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Musing out loud again (or Part 4A)

This would be part 4, but apparently there's a word-limit in LJ posts, which -- to no one's surprise, I'm sure <g> -- I've exceeded. So this is first half, second to follow. Sorry about the flood :/.

So returns are a fact of life, and as seen, there are various reasons for them. One of the frustrations of a small independent with no warehouse is that the discount given by many publishers to the bookstore is often 40%. Chains will get close to 50%. Whose returns are higher? Not the independents. If you'd offered -me- an extra 10% to buy everything non-returnable, I'd have done it in a second. Instead, the publisher incentive to buy non-returnable was often 2 or 3 percent, which wasn't worth it. On the side of publishers, however, they often ship to warehouses, so the shipping costs and the handling costs are less, and the publishers absorb those. There are always at least two sides to a story; there are often three.

Where was I? Right. Let's look at something that never happens, and is therefore an extreme example made for the sake of clarity. If a book has a 100% sell-through, it can be argued that the publisher failed to get -enough- of those books to shelf. I think it can even be reasonably argued. Let me explain (and if I sound talking-downish, I grovel and apologize in advance.)

If a book sells 100% of all copies placed in stores, it means that it -sold out- everywhere. Which means that there weren't enough of the books in the stores. If, for instance, I order 20 copies of a book for the store, and it disappears in 2 days, it's a damn clear indication that I've underordered the title, and I'll reorder it Right Now. If I order 20 and it sells out over three weeks, it's less obvious. You have no way of knowing, as an author, which of those two situations are true. If the book is a midlist title, there's no guarantee that it will be automatically reordered, either. Which means that the 100% sale that you got might be only sales that you -do- get.

I've heard arguments that an 80% sell-through is essentially the same thing. Why? Because some of the stores will sell 100% of the books right away; others will sell 60%. Which means that some stores have too little stock. A return rate of 20%, or 4 books out of 20, means that you ordered about the right amount. In fact,, in that case, you'll usually just keep the 4 books when the title shuffles off the New Release rack. (Chains are often sent Return Lists. If the book has sold out, you obviously don't return it; if it hasn't, you return it, regardless, unless your manager has some clout and overlooks the sheets). But the 80% is a total, not a per store sell-through, and there's a decent chance that had the initial shipping numbers been higher, you would have sold more books without taking a huge hit in sell-through.

One of the funny things that happens is that the publisher can pay for placement of a title -- and the store will be shipped too few books to actually -place- it to any effect. This is a definition of funny which probably won't make many authors or publishers laugh.

At any rate, regardless of whether or not you argue that the book was undersold by the publisher, if the book has a high sell-through, this is good (high would be 70% or above). Even if the initial -actual- sales are low compared with better sellers, good sell-through is noteworthy. For a first novel, it means that something about the book -- the cover, usually -- caught the attention of browsers. The cover, for almost all first time authors (95+%, imo), is your most effective marketing tool.

And it doesn't matter if the cover is -accurate-. It only matters that the cover is compelling, eye-catching, that the copy is interesting. (This is NOT true for YA or middle readers. Very, very not true; accuracy is important for the target audience in that case and much more care is taken to get pictorial accuracy. But I'm not talking about those, so bear with me).

A cover is a marketing tool. Let's take the Jordan books as an example. The cover artist is an artist who is not universally loved. But his look graces a number of fantasy titles, many of which sell well -- and because of this, there's an association with the look that implies a certain kind of read. If the book is on a rack, and not in a bookstore, it's actually more important, because most rack books are sold very, very quickly. (Have a small child in arms. Try to grab a book before he wails. See how long you have. Bookstore? Not a chance. Supermarket? Better hope.) This is why rack jobbers often want gaudy covers and bookstores want more subdued covers. Which poses an interesting problem. Do you try to appeal to the rack jobbers, who order most of your books, but also have the highest rate of returns in the industry, or do you try to appeal to bookstores?

For a new author, if you have a choice (which I've already said you don't), bookstores. Definitely bookstores.

