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:
- Skipping Along Merrily, a mixture of second thoughts and bemused surprise
- Skipping the Side Issues, an attempt to address some things I missed the first time around
- and Borders "Boycott": Request for Information, in which I tried to figure out if anyone actually was boycotting Borders. (So far, I haven't found anyone.)
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.