Friday, October 17, 2008

On Being Skipped

Last month, it seemed like the whole SFF field was obsessed with skipping.

Greg Frost was skipped by Borders. Toby Buckell was skipped by Borders. Pat Cadigan was outraged. Gwenda Bond was more thoughtful. Many other people examined their liberal guilt about buying from a chain store, and were vaguely uncomfortable about the whole thing. And I'm sure there are plenty of other authors who heard that their new hardcover or trade paperback was getting skipped by Borders without going on the web to tell everyone about it. Nobody's jumped up to say that they were skipped by B&N yet -- probably because B&N has more cash and is in a generally better position than Borders, so they're less likely to be tightening their belts that much -- but both chains skip books every single day. Every buyer for both chains skips books all of the time.

By the way: that's what it's called when your book isn't picked up by a particular bookseller. Your book is "a skip," and they have "skipped" you. We don't like it very much on the marketing end, either, though I have to tell you that my already skip-filled list has gotten even worse lately. I already tell my authors -- accounting and finance guys -- that bookstores are mostly a lost cause for their category, so the thing to do is drive sales to online retailers in any way possible. That's unlikely to happen to SFF, so there are still some blessings to be counted. A skip is still a notable occasion in this genre -- the outrage itself is a sign that we're still healthy at retail.

But skipping is now in the air. I avoided writing about it immediately afterward because when I write about anything related to publishing many people assume I'm taking a "pipe down, whiners!" tone, even if that's not what I'm saying. I like both Greg and Toby -- I think I've had dinner with each of them at least once, which makes us con-friends -- and want to see their books do well. And being skipped is not good.

But bookstores are businesses, not public conveniences. No store has the responsibility to carry every book published -- although, to be honest, that's a straw-man argument, since no one is asking for that. (They're just wishing that their books, the books they like, and the books by their friends be spared the chopping block.) I market books for a living, so I can tell you an unpleasant truth: the order for any book, from any account, starts at zero. The publisher's sales rep walks in the door with tipsheets and covers, past sales figures and promotional plans, to convince that bookseller's buyer to buy that book. In many categories -- SFF is still one of them -- the chain buyers say "yes" the overwhelming majority of the time. But not all the time. Sometimes, that buyer is not convinced, and the order stays at zero.

For many accounts, this is routine. Wal*Mart takes only a handful of books for their stores -- and is taking fewer for their website recently, as well. Starbucks carries two or three books a year. (Though you know that publishers are pitching them many, many more than that.) The warehouse clubs are very selective. There are lots of organizations and groups that sell books, and many of them (particularly professional societies) have to have the book read and evaluated first before they can make their decision. That all might sound unrelated to SFF, but that's part of my point: SFF is a small part of a much larger world of bookselling, not a thing in itself, and even bookselling is part of an even larger retail world -- which, as you know Bob, is not expected to be terribly strong this year.

And the order number always starts at zero. It's the job of the publisher -- specifically, the marketing and sales team -- to push that number up to a level they think is reasonable. In some cases, like mine, that's a few hundred books, even in a big chain. For example: I'm very happy with the way CauseWired is getting picked up by the chains -- and I hope lots of people go and buy that book when it's available in about two weeks, plug plug -- but its numbers would induce deep gloom if they were attached to a mass-market urban fantasy novel. Every category is a little different, and every book falls differently into that category.

I don't know if writers know the numbers of chain bookstores -- which are public, but not all that public -- so let me explain them a bit. Barnes & Noble has the most: over 700 superstores, less than a hundred B. Dalton mall stores, and about 700 college stores. (Most of those can be ignored by everyone but textbook authors; less than a hundred of those carry "real" books.) Borders has about a thousand stores, almost evenly divided between Borders superstores (slightly more of these) and mall stores (Walden and the rebranded Borders Express chain), plus a couple of dozen airport stores.

Generally, for a hardcover or trade paperback that's not being pitched for something promotional (I won't get into co-op here, but, to be short: front-of-store positioning and most other in-store display areas are not only paid for by the publisher but also have strong competition for the few available paid slots), you're talking about whether the order is one, two, or maybe three copies per store. Or, possibly, if the book is only going to the top stores for that category -- and that number of stores varies by category. For the kind of books we're talking about -- midlist originals in hardcover and trade paper -- there will be no substantial distribution into mall stores.

So you're talking about a B&N order that could be potentially as high as 2100 (for what we marketing folks would call a "high B+" book), or as low as a few hundred (for an order only going to "top stores"). The equivalent Borders number runs up to about 1500, with about the same bottom.

I should also point out that chainstore buyers have budgets; they don't have an infinite amount of money to play with. They have to buy books for all of the stores in the chain, in their category, given the money they have available -- this is called "open to buy," and varies depending on recent sales, returns, and what else is publishing that month. Like any other budget, I'm sure buyers start with the most important things -- the big books that month -- and work their way down the list. If the money runs out before they hit the bottom, that's it.