The second thing that you want to see is momentum: your next book sells better than your previous one. Or rather, it's what your sales force will want to see. By sells, in this case, I mean that buyers who order from reps increase their stand for that title. If the sell-through was high and there were reorders as a result, there's a good chance that the buyers will order a higher number than they did of previous books. There is also a good chance that the buyers will order some of the -previous- book as well. This is why timely publication of a second novel is a Good Career Move, if at all possible (says the person who took 2 years between books 3 and 4 and 5 of her last series :/). Your front list drives your backlist.

In the computerized world of quick turnover, this is hard to achieve. Word of mouth takes time, and time is something that is often not your friend. Reorders are important, because they increase the number beyond the initial buyer order, which gives a book the sense of "legs". Special orders do count, so if you want a book that wasn't carried, by all means order it. And, having said all this, there's really not a lot you can do about this. Unless you're a Scientology author, in which case, you can send Scientologists into bookstores to buy things in great numbers in order to make the numbers better. Starting a religion, otoh, is probably not the first thing most writers will think of <wry g>.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 30th, 2004 10:13 pm (UTC)
and thank you for this. Incisive, and useful.
Jul. 31st, 2004 06:56 am (UTC)
Keep going -- this is interesting!
Jul. 31st, 2004 09:45 am (UTC)
Just a quick question, sleigh. Am I saying anything at all that you haven't heard a hundred times before? I'm trying not to over-dwell on things because I'm trying not to be odiously boring <wry g>.

Also, my take on things will differ radically from other authors <g>.
Jul. 31st, 2004 08:53 am (UTC)
(This is NOT true for YA or middle readers. Very, very not true; accuracy is important for the target audience in that case and much more care is taken to get pictorial accuracy. But I'm not talking about those, so bear with me).

If you know, I'm curious as to why this is true. It occurs to me that it could either be because of the readers (who do, indeed, get indignant when covers are inaccurate); or it could be because of the adults who have a notion that they need to be readily able to prescreen the content of kids' books. (The need of adults to overcontrol kids' reading without reading much themselves is actually something of a rant I could go on. :->)
Jul. 31st, 2004 09:41 am (UTC)
I was told -- ages ago -- that it was because of the readers; the readers get upset about the inaccuracies, being young. I then asked why it was that there was an expected switchover, and adult readers weren't supposed to, say, be outraged at the first cover of Octavia Butler's DAWN (white woman in lab coat. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In so many ways).

I never really got a great answer; I got a "adults realize there's no real truth in advertising" but "kids don't". Errr. Okay. The kids don't part in theory might have caused the traumatized or annoyed kids to truly dislike or feel conflicted about the book.

But in many ways, YA is different. If you get glowing reviews, you frequently get sales -- library sales, school sales, etc. Which means there's still some correlation (not, of course, 100%) between a good book and good sales.
Jul. 31st, 2004 10:32 am (UTC)
Reminds me of the time I said to my Scouts and said, "Remember how mad it used to make you, when you'd get those YOU HAVE WON A MILLION DOLLAR fliers in the mail that didn't really mean it?" And one of the girls said, "But it still makes me mad!" The outrage is sort of moral, and not just practical.

Yeah, reviews make a difference, and awards even make a difference in YA. Some of them, at least, at the highest levels (we were just talking on a list about how many of the other awards don't make a difference, even if you do get a pretty sticker on your book).

One other interesting thing I've been hearing lately about the kids' book field, that somehow had never been on my radar before: apparently many people feel that if your advance doesn't earn out, even if the book otherwise does well, it could harm your chances of selling the next. While in SF/fantasy, the conventional wisdom was always (don't know if this has changed) that you shouldn't expect your book to earn out, especially if it's a first novel.
Aug. 5th, 2004 08:55 am (UTC)
Instead, the publisher incentive to buy non-returnable was often 2 or 3 percent.

That, by itself, pretty much answers my musing about "why publishers and bookstores do it this way". Thanks! :)
Aug. 6th, 2004 04:43 pm (UTC)
Pointed here by satorias, via Making Light. Just wanted to say thanks and glad to see more of SF/F writers around.

I'll be at WorldCon too. Beginning to wonder if we shouldn't contact the Programming people for an LJ user meet...

Friending you. Don't feel like you have to friend me back as LJ isn't my main blogging source. You can check out my user info for my real blog (via an rss feed here on LJ) if you'd like. Or not.

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )