Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Skipping the Side Issues

Even though "On Being Skipped" was long -- some would say way too long -- there were plenty of things I gave short shrift to, or have thought again about since, or just want to blather on about a bit more. So this post, which I hope will be shorter and definitely will be less unified, is the DVD extras to the original post's movie.

1) Fewer people than I expected have taken offense to what I said about independent bookstores, possibly because everyone thinks I'm too wedded to the brilliance of my own ideas to see any other viewpoint. But let me take the other side, somewhat, for a change.

Independent bookstores are the diners to chain stores' Cheesecake Factory -- much less dependable, with a vastly greater amplitude of variability. So the best independents are much better than the best chain stores, but the worst independents are much worse. Chain stores don't vary as much -- the flagship B&N on Fifth Avenue is nice (though not the wonderful place it used to be, when it included the Annex across the street), and I hear good things about the new Borders concept stores, but the vast mass of both chains are roughly the same.

Independents are all very different from each other. Leaving aside primarily used-book stores for now (and the "oh, those wonderful lost bookstores, with their quirky owners" nostalgia is usually at least 60% about used books to begin with), small independents are the ones to be the most suspicious of. Some of them are excellent -- generally the ones started by refugees from other parts of the book world (ex-editors, ex-sales reps, people who fled other stores) -- and many of them are adequate. (The lousy ones tend not to have survived to this point; there was a really nasty winnowing process over the past two decades.)

So my favorite stores, and anyone's favorite stores, are nearly always independents. (For me, it's the Montclair Book Center, the Strand, and some places that aren't there anymore.) My point was that we often forget all of those mediocre independents and the really lousy, now-departed ones.

2) A handful of people have frowned at my posting semi-solid BookScan numbers, and I might not have done it the same way if I'd know the audience that post would get. But, even with the caveat that those numbers are incomplete (since not all bookselling outlets report to BookScan), I think it's important to talk about real numbers and real cases, rather than tiptoeing around all of the details.

Writers often don't know anything about the economics of the business, and, if the climate now is that Borders will either take 2-3 thousand of a given SFF hardcover or trade paperback original (enough for a small display presence on an endcap) or not take it at all, that's important for them to know. (I'm not actually saying Borders is doing that, since I don't work in that category now, and I don't know. But the editors, marketers and sales people at those writers' houses will know precisely what Borders, and the other major accounts, are buying, and an author who knows what questions to ask can find out the landscape before sell-in and do their best to help their publishers sell their books.)

So, again -- sorry to Greg and Toby for pushing things into public like that, but those numbers are fairly typical, not anything to be ashamed of.

On that subject, one anonymous commenter wrote "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." Now, I'll never put any stupidity past any member of humanity, particularly when that member of humanity is also a member of a committee. But if conventions avoid Greg and Toby because of this -- when many, many other authors are selling very similar numbers -- those conventions are staffed by very impressive morons.

And everyone in the business -- editors, marketers, bookstores, and the larger agencies -- already have these numbers. Anyone who doesn't have direct access can get them. The only people who don't know how writers are actually selling are the writers themselves.

3) I got into the inventory control question in a comment on the original post, replying to a commenter named Tessa. And then I got into it even more (and thought about it some more), in a comment string over at David Levine's LiveJournal. I won't repeat what I wrote there -- or the mostly good points I was responding to, from someone called calimac -- except to reiterate that Borders is going through a financial crisis (one distinct from the larger financial crisis, even), which seems to be impacting their inventory decisions.

4) I got a ridiculous number of links to that post, probably more links than this entire blog gets most months. (So I should jump up a bit in the Technorati rankings for a little while -- hey, isn't it about time for John Scalzi to do another "Top SFnal blogs" ranking?, he asked, disingenuously.)

I won't list them all -- though many of the links (seen at the bottom of the original monster post) contained other folks' thoughts on the issue, and many of those are from other publishing professionals. Some people come to conclusions that I can't agree with, but that's the way of the world. (Some of them, though, seem to have read a slightly alternate world version of that post, in which I wrote about things quite differently.)

The one I do want to mention specifically is io9's, because, well, you know how I am with io9. (They mean well, but they have all of the flaws inherent to the speedy-and-breezy blog model, and very few of the newsy benefits.) Their headline is "Should SF Writers Boycott Borders?", and I think I answered that in my original post. The post itself is a collection of quotes stitched together in a hasty fashion. Please, parents, don't let your kids get their opinions on SF from io9.

If anyone has any specific questions, it might be easier to ask them here than on the original monster. (I'm still replying to comments there, though, since that's where the traffic's going.)


SWILUA said...

where can writers go to get hard numbers? I know both my university and I've been trying to get BookScan to talk to us, but we can't seem to get access (even when we say we want to pay them for it!). Do you have to befriend a bookstore owner somewhere?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Kerry: I'm surprised that BookScan has been so unresponsive -- I thought they wanted to sell more subscriptions. If your university has a press attached to it, that might be the best way to reach them.

(But note that BookScan is not cheap; it's probably not worthwhile for individuals unless your last name is Grisham, Crichton, or Roberts.)

SWILUA said...

thanks, andrew!

Anonymous said...

It's also not entirely fair to blame independent bookstores for an often lousy selection of category SFF. Category SFF is a national market -- it has to reach fans across the country to make enough sales, which is one reason it's taken a long time for the small SFF presses to get back into viable operation. And independent stores usually depend very heavily on regional/local offerings that are going to appeal to readers in the area. So they just don't always have enough of a SFF market to justify carrying a lot of the stuff. It's not always that they are looking down on it.

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