Amazon, the third of the three big general booksellers in the US these days, has one store: their website. And they do carry everything, but -- since they do only have one "store" -- don't carry as much inventory on any particular book; they don't have any need to have a physical copy available near purchasers. I doubt publishers will pass on Amazon order quantities to any but the highest-end authors, and those numbers don't matter as much, anyway. What's important is that Amazon has stock on hand to sell -- and to keep the book's status as "in stock," meaning that it ships immediately. It can get more complicated than that, but as long as your book says "in stock" on Amazon, don't worry about that. (Worry about other things about Amazon: is it the right cover, the right descriptive copy, has the author signed up for Amazon Connect, and so on -- but don't worry about their inventory position.)

I've wandered away from my point: skips happen. They're part of the continuum of book orders. I'll admit that they're much worse to an author than to a publisher -- an author has a book or two a year (or seven or eight if she's Nora Roberts, but I digress), while the publisher probably has three or four books in that program that month. Any one skip is a much bigger deal to the author than the publisher. But they do happen.

Let's talk specifics. Frost's Lord Tophet was skipped because his previous book (the one Lord Tophet is the second half of), Shadowbridge, didn't sell well enough. Frost complains that no one quite says how much "enough" is, which is true; generally, you know what "enough" is when you hit it. Recently, Editorial Ass answered a similar question, saying that 7,000 copies is a strong sale for a first literary novel. Her numbers are reasonable for a fairly literary mid-career midlist fantasy novel as well. I can't look up Shadowbridge's Borders-only sales, but I can look it up in general.

Frost points out that Shadowbridge "received glowing reviews and went back to print twice in its first six months." But neither of those things, sadly, mean anything on their own. Lots of books are glowingly reviewed and don't sell -- ask the literary writers selling 1500 copies of their first novels -- and reprinting twice in six months can just mean that the first printing was tiny. What I can say: Shadowbridge sold less than 2,500 copies, as a $14.00 trade paperback, across all reporting sales outlets (which include Borders, B&N, Amazon, and others), since the beginning of this year. Of those, almost 2000 were sold at the "Retailer" level, which includes Borders, B&N, and other brick-and-mortar stores. If those were sold evenly between B&N and Borders superstores, and nowhere else, each superstore sold a little over a copy and a half.

For Buckell, Sly Mongoose got skipped by Borders, and Ragamuffin was his last book. Using the same sales-reporting system, for a $24.95 hardcover published last June, sales are well under a thousand copies. ("Retailer" sales were barely five hundred.) Ragamuffin didn't sell as many hardcover copies at retail as Borders has superstores; if they had a copy in every store, they returned a large percentage (probably more than half). And, since B&N didn't skip Sly Mongoose, it's plausible that more of the retail copies went through B&N than Borders.

Looking at the numbers that way, even without knowing what percentage of sales were through Borders and which weren't -- and without knowing the average sell-through of the category for that period and Borders actual buy on the two old books -- these skips look reasonable. We'd prefer that the books of our friends and favorite writers not be skipped, but it's hard to argue that Borders should buy five hundred to a thousand copies of a book that they probably estimate would sell only a few hundred.

Pat Cadigan all but called for a boycott of Borders in her post. Even allowing for the effect of anger, and the tendency of blog posts to be overly extreme and rabble-rousing, I can't see that this would be a good idea. Even if it had a noticeable effect -- and that's a big "if" -- getting SFF readers to move their business away from Borders is exceptionally unlikely to get Borders to start stocking SFF in more depth. Rather the reverse, actually. If Cadigan wants Borders to cut back on SFF, she has an excellent plan. If not, not.

I'm afraid Frost, in his essay, gets into the Shangri-La theory of bookselling, in which there was a golden age -- now passed, alas! -- in which all booksellers were tall and strong, all bookbuyers were discerning and studious, and all books were well-written and wondrous. Like all "in my day" trips of nostalgia, it's deeply mistaken.

One thing is indeed true: about eighteen years ago, there were 7,500 independent bookstores; now there are 1700. Sure, some good stores closed. But the rosy-colored view of the wonderful lost indy bookstore, land of miracles, where enlightened, Buddha-esque bookmen and -women sold only the finest of literature to a happy and contented audience is pure bunk. Most of those vanished stores were too small, undercapitalized, badly run marginal businesses run by cranks. They went out of business because they were bad at business, lacking any point-of-sale systems or serious inventory tracking at all. If they didn't return all that many books, it was because they had no idea what they had or where it was. Oh, and most of them -- as those of us who remember those days without the gauzy light of nostalgia -- were actively hostile to science fiction and fantasy. (Remember? This is the era when SF sold mostly in paperback, through entirely different channels, or in small hardcover editions to libraries. Those supposed wondrous independent stores of yore didn't carry SFF.) The independent stores still open are probably 90% of the well-managed independent bookstores that ever existed; there's a serious selection bias in looking at what's still around and extrapolating that back to all of the stores that didn't survive -- most of them didn't survive for a reason.

The reason the chain stores bloomed -- first with the mall stores in the '80s and then with superstores in the '90s -- was that those stores were vastly better than the bulk of the existing independent bookstores. The mall stores were clean and had discounts; they were usually about the same size as the indies they drove out. The superstores were even better: as large as the largest indies (of which there were only two or three dozen in the country -- now there are well over a thousand chain superstores), full of books, well-lit, with comfy chairs and expensive coffee drinks.

What no one talks about these days is what the superstores also replaced. Independent stores used to be a major piece of the bookselling puzzle, but they were equalled, or bettered, by department store book departments. (I used to shop at Bloomingdale's for books before Walden's and Dalton's came into my area, and there were millions of people like me.) That was the professional, organized, controlled-inventory side of the book business back then -- and it's come back, in a way, with the rise of Wal*Mart and the warehouse stores. If you just wanted to buy a popular book in 1985, or 1975, you went to the book department of your local Gimbel's, or Macy's, or whatever, and got it there.

So, sure, order from an independent store if it makes you feel better about yourself, or if you want to support a local business -- if you actually have a decent independent nearby. (Most people don't.) But don't kid yourself that it's going to make much of a difference. Borders will stay in business, or be sold to someone, or go belly-up, based on much larger market trends. And the long-term trend of the last ten years and more is for sales to move to online bookstores (particularly that one named after a big river).

And skips will keep happening -- to some of us more than others. Pray that SFF sales never get driven online as thoroughly as business books have; that's all I have to say.

Addendum: To hammer home something I thought was clear above -- but has gotten fuzzy in some of the links to this post -- Greg Frost and Tobias Buckell are both utterly right to be worried about their books being skipped by a major retailer, and nothing I wrote should be taken as denying that. I am not calling them any unpleasant names, which others may attribute to me.

I just wanted to explain a part of the process that I thought was deeply opaque to writers, and give them a sense of how a book might come to be skipped.

I'm very sorry if anyone took any kind of personal attack away from this post; nothing of the sort was intended.

Second Addendum: Since this post has been linked so widely, and will probably draw traffic at odd times in the future, let me mention my follow-up posts:
And thanks to everyone for the links and commentary: it's been about 95% positive, which I certainly didn't expect -- but it's very gratifying. I'm glad I was able to make a complicated business that slightest bit more comprehensible.

I also need to thank all of the sales team at Wiley -- they're a great bunch of professionals, and it's entirely due to their enthusiasm and knowledge that I have any idea how this process works.

53 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I live in a place that can still support multiple, *good*, locally-owned independents. But even they, for the most part, probably aren't carrying a lot of midlist SF. Given how difficult the business situation is, they need to be just as hard-nosed as the chain buyers. We can only hope that they exercise enough independent judgment to choose a different set of books not to carry. (I live about halfway between the two biggest local independents, in a town that itself has both a Borders and a B&N.)

The Brillig Blogger said...

This is just about one of the best posts on this subject I've ever seen. The comments about indies are spot on; as an agent I was amazed when the beloved Shakespeare & Co. had their bye-bye sale on the upper west side to see what books of mine they had quantity of that everyone else had returned, or in DC just this past month where Olsson's went out of business after years of having a very strange sf section. Always be glad there are two chains, since they tend not to screw up with the same books and authors. Borders skipped SLY MONGOOSE but has reordered the RAGAMUFFIN paperback, while a B&N that sells out of RAGAMUFFIN has seen the last of it. Borders carries Jim Hines, B&N does not. B&N spent 7 years loving Sookie Stackhouse more than Borders but since True Blood is out has fallen behind. For Elizabeth Moon, you want THE DEED OF PAKSENARRION in trade paperback go to Borders, you want the BRC trade paperback of THE SPEED OF DARK go to B&N and check the Fiction section. We need both of them. And both at bn.com and borders.com have features that allow you to plug in any zip code and check store availability nearby. Use that sucker; both chains have good and bad sf/fantasy stores and maybe you can drive five more minutes and actually find the book you want instead of bemoaning its absence.

Roddy Reta said...

I agree with the brillig blogger. This is a great post packed with substantive information, and it's a shame that Andrew Wheeler doesn't write a column for PW or some other erstwhile publication. He's that good.

TCO said...

Nice posting. I also thought it was either un-numerate or self-serving (or both) that Frost did not give any of the numbers that allow critical examination. Thanks for doing so. It never ceases to amaze me, what whiney little pussies, authors are.

Heather said...

Thanks for a very informative post. I learned a lot!

Andrew Wheeler said...

TCO: Remember that Frost is an author, while I'm a marketer for a publishing company. (A different one, which doesn't publish either Frost or Buckell -- or any SF, or fiction, actually.) So I have access to numbers he probably doesn't -- he gets a royalty statement, but I don't know how often, or how detailed, that is.

And one of the reasons I wrote this is because I don't think most authors do know how many chain stores there are, or what different levels of orders from those stores mean.

Marc Gascoigne @ Angry Robot said...

Time precludes me from going into the detail of your post, Andrew, but three huzzahs to you for daring even to go into this level of publishing minutiae. I'm known for banging on about how come most conventions and sf blogs are incredibly supportive in a general sense to wannabe writers, but are loathe to actually delve into the proper business of what happens in book publishing and retailing. More of this is needed, not to shatter dreams, but to prepare genuine talents for what the world of actually-being-published is really like.

marco

KatG said...

Do you think that the strategy of doing small hardcover or trade paperback runs to get reviews and such, which became very successful in the 1990's, is now backfiring on SFF? That because these hardcovers and trade paperbacks aren't selling well, with fans waiting for mass market, that the chains are more easily discouraged from taking these authors on, especially mid-list and emerging authors?

It also seems like the central inventory over regional of the superstores is becoming a problem. If a book might sell several hundred, why not buy several hundred instead of skipping it? Insisting that every book has to be in every store and thus, sell at the levels to justify such a buy, seems counterproductive to me. They used to decide that if an author was doing well in the Mid-West, for instance, you'd put more there and maybe not bother much with the South region. Do they still do this or is it all or nothing? If so, then yeah, the online stores are going to take over a lot of their business because they don't carry only books that sell at least 2,000 copies right off the bat.

If an author you like you hear gets skipped by one of the chains, the logical thing to do is organize like-minded friends and have you all go into the chain stores and request the book. They'll order it from their online arm at first, probably, but if they get enough requests, I'd imagine they'll place a buy order pretty quick.

Andrew Wheeler said...

KatG: Well, the strategy of doing hardcovers or trade paperbacks wasn't only to get reviews -- the major reason (as far as I can see) was because the core audience demand turned out to be fairly inelastic for the higher midlist. In other words, a book would sell fewer copies in trade paperback or hardcover than it would in mass-market -- but not so much fewer as to make the revenue the same. So the same audience was still there, more or less, and they could be induced to spend more money.

That doesn't apply to all writers, and there are other considerations, but it did bring many projects into profitability. (And helped the industry continue as the mass-market merchandisers consolidated through the '90s and that channel was closed to most midlist books.)

The chains do have "top stores" programs, and even different tiers of stores. As I understand it, B&N is much more advanced these days -- they can slice their stores into different levels for placement of books, get books into just the ones that sell that category well, and also give more power to the individual store managers to pick titles that will work in that particular store.

My impression is that Borders's current inventory-control systems are less flexible and more top-down -- and I expect that won't get better with their current financial condition.

But inventory is always a concern -- if a book is of mass interest, a chain will want one copy in each store if it's taking that book at all. If a book is just of general interest, there's no way to tell which stores will have a person walking in wanting that book. This is simpler in categories that do break down by type of stores or region -- for example, I work on business books, the bulk of which now sell either online or in a few stores, generally ones right in central business districts.

Smart inventory planning can include one copy in each store and an additional quantity in the various distribution centers (DCs) that each chain has, so that stores that sell their one copy can be replenished quickly without too much waste.

But, again, that requires sales hitting at least the one-copy-per-store level, which might not be the case. If sales are anticipated to be below that level, and there's no way to predict which stores will need those copies, taking on the additional inventory that you know won't sell is problematic.

For some authors, there might be a minor regional blip -- I expect Greg Frost sells well in the Philly area and Toby Buckell in Ohio -- but less of a wider area.

If you know you want a specific book, and that it's unlikely to be in that store by chance, special-ordering it is a good plan. That can lead the store to get more than just your one copy...but it may not. Borders, in particular, does seem to have very tight inventory controls right now, so I suspect this plan wouldn't bring in any more local inventory in these two specific cases. (I've also heard stories -- I can't vouch for their truth -- that some Borders stores will say that they're unable to special-order a book that they don't have in regular inventory. I doubt this is completely true -- Borders can and does get books from Baker & Taylor, which carries nearly everything -- but it might be true for the person in the store saying that.)

Bluejo said...

I have some entirely anecdotal evidence. I generally post in my LJ when I have a new book out, and ask if anyone has seen it. Normally, I get replies from people from Maine to Hawaii saying they've seen it -- probably not bought it, but seen it on the shelves. This time, I got posts from the same sorts of numbers of people as always, but only one or two saying that they'd spotted it, mostly they were saying that their Amazon orders were on the way, or had reached them.

I have no idea what this means, or if it means anything, but I really noticed it.

KatG said...

Well, that is a bit of an argument for the well-run independent bookstores. A small regional chain can purchase less and sell it. I wonder what impact this is having on the burgeoning small SFF presses as well, who certainly can't promise a book will sell 2,000 copies right off the bat. Is their market predominantly online now?

It seems that our biggest problem is that the number of sales venues for books are shrinking. It's concentrated in the U.S. on two superchains, one of which is failing. They've given up most of their mall stores, so we lose the casual browsing traffic. The non-bookstores outlets are carrying less and less in terms of books. Online stores are supposed to pick up the slack, but there are millions of people who aren't online, or don't shop online, or have no interest in going into electric bookshelves online, but might pick up a physical book they run into in a drugstore, department store or electronics/games store.

We have more books being published than ever and fewer places to put them. Books are losing visibility, even though lots of them are getting made into movies, and then we're surprised that growth is slow. And we're in a recession in the U.S. and happening elsewhere. So an increase in skipping is hardly new, since in such economic times, the mid-list authors have traditionally been dumped.

Another problem is that the booksellers are getting track record numbers happy, with BookScan and the like. That works less well for fiction than non-fiction, as the sales of one novel don't necessarily reflect how the public will receive the next one by that author. And if the mid-list authors can't get into the chains, which are the majority of the market, because they haven't built up enough of an audience yet to put a book in every store, then they don't get their sales counted on things like BookScan except for Amazon sales. So their sales record can work against them even if they are selling and building an audience.

I'm not saying that booksellers are wrong to not invest in inventory they don't think they can sell. It's just that it seems like the booksellers and the publishers are not attempting terribly smart strategies. It's like they're huddled down, counting on bestsellers to keep them afloat even while bestsellers are frequently tanking, waiting for the industry to collapse or be taken over by electronic media companies or something.

Rick Klaw said...

Excellent post about a subject that most authors don't understand and even those that do, tend to view it through rose colored glasses. I've had similar discussions with many writers, who are stunned that the quality of their book is not the primary factor in the decision behind a bookstore carrying their book. In any well run show, it is and always has been about money. If not, they will quickly go out of business.

I remember when I started working in bookstores in back in 1987, people complained about the good old days and how I had missed them. Now I hear people grumbling about the good ole days of the late 80s and early 90s and why can't it be like that. Things were no better in the 80s then now. There is not a "golden age" of bookselling. The players and technologies change, but it has always been this way. A marginal business engaged in by a smallish percentage of the population. The vast majority of indies go out of business because they are terrible at managing a business, not because of chain stores or other factors. I live in a town with one of the bigger indies in the country, but I refuse to shop there because the deplorable way they treat their employees (lower pay, far less benefits, poor leadership) and that that their selection is little different than a chain store.

(A little background for those unfamiliar with me: In 20 years, I've worked for independents [both big and small], chains, used, and new stores. I've performed all possible duties within the stores [save being the actual owner] from book buyer to store manager to entry level employee and experienced all aspects of the bookstore industry.)

Again, thanks for this educational post. I'll be sure to pass it around.

ecbatan said...

Excellent post as ever, Andrew.

Just a bit of support on the notion of the lost Golden Age of "independents". There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when a well-respected indy in University City, MO, closed, a decade or more ago. (Paul's Books, for those who might recall.) I was certainly not happy to see a bookstore close, but it was hard for me to work up as much angst as I might have, because I recalled only too well its tiny and not intelligently maintained SF section. And the reaction I got once when I asked about an SF book -- the attitude I sensed (and, yes, I might have been a bit oversensitive) seemed to me to say "why do you want us to pollute our storie with such trash".


That said, it is distressing not to find books I want. I've bought all of Jo's Farthing books, for example, at conventions. And I looked and looked for Paul Park's Roumanian series conclusion this year at bookstores, again ending up buying it from Larry Smith at a con.

--
Rich Horton

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I liked the post but thought it was bad of you to post Frost's numbers. First of all, Bookscan does NOT include all sales. Secondly, I think since that is industry insider information, you should have left it to Frost to reveal that information. Your reveal of it, when Frost clearly didn't want to reveal it, just reinforces a negative impression of Frost's sales. When as we all know, the whole industry is largely working off of smoke and mirrors, and the divulging of hard numbers can seriously hurt an author in more ways than just the chain stores--in things like getting convention appearances or invites, etc. So next time, think long and hard before you reveal that info. I really think you stepped over a line, given that those numbers are not only incomplete but can hamstring an author's ability to make a living in other ways. Shame on you.

dd-b said...

I haven't been that happy with independent general bookstores, and Minneapolis has had good ones, still has a few.

Luckily, we still have two SF and fantasy specialty bookstores, both quite long-lived (Uncle Hugo's goes back to the 70s). I've generally been quite happy with them.

Partly because I have friends in the business, and partly just because I'm not completely crazy, I have noticed that it's a business, and that what stores carry relates to what they expect to sell in general.

Matt Hughes said...

Good stuff, Andy. Fortunately, my rosy glasses fell off years ago, so it didn't hurt much.

Matt Hughes

Paul Riddell said...

"But the rosy-colored view of the wonderful lost indy bookstore, land of miracles, where enlightened, Buddha-esque bookmen and -women sold only the finest of literature to a happy and contented audience is pure bunk. Most of those vanished stores were too small, undercapitalized, badly run marginal businesses run by cranks. They went out of business because they were bad at business, lacking any point-of-sale systems or serious inventory tracking at all."

Don't get me going. I started referring to these stores as "Frumpy Fiftysomething's Used Books and Quiet Desperation Emporium" franchises, because they're all the same. Wallflower owners/employees who are running a bookstore not because they're good at it, but because they can't cut it as writers but want the same attention and perks that they believe writers get? Check. Incessant open-mike readings for the local PublishAmerica author or zine columnist who's currently sleeping with the manager? Check. Sneers of "We wouldn't carry that"when asking for something outside of their narrow purview? Check. Multiple cats to drive off the allergic, Cat Piss Men hanging around the SF/F section to drive off women, and blowhard wannabe writers yammering about the conspiracy to keep their Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape slashfic from being published? Check. Big "Buy Local!" banner in the front window to guilt-trip readers into buying from them instead of getting better selection, better prices, and less abuse by going to Amazon? You betcha. Nothing but excuses as to why Frumpy Fiftysomething's Web site hasn't been updated since 2004, and that "we just don't have the money to pay for a site where we can take online orders"? Got it in one.

The really sad part is that most of the walking wounded who run these stores don't see that maybe they're the reason why nobody wants to deal with them. They'd rather spend years working for pathetic wages for a dying bookstore because there's some alleged cachet in working for a bookstore instead of a business that actually pays a living wage. (My ex-wife worked for nearly a year as a part-time employee for a similar horrendous store, spending more money on gas to get to and from work than she made from her minimum-wage position. Her bosses had the ethics of poison roaches, such as amazingly awarding their son First Place in a child's poetry contest so they could give him a PlayStation that could be written off on the store's taxes. Every day, she'd come home crying about how her co-workers hated her and how the customers hated her and how her feet hurt from being forced to stand half the day, and when I finally insisted that she get a real job before I left her, whined "But I wanna stay in the publishing business!" The fact that this was comparable to a McDonald's new hire whining about staying in the ranching business wasn't the only reason we're divorced, but her insistence upon my paying for her to start a new incompetently run bookstore to replace the three previous ones, four if you count Powell's, that she'd worked for was a major factor.)

Eliza said...

I ordered Lord Tophet through my local independent...about three weeks before they went under. D'oh.

Thanks for this post, though. I now know a little more about the mysterious world of publishing.

Jennifer Stevenson said...

Andrew Wheeler writes, "(I've also heard stories -- I can't vouch for their truth -- that some Borders stores will say that they're unable to special-order a book that they don't have in regular inventory. I doubt this is completely true -- Borders can and does get books from Baker & Taylor, which carries nearly everything -- but it might be true for the person in the store saying that.)"

I've talked to some Borders staff about this. This is actually a quick way for the company to spare its retail employees from The Conversation with the self- or subsidy- or small-press published. The one where they have to explain why it's not the same.

Instead the retailer simply says, "It doesn't have a BINC number" and raises palms, and since even self-published author can't expect an $8.00/hr employee to know how the computer system is set up, the author goes away without abusing the retailer with all the distribution disinformation they've been sold by their subsidy press.

I learned all this when my first book Trash Sex Magic was coming out from the godlike Small Beer Press. Retailers would flinch and look wary when I told them I was a local author with a small press release, poor mites. Then the relief in their faces when I said,
"Small Beer Press."

Owldaughter said...

Very interesting. It was nice to see a deeper explanation of the system. I, alas, had my last book cancelled by my not-small-press publisher because B&N skipped it. (They thought it was too niche.) From a numbers POV I can understand, but still, it rankles.

Matt Jarpe said...

Thank you for the numbers. I love it when people talk about real numbers rather than just saying a book sold well or poorly. I get these royalty statements for my book and I can't make head or tail of the figures without some context. My agent and editor don't want to discuss the numbers, probably thinking, with good reason, that I won't understand what they're saying and just freak out.

You're now up there with Toby and John Scalzi in my estimation. This sort of thing helps us new writers a lot.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

Great post. I'm just getting started with author-driven marketing for my latest release, which isn't being stocked at Border or B&N at present. But it's romance, which has a much better chance of being stocked once the reviews come out next month than a lot of other genres. Wish me luck . . .

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. The only caveat I might mention is that chain store buyers sometimes make decisions based on personal preferences or perceptions as much as previous sales numbers—and as a result miss the boat. There are numerous examples in which an unordered or under-ordered title suddenly takes off and the buyers have had to scramble to secure copies.

Kerry said...

Wow! I've just learned so much my head might *literally* explode...

Anonymous said...

