a 50% sell through (half sold, half returned), that if there were no returns, the book should be half the price. Doing the math, however, yields a different number. If each 7.99 book with a sell-through of 50% costs 1.00 to produce, you're spending 2.00 for each book sold. If you were spending 1.00 for each book sold, the price is not going to drop to 3.99 US. Because the cost of each unit is only a fraction of the cost for other things in the P&L statement. Or: at 7.99, the publisher will be paid 4.00 per book. Rounding numbers for ease of example, 2.00 of that, including returns, is production cost. The rest goes to the publisher for all of the associated costs, and to the authors for royalties. At 3.99 with a 100% sell-through (or no returns), the publisher would be paid 2.00 per book, and 1.00 for production would leave the publisher with 1.00 for associated costs. Which won't work. At best, the book would retail for 5.99 with a guarantee of no returns.

(next rock)


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 30th, 2004 08:45 pm (UTC)
great post. no further comment. *g*
Aug. 5th, 2004 08:40 am (UTC)
I remember that the comic book industry got a huge lift from comic book shops -- because the shops, unlike drugstores and bookstores, didn't do returns.

I've always wondered why bookstores work by one method and comic book shops by another. THe comic shop used to get a benefit by keeping the old books and marking them up; new readers had to pay the mark-up for back issues, because they were out of print and impossible to get otherwise. But now that graphic novels are widely available -- not only in bookstores, but on places like Amazon -- I'm not sure if that draw is still there.

Perhaps there's an answer to this conundrum later on. I'll keep reading. :D
Aug. 5th, 2004 08:50 am (UTC)
I remember that the comic book industry got a huge lift from comic book shops -- because the shops, unlike drugstores and bookstores, didn't do returns.

The discount from retail price for comics vs. books was very high. If you sell only comics, the quantities you order are enough that the discount from cover price is 55% or *higher*. i.e. as the store, you pay 45% of the cover price.

For a bookstore like ours, the rate of discount varies, but it's between 40-44%, or, we pay 56-60% of the cover price to the publisher.

If book publishers were willing (or financially capable of, which should also be considered, because I believe it's cheaper to produce an average comic book per cover cost than an average book, but could be wrong about that) to give -us- the same discount that comics publishers were giving the comics stores, we'd (at least I would) buy books non-returnable too.

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )