And I'm very lucky in my timing, since the agent Nathan Bransford posted on Monday a great, long essay by a sales assistant named Eric (from one of the major trade houses), which covers in great depth how the national chains actually buy books, how sales reps prepare for and make sales calls, and how co-op works. So a lot of what I might have typed here is already available there -- I suggest any interested parties go there and read that essay, then come back.
I'm going to try to be short this week, and to go into further depth about the parts of the co-op process I find most interesting, or that I think are least understood by readers and authors. As always, comments and questions are very welcome.
More About Co-Op
I was going to start my Co-Op section this week by writing something like this:
Walk into your favorite bookstore. See all those tables up front? And the face-out bookshelves in the same vicinity? And the smaller tables in the large aisles, and the displays on the ends of rows, and the books by the registers? Those are all co-op placements; those books are all in those places because their publishers paid for them.The process generally starts with the chain -- they create a calendar of promotions for a coming month or season. They do that pretty far out, too; I imagine the buyers and merchandisers at B&N and Borders HQs are doing their plans for the first quarter of 2010 now, if not further out than that. And that calendar is pretty predictable: every month (or as often as the slots rotate; this can be weekly or bi-monthly) there will be a "New & Notable" table up front, and another one for new paperbacks. A third table will be devoted to some seasonal or thematic category -- maybe Dads & Grads in June or Back to School in August.
It's a big calendar, with lots of entries in it. Besides the FOS (front of store) promos, there will also be in-section co-op opportunities -- maybe a big paranormal romance display with a Halloween theme in October, definitely a New Year promo in January with diet and exercise books. Every section will get some promo activity during the year, though obviously not all of them at the same time.
So the chain sends that calendar, with prices attached -- so much (in co-op dollars and minimum purchase units) for a placement in an in-section promo, and several times that for a FOS placement -- to the publishers. And then the publishers decide what they can afford, and what they want to go for.
Backing up for a moment, depending on the house, the sales force generally will find out about books because the editors or marketers have presented those books to them. (Either at monthly meetings, or in a big burst for an entire season.) For those authors who hate pitching and get annoyed that they have to do it, it might slightly mollify you that your pitch is only the first in a long string: authors pitch to agents, who pitch to editors, who pitch to marketers, who pitch to sales reps, who pitch to buyers. (Of course, it's not at all the same pitch at every step -- buyers care about very different things than editors and agents do.)
So: each publishing company, collectively, puts the list of promotions on one side, and the list of their publications for that period on the other, and starts matching things up. Inevitably, they'll run out of money before they run out of books -- not every book can get co-op (count the number of books in a section some time, and then the number of pockets on the end-of-row display), and so they'll prioritize, focusing on the books with the best chance of reaching the largest number of readers.
Eventually, the sales rep will call on the buyer, and, among other things, map out what co-op nominations that publisher wants to make for the period in question. The buyer will generally have to wait until all of the nominations are in from all appropriate publishers before being sure everything is set -- it's entirely possible to have thirty nominations for a table that will hold twenty books. (And the chain may decide to refuse other nominations for other reasons, as well -- the chain always has the final decision, though the publisher with a sure-to-be-in-heavy-demand title has a lot of leverage.)
In other words, co-op is a business negotiation like many others: two parties are each trying to maximize their benefits from the deal, and their interests are parallel but not necessarily identical. (The publisher would love to get a dedicated display space; the chain wants to have the biggest and best books no matter who publishes them. Both want to sell a lot of books, though the chain is generally agnostic as to which particular books.)
For authors, this process is really just FYI; you don't have any direct involvement in it. Obviously, you'll want your books to have the most prominent placement they can possibly get -- but so will every other author published by your company, and every author published by different companies. And you can't all get what you want; most of you will just get a buy to be placed in the appropriate section.
(And, sometimes, you won't even get that -- your book might get skipped.)
What you can do here is what you need to do in general -- write the best book you can, one with a real and sizable audience, get it into the hands of an editor (and maybe an agent, if you're in an end of publishing where that helps or is necessary) who is really enthusiastic about it, and follow their lead about what you can do to help them promote and publicize it.
You probably won't get front-of-store placement; most writers never do. And that's OK.
For readers: those books at the front of the store are there because a lot of people -- at both their publisher and the chain's headquarters -- thought that a large number of readers would want them, and some of those people were willing to pay handsomely based on that assumption.