This is fantastic stuff. A couple years ago, when Borders passed on her debut novel, POP, Aury Wallington tried to rake up some muck by claiming they were censoring the book for its sexual content. This was, of course, an absurd suggestion because Borders was shelving books with much racier content than hers. To this day, I'm unclear if this was a publicity stunt on the author's part to call attention to her book or simply a case of an author now fully understanding the process involved in getting a book on the shelves.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Oh boy - found your excellent post through the equally excellent Moonrat. As a newly signed (to agent) author, I've been feeling gung-ho and ready to do what it takes to make a success of this ... but what can we do? What advice would you give to a small fish in a big pond? I'm passionate about the book, I love my agent ... where do you go from here with what is happening?

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing I don't get: If bookstores can return books at any time for credit, where's their risk? So they take a few books they have second thoughts about, but they might sell them, too.

How does budget even enter the equation if bookstores have no real risk, aside from not selling books at all. And if that's the case, it's not because they ventured into unknown territory by taking a chance on a new or midlist author.
Tessa

Jessica Burkhart said...

Thanks for the insight!

Ericka Scott said...

Thanks for the great information! I'm mostly an e-book offer hoping to break into print, and this post was insightful and gave me some "food for thought" when it comes to marketing.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Kate Lord Brown: At your point in the process, you don't need to worry about this at all. Your agent thinks your book is salable, which is what matters.

When it does sell, and once you get within seven or eight months of publication, a new author should ask her editor if there's a publicity/marketing questionnaire that she should be filling out, or if the marketing folks would like a conference call about what you the author can do to help at that point.

Depending on the book, the publishing house, and the category, there could be a lot or a little you can do -- at that point, when you find out what your particular menu of options is, decide what you have the time, energy, and capacity to do, and do those as best you can.

An example: I market professional books for accountants and other financial people these days, so some of the major things that help out in that area is when authors speak at major conferences, particularly the annual meetings of the standard groups in their specialty. Other authors write articles for publications in the field, or have large lists of clients that they can e-mail about their books.

Every situation is a little different; when you get to the right point the thing to do is ask what you can do to help, decide which of the possibilities you'd be good at, and then do that.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Anonymous (Tessa): Every store has a limited amount of shelf-space, so books are actually competing for a valuable resource. Superstores have a lot more space than a mall store, so they carry more titles -- but, still, even superstores can't carry everything.

A buyer also does have a budget every month, and, like all of us, he has to live within that budget. If a category is strong -- books are "turning" (selling and being replaced) quickly, dollar volume is up, space is expanding -- then the budget will probably go up and there will be room for more books.

(But, if one category is expanding, it'll be at the expense of another category that's shrinking and doing badly.)

The thing to remember is that the decision to carry any one book isn't binary, and it isn't made in isolation -- it's part of a larger, more complex inventory planning process for a large volume of space.

Taking just one copy per store of any particular book by a new or midlist author looks like it could always be slipped in -- but there are tens of thousands of such books.

And suddenly we're talking about Mr. Creosote and a wafer-thin mint...

Andrew Wheeler said...

KatG: There are always smart inventory-control solutions to inventory-control problems; ten years ago Borders was widely seen as vastly superior in that area to B&N, and (assuming they survive in essentially the same form) they might well regain their lead in the future.

Not all books should be in all stores in a chain; my impression is that B&N is currently better at realizing and acting on that idea (by getting books into the subset of stores that will sell them best), but that's the kind of thing that can shift quickly, or be different in different categories.

For example, a really good forecasting and planning system would be able to see if Author X's previous book sold multiple copies in any store in the chain, and tentatively plan a buy for those stores (even if not for the ones that didn't sell the previous book).

A really top-notch system could construct "top stores" lists on the fly, for any given author or subject.

I don't know if anything like that exists yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see something like it within five years.

Kim Kasch said...

Like Arte Johnson used to say, "Very interesting."

jjdebenedictis said...

This is an AWESOME post. Thank you for throwing a few glow-sticks into the black hole for us.

A. J. Luxton said...

Andrew Wheeler: According to a trusted friend of mine, who worked for Borders Back In The Day(tm), they actually used to have such a system and it worked quite well... until new corporate management insisted that all stores could very well order the same books, top-down, and the whole thing went to heck, and trusted friend of mine quit.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thank you Andrew - your helpful advice is much appreciated. Best wishes - K

Carolyn said...

Well, scary post for a writer. But informative. Thanks.

Brenda Novak said...

Fabulous post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of the system.

BookEnds, LLC said...

This is a wonderful post. Every author should be reading this.

--Jessica Faust

Marilyn Peake said...

Whoa, scary but very helpful information for writers. Thank you.

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

Great post, and I'm thankful to have one of the 1700 indy stores right here in my utopia of a town. I do appreciate the big guns, but there's something about the small, intimate appeal of Dark Horse Books.

Great post. Very informative.

Kathleen Dante said...

Thank you for that very informative post. In your discussion of chain bookstores, you went from B&N to Borders, then straight to Amazon. Where do Books-A-Million and Hastings fall in the food chain?

unwriter said...

