Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ordering to the Net

Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 4/6/07. It made more sense in context, but I think it's still amusing and/or informative on its own:

When computerized chain-store ordering started, in the early '90s, the problem was "ordering to the net." Say Joe Schlabotnik's first novel was A Is For Atomic; Big-Ass Chain Store took 50,000 copies, and sold 35,000 -- the sell-through was 70%.

Aha! says the ordering computer at BACS, we sold 35,000 the last time, so I will order 35,000 of Schlabotnik's new opus, B Is For Blaster. This time, the sell-through is slightly higher, and BACS sells 25,000 copies.

Next year, along comes C Is For Crashing Suns, and BACS takes 25,000. The year after, D Is For (Planetary) Destruction only gets 17,000 copies in. And they decide not even to order E Is For Ethnocide.

That's "ordering to the net" -- getting in just as many copies as were sold of the previous book. (This is how I've heard several SFWAns claim it operated, but I frankly can't believe major businesses would be that dumb for very long -- at worst, this kind of ordering only affected the middle and bottom of the list.)

Nowadays, that's not what's happening. There may be still writers whose careers were killed by that (if they're really slow, and have been goat ranching for the past fifteen years), but not many.

Nowadays, bookstore chains can easily look up the sales of previous books (particularly previous books in the same series) by any given author. And, if those sales are lowish to begin with, and falling from book to book (as does happen), the chain is certainly not going to order the new book in higher quantities, and possibly might not want it at all.

I won't say that most writing careers hit a death spiral at some point,'s a pretty common effect in publishing. There are plenty of writers who plateau at a comfortable level, but there are also some whose numbers go down steadily. (And a glorious few whose numbers are going up...may they be blessed in the name of Bookscan.)

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