Excellant post!
I am a really, really, new online writer with a really, really small horror series online.
I am writing a fantasy novel I hope to finish early next year and I am always surfing the web looking for articles such as this one to keep informed and keep on top of the industry.
Though, there are times when I remind myself that these types of things happen despite best efforts by all involved.

I am also very well aware that
there is the chance that I am probably at my peak of readership with my few online stories on a webpage hardly anyone is aware of.

Yet, I keep going because, like the lottery, I could always hit the big one.

Thanks for taking the time to post this--good luck to you

Andrew Wheeler said...

Kathleen Dante: BAM is the third bookstore chain in the US; it's substantially smaller than the big two (about 200 stores) and more geographically specific (most of their stores are in the Southeast).

My impression is that they tend to be conservative in book selection -- probably not much Jacqueline Carey or "hot" romances there -- because of the audience in that area.

I haven't actually been in a BAM store in years (if ever), so I don't have any personal knowledge of what they're buying or promoting. Since they are more of a large regional chain, though, they probably can focus better on their specific audience, rather than having to juggle many different audiences (like B&N and Borders).

Hastings is a superstore chain -- 154 locations, acording to their website -- that sells books, music, and video (plus videogames and other stuff). I haven't heard any recent news about their financial status, which is probably a good sign -- both CDs and video sales have been slumping for a while, so a chain that sells them and isn't in the news for financial trouble must be doing something right.

But books are a relatively small part of the mix at Hastings, so they won't carry the depth of stock (both in the number of categories, and depth within a category) that Borders and B&N do. So they're probably more like a mall bookstore in terms of what they actually carry; that's about as much shelf-space as they have to devote to books.

libwitch said...

Thank you very much for posting this - I think very often what people forget is that even though authors may view writing as an "art," the bookselling end is a business, and like it or not, your book does not stay on the shelf - nor does your next book get purchased for sale - if you don't bring in the money. Its the bottom line. Its not cruel, or stupid, or anything else. Its business.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wheeler,

This is a realistic and penetrating analysis, and I hope it will inspire some caution in the authors who imagine the failure of their books in the marketplace is the result of poor marketing. In truth, most authors don't even enjoy name recognition; the reading public has no idea who they are or why anyone should purchase their novels.

For decades I was associated with a fading field, western fiction, and saw my numbers largely reduce to library sales, mostly based on excellent reviews. I was "skipped" everywhere because there was little
demand for classical westerns. I turned to biographical and historical novels and am doing better, and have made some inroads in another genre where I write under a pseudonym.

Are we related?

Richard S. Wheeler

Andrew Wheeler said...

Richard S. Wheeler: Thanks for your comments -- I've seen your name before, since you've published with Forge (and I dealt with them extensively on the Tor side of the list).

I'm actually the son of a man named Richard S. Wheeler -- so for a while I was wondering if he had a secret western-writing life he wasn't telling me about -- but I don't know if we're actually related. My family comes from upstate New York; my grandfather was an Everett Jesse Wheeler, born around the turn of the last century.

If you want to dive into that some more, please do e-mail me at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.

J. Steven York said...

A really fascinating and informative post. Thanks.

Some of the comments about indie bookstores here have been harsh, but there's a bit of truth to all of it. Many indies aren't killed by competition. They kill themselves. Or at least, they leave themselves vulnerable to closure by any kind of setback.

This inspired me to write my own post about the long and sad death of a once-wonderful small-town bookstore, and the ways that the much-hated return system may be essential to many bookstore's health. It's here:

http://york-multiplex.blogspot.com/2008/10/loved-to-death-or-why-book-lovers-dont.html

clairification said...

I'm a chain buyer. I was heartened to see how well you understand our position, and also to see how many writers and other book people are reading and understanding your post. People: listen to this guy--he knows what he's talking about.

Jeff Carlson said...

Coming to this very late, but -- wow! Excellent post. Keep it coming.

Morgan Mandel said...

I'm used to be skipped since I'm with a POD publisher that only accepts returns within 90 days. 90 days seems fair enough, but bookstores want infinity!

I've had the most luck getting book signings on consignment at Barnes & Noble bookstores in Illinois. Many times my table is set up in front of the bestsellers section, which is a great spot.

You mentioned B & N college bookstores were basically textbookstores. I can't vouch for the others, but the Barnes & Noble DePaul Center bookstore, at State & Jackson, Chicago, IL, is much more than a textbook store. Perhaps that's because it's in Downtown Chicago.

Morgan Mandel
http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
http://www.morganmandel.com

First Aid Kit Refils said...

Very interesting. Your line “we must remember that social media is just a tool and it takes more than mere tools to make social change,” reminds me of organizer Marshall Ganz’s observation: "Tools don't build houses. Carpenters build houses,” recognizing the need to train organizers to effectively use social media for social change.

Andrew Wheeler said...

First Aid Refils: Actually, that's a quote from a blog post for the Case Foundation by Kara Dunn Saratovsky.

I think you're a bot, but you're very close to passing the Turing test, so I'll let your post live -- possibly as a marker for posterity.

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